The first thing breast cancer took from Isabelle was her smile. She woke up one morning and the left side of her mouth drooped and sagged. Her left eye was half-closed. A scan confirmed the cancer had speckled her brain in its second and final coming. It was the disease’s arrogant display of triumph. As it grew bigger and spread, Isabelle seemed to grow smaller; her wrists as thin and delicate as reeds, and her bare head as small and pristine as a pearl onion. She always had small hands, but cancer made them even smaller it seemed.
A dying mother is a tricky thing, especially when she is not your mother. I was 13 years old when Isabelle married my father. I already had a mother but, long story short: the ’70s sexual revolution was rocking American families, and mine was no different. Part of the nuptial deal for Isabelle was three unruly teenaged daughters–among them me. My father packed us up and moved into her elegant colonial across town. The home we left was a split level with dirty shag carpeting, and each small room within held some echo of sadness.
Isabelle’s house bore antiques and treasures from her southern aristocratic heritage–Persian rugs, Limoge china and crystal, oil portraits of her Confederate ancestors. She was a proud Southern “blue blood,” and owned rich history of fortunes won and lost, tattered survival and reconstruction. When she became my stepmother, she was 40 and nearly blind from the early onset of macular degeneration. She could not drive or read, but, by God, she could survive and still love.
It is no small truth to say the woman who became my stepmother transformed me into her daughter. She immersed herself into the tedious rituals of raising a teenage girl, paying close attention to the social particulars of high school. She helped pick out my first prom dress and hosted elegant lasagna dinners for my friends. She introduced me as her daughter. She sat through every high school play I was in even though her blindness prevented her from seeing anything. She always sent roses backstage.
It took Isabelle three years to die. My sisters and I were there to make sure she kept her food down or didn’t fall out of bed. We drove her to church and discreetly held her portable oxygen tank in the pew. In the final days, we took turns reading her poetry as she lay in her rented hospital bed by the window, facing the ocean she loved.
The last time Isabelle spoke, I covered my hand over hers and said, “You saved my childhood. Have I ever told you that?”
“No,” she answered. “But I am glad to hear it now.”
For those that claim motherhood (or stepmother-hood) is a thankless job, I submit that all of us are nothing more or less than the sum of who we love. It doesn’t matter whether your family is whole, divorced or divided, the only way to achieve any kind of happiness in this world is by loving a handful of people. I believe we are marked by the people who love us, whether we like it or not, for the rest of our short lives on earth.
I do not have Isabelle in my blood; yet she is inside me somewhere, her voice saying my name, her small hands, her “pleases and thank yous,” all her good manners and grace. These are not memories, but the being of her still around me, making me who I am.
I believe that the best kind of grief for the dead is gratitude. And it’s hard to tell the difference between the two when it comes to missing a mother who is now gone.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.