I am an information scientist. “Wolfram Alpha, tell me how many days my mother lived.”
I am the young woman in a fairy tale. “Wolfram Alpha, tell me the day I’ll die.”
2018-04-22, I’m twice the age now of most fairy-tale girls, I think. Perhaps older than Juliet’s mother. I’m not yet 35. It feels young. But it’s also maybe half the life I’ll get.
At 30, I realize the day’s approaching. I call on my technologic oracle to work it out. I mark it on the calendar. I tell my office-mate, who laughs bitterly, “I’ve passed half my dad’s years ago. I’ll pass my mom’s …a year before you.” He is also 30. He is 3 days younger. “I carry a lot of life insurance, for the baby.”
Of course, that’s just one person, my mother. But how powerful is the life, the loss of just one person? I cried the day Angelina Jolie cut off her breasts. Because if it were a gene like BRCA, I would try to cheat death that way, too. I’d do it in a heartbeat so my kids wouldn’t have to lose their mom, like I did, like she did. But then I don’t have kids. That’s my cheat.
But it’s also my grandmother. My paternal grandmother, so full of life, whom I never knew. Just one year, 11 days before I came into this world, the night after a family birthday party, she went to bed and didn’t wake up. It took me three decades to wonder what that one-year mark was like for my father’s family, as they grieved and awaited tardy me (I lasted 42 weeks of stubborn gestation before they suctioned me out of my mother’s body). It took me three decades to realize how close the day was. And that halfway point should be… Wolfram Alpha tell me what’s next on my calendar? October 27, 2018.
Of course, I could be my maternal grandmother. Still kicking at…how is she already 95? Renamed herself Tangerine. Irrepressable. Incorrigeable. I could be her, Ruth Bright-Needle coasting toward a century, my hands too arthritically gnarled to sew but spinning stories.
Or I could be my mother. The spitting image of Tangerine’s “dark child.” Rounding the corner to do my year-2 tenure review. Just as my mother did at this age. We will go up for tenure at the same age. The synchronicity frightens me sometimes.
I exist because she didn’t get tenure. An arcane change in the rules without grandfathering. No grandfathering for anyone? Or none for slightly strange American women at a foreign institution? There are so many things I wish I could ask her about her time in academia. It’s one of many reasons I grieve not knowing her as one adult to another. I have questions, like why she never talked about Chomsky, since she’d done her Linguistics PhD at MIT. After she died, I found letters written on her behalf in her tenure appeal. I found her rejected application for Canadian citizenship—no tenure, no citizenship, back to the US and Reagan and my father’s marriage proposal and her two eventual children, her beloved experiments.
I wish I could have known my mother as one adult to another. When I became an adult, she was already dying.
But this April day is as much about my own life, my own fear. Of three women, two grandmothers and a mother, two tell me that my time is halfway up.
“Make something beautiful before you are dead.”
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
“We who were living are now dying With a little patience”
“You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”
“Remember that you are dust.”
These are not rhetorical. They’re not someday. They are now.