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Surviving Love

“Excuse me, doctor, you have a call.” My secretary, Janis, pokes her head into the room where I am trying to console a couple whose 14-year-old cocker spaniel has just died. The woman, Mrs. Arnold, is sobbing uncontrollably; her husband, a bald man with a wispy gray mustache, glares at me. “I don’t understand,” he keeps saying. “Our Muffin was getting better. That’s what you told us!”

I try not to take his accusatory tone personally. I look up at Janis. “Tell whoever it is I’ll call them back.”

“It’s your mother,” she says, and waits. My mother rarely calls me here, and a little red warning flag goes up. I excuse myself to the Arnolds and take the call in my office. “Mother?”

As usual, she doesn’t waste time on “hello.” “Sharon, are you free for lunch this afternoon around noon?”

I glance at my calendar. After the Arnolds, I have a Cairn Terrier with conjunctivitis and then a Persian with ear mites; my partner, Alice Black, can handle a suture removal for me at 11:45.

“You’re in luck. What’s up?” Mother and I have been lunching together every Thursday for years, but today is only Tuesday.

Typically, she offers no clue. “I’ll tell you when I see you. Same place?”

My mother is a creature of habit. Up at six, in her office eight, bed before ten unless a meeting with a client runs late. And, always, lunch with me on Thursdays at Karen’s Kaffee Klatch.

“Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine,” she says, and hangs up.

As usual, I’m early. I have been showing up early for appointments my whole life, something my husband, Michael, says would be a serious character flaw if my extreme laissez-faire attitude about everything else didn’t balance things out.

The Kaffee Klatch is a luncheonette with cosmic pretensions, right down to the interwoven triple K’s on the straw placemats.

The food rates a solid four on a scale of ten, but my mother insists on coming here because of the coffee. “This is the only place in town where a person can get a real cup of coffee,” she insists. “Real” to her means coffee so strong it literally takes your breath away. She has been a caffeine addict since childhood, when, back in Berlin, her father would allow her to sneak sips from his cup when her mother wasn’t looking.

Jean, the waitress, looks surprised when she sees me. “It can’t be Thursday already,” she says, as she shows me to “our” booth.

“Something’s up, I have no idea what.”

“You’ll find out soon, I’m sure.” I’m sure.

And here she comes, twelve noon on the dot, wearing her red Chanel suit which complements so well her sleek, silver chignon. Even now, at 68, her erect bearing and delicate features (my father once said her cheekbones alone made him fall in love with her) cause heads to turn; executives and messenger boys alike look up from their early lunches and follow her shyly with their eyes.

“Sharon,” she says, a little breathlessly, and I get a gentle whiff of Shalimar as she slides into the booth.

“Mother.”

I wait until she scans the menu, although we both know this, too, is a formality. She will have the Caesar salad and the first of her two cups of coffee, black, no sugar. I will have the chicken salad on rye and decaf.

Mother frowns. “I don’t know how you can stand to drink that.”

“Caffeine is bad for you,” I tell her for the gazillionth time. “Besides, you can’t taste the difference.” I wait for the snappy comeback and when it doesn’t come, I press on: “So. To what do I owe the honor? Is every- _ thing all right at the office?”

My mother, the architect, shrugs. “I have a client who wants a million dollar house on a hundred thousand dollar budget. And my chief draftsman is threatening to quit. The usual madness.”

I nod, knowing she won’t ask how things are at my office. She considers my profession a betrayal of my destiny to become the concert pianist she couldn’t be, the star of every concert hall from Prague to Lincoln Center. She has accused me of becoming a veterinarian to spite her, and she is not entirely wrong.

It’s too warm in here today.” She removes her suit jacket and folds it neatly on the seat beside her. As she leans forward, the blue number on her forearm peeks from beneath the sleeve of her blouse. She says, “The test came back positive.”

For a moment I don’t know what she is talking about, and then I do. A month or so ago, at my urging, she went for a Pap smear. She’d been “spotting,” she confided. Imagine such a thing at her age…

I put my hand over hers on the table and feel the instinctive pulling away. “Oh, Mother—!”

“Sharon, don’t make a big deal out of this. It was a very small tumor. They were able to get it all out but now the doctor wants me to have some chemo just to be on the safe side. That’s why I called. They say someone has to go with me for the chemo.”

My head is spinning. “They took it out! When?” I’m aware that my tone has attracted the attention of the two women in the booth across from us.

“Lower your voice,” Mother demands in a harsh whisper. “Two weeks ago. I was only in the hospital for a few days.” She averts her eyes. “I told you I was going to the convention in Miami. I didn’t want you to be concerned.”

You didn’t want me to be involved, you mean. Involvement brings closeness and closeness begets intimacy. Intimacy, of course, implies love…

With trembling hands, I bring the coffee cup to my lips. Some of the liquid spills, splashing onto the table and into my lap, staining my pink skirt brown.

