Deciding to Love Her

Amy Simmons Farber - Middletown, Maryland
Entered on August 17, 2005

Age Group: 30 - 50
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I believe we are marked by the people we love, whether we like it or not, for the rest of our short lives on earth. It’s a part of the divine in us that we sense only when we pray or sit in stillness.

This discovery of love, particularly chosen love, came about after a long journey with my stepmother, Isabelle. I was thirteen when she married my father. Afterward he packed up my sisters and me and moved us into her elegant colonial across town.

Isabelle’s house bore antiques and treasures from her aristocratic heritage—Persian rugs, Limoges china and crystal, oil portraits of her Confederate ancestors. When she became my stepmother, she was forty and nearly blind from the early onset of macular degeneration. Still, she cooked us wonderful dinners and made us say grace at the table. She washed my laundry and left it neatly folded outside my door. I even had my own room. But I stubbornly held back. The more I sensed she was trying to win us all over, the more I resented it. I corrected visitors when they mistakenly called Isabelle my mother. “I already have a mother,” I would tell them.

A few years passed. Isabelle immersed herself in the tedious rituals of my high school life. She took me to the expensive dress store at the mall and bought my first prom dress—lime green taffeta. She hosted elegant lasagna dinners for my friends with her best china. She sat through every high school play I performed in, though her blindness prevented her from seeing anything. She always sent roses backstage. Somewhere in those years of homecoming dances, failed geometry classes, and endless teenage soap operas, I decided to love her.

Six years ago Isabelle woke up one morning, and the left side of her mouth drooped and sagged. Her smile was gone. A scan confirmed that the breast cancer she was desperately trying to fight had spread to her brain in fine speckles too small and vast to excise. Radiation bought enough time for her to attend my sister’s May wedding. Then the long good-bye began. My sisters and I took turns to make sure she kept her food down and 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 a 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.”

One week after Isabelle died in September our adoption agency called to say that an infant baby girl was finally available. We named our daughter Isabelle after the grandmother who no doubt pulled some strings and made our long wait for a child shorter.

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 of her grace and good manners. These are not memories, but the being of her still around me, making me who I am—the mother I now am to a child I chose.

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.


Amy Simmons Farber lives on a horse farm in rural Maryland with her husband, Michael, their young daughter, Isabelle, and three Welsh Pembroke Corgi dogs. She is the communications director for a nonprofit group that represents the nation’s Community Health Centers. Ms. Farber was former Massachusetts congressman Joseph P. Kennedy’s chief of staff and press secretary.