Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Hope Edelman's The Possibility of Everything

The writers in the Silicon Valley Moms Blog group are discussing Hope Edelman's newest book today and I am thrilled. Although I've never met the woman, Hope Edelman's name and story feels as familiar as that of a friend. We are both around the same age, lost our mothers too soon, studied at the University of Iowa, and have two daughters. We married our husbands for the same reason -- as Edelman puts it in The Possibility of Everything, "he was the kindest man I'd ever met." And we both write, although her output towers over mine.

Her books have been on my shelf for years, their titles like a distilled description of the rawest part of my life: Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss; Letters from Motherless Daughters: Words of Courage, Grief and Healing; Motherless Mothers: How Mother Loss Shapes the Parents We Become.

The tone of these books fluctuates between that of an understanding counselor, bringing healing and understanding to women who grieve and that of a consummate researcher, analytical yet insightful. I have found much comfort there, but little of the messy emotions that have accompanied my own delayed grieving process. Motherless Mothers' index has no listing for "rage, drowning in."

Edelman's latest book, a memoir entitled The Possibility of Everything, exhibits a slightly less confident voice, but one I can relate to in even greater measure. It describes with great honesty a period in her life while she was taking on the most daunting of roles: first-time mother of a challenging child.

At a tense period in her marriage, Edelman's then-three year old daughter began exhibiting disturbingly aggressive behavior that the little girl attributed to the influence of her imaginary friend, "Dodo." Along with her understanding husband Uzi, Edelman used a family vacation to Belize to explore the powers of the country's natural healers to help her daughter and to explore the limits of her own credulity.

I'm not interested in debate whether Edelman's daughter was literally possessed by a supernatural spirit or not. I may be a confirmed atheist, but I'm not an evangelical one. Nor do I believe my skepticism can diminish the undeniable power in Edelman's descriptions of eerie behavior by the precocious three-year-old Maya, of her growing suspicions that something was seriously wrong with her daughter, and of the strange, yet strangely ordinary visits with Belizian spiritual doctors.

Who can deny that little Maya was receiving something she genuinely needed when Edelman anoints her child and rustily recites old prayers at the moving climax of the story? Perhaps whether the nature of that needed thing lies in the supernatural, the emotional, the psychological or a combination of these is less important than that Maya, and her mother, experienced a moment of healing.

In a Q and A with the Silicon Valley Mom Bloggers last week, Hope Edelman revealed, "when I committed to writing the book, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn't try to sugarcoat the story to make myself look good. I wanted to write a true, authentic story that honestly revealed who I was—or who I think I was—ten years ago, even if I feel that I'm not exactly the same person now." She admits she "had to find courage and humility to write ... parts of the book."

The self-doubts and anxieties that Edelman fearlessly shares resonated deeply with me. My first daughter Mia worried me too, to a degree that I was nearly afraid to share. My compliant second daughter's first word was a lispy "Yes"; Mia's first word was "Duck." It took me a while to figure out that Mia was issuing a warning rather than naming a bird.

Mia has always been a dramatic child, full of passion and stormy moods. Even now at seven, tears can fall fast over spilled tea, over the prospect of homework and the promise of dessert only after the playroom is cleaned. Her tantrums at the age of three shocked me with their intensity. Her face would turn a terrible red, the screams seemed endless. But unlike Edelman, I connected the dots very early between the loss of my mother and the extreme distress I felt when my daughter's emotions overwhelmed her.

When Mia screamed and writhed on the floor like no child I had ever seen, I spoke to her in a voice that seemed that of an actress playing a role I had taken on without sufficient rehearsal. That voice fretted, pleaded, bargained, threatened, and occasionally stayed calm and let Mia and her emotions take their time. Another voice, the one I hear in my head, whispered, "Of course."

Of course something was seriously wrong with my daughter. Because something seriously wrong happened to her mother. My parents died when I was four. Becoming a mother myself for the first time brought up powerful feelings of grief I had not been allowed, by others and by myself, to experience when I was young. Tapping into these deep rivers of sadness, longing, questioning and anger at times has complicated my own efforts to be the good mother I want to be.

Like Hope Edelman's little girl, my daughters have asked, "Why are you so sad?" when they saw their mother in tears. My initial impulse to remain vague and to distract because the reality seemed too complicated and too frightening has battled with my desire to be emotionally honest and genuine, to be open about the past and my struggles with it.

Now that I have a little more parenting experience and the equilibrium and perspective that come with it, I know that I have to move beyond the simplistic idea that Mia and I are stuck in a terminal determination rather than moving on a journey of healing. I know I need to let my daughter be who she is without projecting my fears on her. I am getting better at stopping catastrophizing that things are worse than they may be.

When I asked Hope Edelman whether her daughter's internal struggles may have been a stressful reaction to Maya's limited understanding that her mommy had something terrible happen to her, she saw less of a direct connection. You can read her full response to that questions, and others, here.

My deep thanks to Hope for sharing her story with us all, for taking the time to discuss her work with the SVM bloggers and bringing our attention to the country of Belize. Edelman donated a portion of the book advance to a book drive for the library in San Ignacio, toward building two new classrooms in San Antonio, and as a high school scholarship for two children from San Ignacio, since only about 60 percent of the citizens of Belize can afford to go to high school.


Anonymous said...

The link to Hope's answer to your question isn't there! Would love to read that exchange.

Motherhood after motherlessness is truly an emotional experience!


Hope Edelman said...

Cindy, this is such a nice post. Thank you so much for taking the time to write so thoughtfully about the book. It's interesting: when I first started writing this book, I said to my editor, "Please don't ask me to write about my mother. The world doesn't need another mother loss book from me." But about 50 pages in I had a "Dang it!" moment when I realized what an important role my mother's absence played in the story. Had she been alive and been a source of support or advice to me, I'm not sure I ever would have taken that trip to Belize. She might have said, "I worried about your imaginary friend, too, but I did nothing and it all turned out fine." And maybe I would have listened to her. As with so many other questions, I'll never really know the answer to that one. Thanks again--I really appreciate the post (and the advance question, too!)

Lady Hannemaniac said...

I think it's really brave to realize the weight that you're carrying might be making an impression on your daughter. Really honest and really brave. I hope one day I can read more about the process of starting your own family and coming to terms with your loss.

Kim Moldofsky said...

I fear every comment I leave on your blog is something along the lines of, "I can't wait to read your book." But there it is.

jenne said...

You write beautifully and I love the title of your blog. Sometimes I wish that women who are mothers and women who are childless but not by choice could interact more. I invite you to peruse my blog; I am a writer. Jenne'