“I can’t believe this,” I say. “I can’t believe you lied to me.”

She shakes her head. “I knew you’d react this way and get upset over nothing.”

I look at her. Cancer is nothing? “It’s all that caffeine,” I blurt. “There’ve been studies linking caffeine to—”

She interrupts with an impatient wave of the hand. “Yes. Well. Forget it. I am not stopping to drink coffee.” Her Eastern-European accent, usually nearly indiscernible, grows more pronounced whenever she is annoyed or upset. At this moment she is both.

She takes a sip of her coffee. I notice that her hands are steady. She doesn’t spill. Her eyes meet mine over the coffee cup and in them I see only calm determination.

“So,” she asks. “How are Jennifer and Joshua?”

It annoys me the way she never says “my grandchildren”; just as I am always Sharon, never “my daughter.”

(A shrink once told me that this was a distancing mechanism fairly common among concentration camp survivors: “If you don’t have something—or someone—you can never lose it,” he said.)

“Your grandchildren are fine.”

“And Michael?”

“Fine!” My sharp tone gets her attention. She looks at me expectantly. “Are you sure they got it all? I want to talk to your doctor!”

“I don’t think that’s necessary.” Her fingers around the cup are long and graceful; it is her wrists that are stiff and malformed, a result of broken bones that healed untreated.

She looks past me to smile at someone who has just entered the restaurant, a colleague or perhaps a client. I marvel at her calm; if this were me, I would be quaking in terror of what was to come.

She’s putting on a brave face,” Michael says at dinner. “She’s probably scared to death.”

“Nothing scares her. Not since the camps, anyway.” Jennifer, who has been sitting quietly, asks, “How come Grandmother never talks about it? About what happened to her in Germany?”

Michael and I exchange quick glances. At ten, Jennifer is mature for her age; too mature. Her favorite author is Sylvia Plath, which makes me wonder where I went wrong. I’ve tried hard to give her what I never had—a childhood brimming with affection and pets. But she is an old soul, full of questions that defy easy answers.

“I guess she doesn’t want to make other people feel uncomfortable,” I offer lamely.

Jennifer comes over to me. She wraps her arms around my neck and whispers in my ear: “That’s bull.”

“Jennifer.”

“I mean it. I think Grandmother doesn’t like to share any part of herself, not the good parts or the bad.”

My daughter’s hair smells like fruit: a new favorite shampoo. I give her a fierce hug. “Do me a favor. Try being a kid. Go upstairs and get ready for bed. I’ll come up soon and read.”

When she leaves the room. Sunny, our aging golden retriever, follows slowly, secure in the knowledge that he will soon be curled up at the foot of her bed.

Upstairs, our black spaniel. Murphy, is already asleep with our son. Elsewhere in the house, the cats, Zeke and Louise, are zoned out in closets or bureau drawers left open for this purpose. During the night, Zeke will find his way into our beds, but Louise will keep her pristine self to herself until morning; only when Michael fills her dish will she allow herself to suffer his affection.

Once when I was about Jennifer’s age, I asked my father why Mother disliked animals so much. “She saw the Gestapo’s dogs tear babies in half every day,” he said. “It’s hard to forget something like that.” “But it was so long ago!” “Not long enough,” he said.

Dr. Symonds’ voice on the phone exudes confidence. “We caught it early, but there were some surrounding cells that were atypical and that’s why I ordered the chemo. I don’t foresee the treatments as being much of a problem. Your mother’s attitude is very positive. She’s a strong woman.”

“So there’s nothing to worry about?”

Now comes a slight pause. “With cancer, there’s always something to worry about.”

Of course your mother loves youWhat nonsense is this?” lam seven, and in tears. I have returned from a friend’s house and for the first time have seen real physical affection between a mother and child. Not a cursory peck on the cheek, but loud boisterous kisses; not careful appraisal hut joyous praise for the art work we did that afternoon. My father, smelling of Chicklets and cigarettes, tells me what I know too well: ” Your mother is not a demonstrative person. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you.”

I am sixteen when he leaves. He has fled not to just another state, but to another country, Canada, and my grief is insurmountable.

Mother bears him no ill will. “It was a long time in coming,” she says, and “You will visit him every summer and during school vacations. Stop crying, Sharon; he’s not dead.”

In ten years he would be, however. The woman who loved him told me: “You were his miracle after the bad times. He loved you so much he couldn’t say your name without crying. It nearly destroyed him to have to leave you. But her? That kalte shtickle, not even you could soften her. And that he never could forgive.”

This is so silly. You didn’t have to come here. We could have met at the hospital.”

I have arrived at her apartment early, and she is not quite dressed. She greets me at the door in house slippers, her blouse unbuttoned. Her hair, of which she has always been inordinately proud, is free from its chignon and flows in silver ripples past her shoulders. I have a flash of her sitting at her vanity wearing a white satin slip, a string of pearls around her neck. I am very young, perhaps seven. “Would you like to brush my hair, Sharon?” she asks, and hands the brush to me. Slowly, carefully, I brush her long, black hair, like gleaming silk in the rosy lamplight of her room, and I am grateful that she has permitted me this small act of caring.

Sit She motions to one of the overstuffed couches in the living room. “Honestly, Sharon, this is so silly,” she says again.

I have never seen her so much at loose ends.

“No problem. Mother. I wanted to come

“Well, then, make yourself at home. I’ll be ready in a jiffy.”

This is not my home, of course. Once again Mother has succeeded in obliterating the past—sold the house I grew up in and moved to this city apartment, which holds no vestige of the man who helped make me.

I look around. Handsome, expensive furniture, the kind you can’t buy without an architect or a decorator. Good prints on the walls. The small Picasso she found in Paris long ago “for a song.”

Two framed photographs on the Steinway: One of my family—Michael and me and the children—taken last year: Our smiles look identical and forced, and that peculiar brightness in Josh’s eyes would turn out to be chicken pox.

The other picture is much smaller: Me at fifteen, a year before my father left. I’m wearing a sleeveless blouse and culottes, kneeling in the yard of the vanished house. A tiny gray kitten is snuggled in my lap. The kitten was brought over by Lynn, my best friend, whose cat had had yet another litter.

The expression on my face isn’t hard to read: hopefulness in the extreme. I have convinced myself that when Mother sees this adorable creature she will have to let me keep it.

I am wrong, of course. Her clipped speech makes it clear how wrong: “Sharon, you know better than this. I will not allow you to waste time and money on an animal when there are so many people in need. Besides, you already have more than enough to do with your practicing and your schoolwork. You will please return the kitten to Lynn.”

And my father, palms upturned, supplicating, “Sweetheart, you know how she is, what can I do…?”

Studying the picture, remembering the hurt, I won der why she’s chosen this particular reminder to put on display. Spite? Revenge for the pianist turned vet?

“Do I look all right?”

I turn to find her in a handsome navy suit, a gold sunburst pin on her lapel. With her hair swept back in its chignon, her makeup just so, she looks elegant. “Mother, don’t you think you should wear something more casual?”

A flicker of uncertainty crosses her face. “Too much?” But immediately the familial’ resolve takes over, and she says, “Well, it’s too late to change now. Come, we should leave. Who knows how long we’ll have to wait for a taxi.”

It has started to drizzle, and, as we walk to the corner, her high heel catches on a crack in the pavement. I grab hold of her elbow just in time. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine.” As she adjusts her paisley scarf, smoothes the finger of her kidskin gloves, she reminds me of Louise, our cat, regal and removed, who preens for no other reason than to please herself.

The outpatient oncology waiting room is crowded. Two bald children, about six years old, play in the corner with plastic blocks while their mothers talk softly on a couch nearby.

A woman with a gray crew cut sits in a chair with her eyes closed; the woman is skeletal, her skin stretched so thin it appears translucent.

A man with half his jaw missing reads a newspaper. He nods and blushes when he looks at my mother.

We sit down to wait. Mother surreptitiously watches the bald children, and I know what she is thinking.

“Not everyone has side effects,” I whisper.

She pretends not to have heard.

“The doctor said your protocol is the very latest, and the chemicals are a lot less toxic than they used to be.”

She turns to me. “Is this true? He said this?”

“He did.” He didn’t, not exactly. I had to pry the regimen out of Symonds and then do some research on my own to learn that it could have been a lot worse.

The nurse calls out a name, and one of the bald children starts to cry; her mother lifts her up and carried her into an examination room.

My mother squirms in her seat. “How much longer do you think we’ll have to wait?”

“It should be soon, now.” We lapse into a lengthy silence, and suddenly I have to know why she chose that picture of me, the one where I’m holding the kitten.

She takes her time answering. “You look exactly like my sister, Channa, at that age. Same expression, so dreamy. Even the cat looks like Shanie.”

“You had a cat? I never knew!”

“I must have told you. You just don’t remember. She was a beautiful cat. She belonged to the whole family, but she was mostly mine. I fed her, I brushed her, she would sit for hours beside me while I practiced. When they came, the Gestapo, they wouldn’t let us take her. We could hear her meowing all the way out the door. I knew she would starve to death in that empty apartment…” She stiffens, rod straight, in her chair. “So you see, this always happens when you allow yourself to . ..” Her words trail off.

To what? I think. To love? “Not always, Mother.” I take her hand in mine. She tries to wrest it away, but I refuse to let go. I put my arm around her shoulders and draw her close and after a while she no longer resists. We remain together in this way until her name is called.

Susan Thaler, a writer living in Connecticut, writes frequently about mother-daughter relationships.