How To Avoid Breaking Your Mother's Heart

by Erika Walsh


THINGS YOU WILL NEED: bird feathers, pancake mix (just add water), active tear ducts, an ounce of humility, frog eggs, a vast array of coping mechanisms, a bicycle (with or without training wheels), at least three psychotherapists, nursery rhymes, a few sweet half-truths, a knob to turn the volume down, a quiet place to sit and wait.

FIRST, less than a year after she divorces your father, when she digs up old pictures of herself from 10, 20, 30 years ago, do not say, "it's strange to think you'll never look the same way that you used to."  She will be sensitive. She will think that you are saying that she is no longer beautiful. Say to her: no, that's not what I meant. Remind her that she is still that person. Draw pictures of her with orange bits of sun gleaming at the corners of her mouth.


When she reads you her poetry, do not suggest ways she can improve on it. Hold her hand and say, "Thank you." Tell her she's inspired you. Have some tears in your eyes, if you can.


TIP: If you have difficulty producing tears of sentimentality, try squeezing your eyelids together as hard as possible until you see red. Maybe wiggle your contacts around a little. Think about the look on her face the last time you said something unkind.


WARNING: Do not write about your mother. Don't do it. Do not.


TIP: If you are having trouble thinking of other things to write about, try composing a sonnet that explores the hollow spaces inside of bird bones. Write about all of the times you thought you were in love. Write about warm biscuits, and falling off of your bicycle, and the pet worms that you kept in a parmesan cheese container filled with dirt— (until, ultimately, she made you get rid of them)— no! No. Make something up. Say that they escaped, the worms. Do not mention her.


When she tells you that her father, who has been dead for over thirty years, spoke to her last night, in a dream (but it was real, it was really him), do not let even the slightest bit of skepticism show. Ask her how he's doing. Say, "Tell him I said hi," and mean it. Ask her what his voice sounded like. Ask her to tell you the story about how he once sang at Carnegie Hall, and about how he would whistle to the birds and they would answer. Never say, "I've heard that story before." When she sees a red cardinal and whispers, "It's him," nod your head and say, "He's beautiful."


TIP: When she asks you to place your palms on the sacred remains of a dead tree, dubbed Inspiration Stump, do not say, "This is stupid. I don't feel anything." Close your eyes. Hum a little. Tell her that you can feel all of the energy in the forest. Tell her that you can feel her father's hand on your shoulder.


Suggest activities to do together. She loves the zoo, even if you might think that all of those cages are cruel. Ask her if she'd like to go to the zoo.  Ask her to go bike riding with you. Ask her to watch that movie she keeps talking about, the one she can't remember the title of.


TIP: Keep the conversation light, when you're hanging out. Do not talk about how depressed you may or may not be, or how scared you are that if you keep staying alive something bad is going to happen (but if you die something worse, probably), or how there's this strange ache in the center of your chest that persists every time you go outside (it's actually happening right now, that ache). Ask her if she has any Advil. Smile and say you feel better now, don't worry, it was just a headache, how was your day?


WARNING: When she gets remarried, do not tell her that you hate her new husband.


When she hands you some strange trinket— a ceramic fairy reading a book, for instance, or a voodoo doll with hearts for eyes, or a scarf embroidered with chubby kittens, or a neon orange dream-catcher that reeks of cultural appropriation— and says that it reminded her of you, and she wants you to have it, take it. Say thank you. Do not say, "I don't have room for any more clutter." Instead, say, "that's exactly what I was looking for."


WARNING: Do not laugh at her.

When she fears that she might be ill, place a hand on her forehead. Brew her up some green tea with honey, and cinnamon. Run a washcloth under hot water and drape it over her shoulders. Insist that she lie down and get some rest. Cook dinner for the family, that night: chocolate-chip pancakes, with eggs for protein. Read the babies their bedtime stories and kiss them goodnight.


TIP: Don’t try to be funny. Don’t use this as an opportunity to educate your baby sisters about the cruelties of the meat industry. Just stick with, "The cow goes moo." You don't want the kids to wake up crying. You want your mother to sleep soundly. You want the teakettle to cool. 


Do not tell her. Do not tell her about your body, about the pain inside of it, the pain that you put there. You don't want her help, anyway, and it's really not such a big deal, you're not going to die. If you absolutely feel that you must tell her, because something red inside of you stains your lips and dribbles down your chin, do not resist her reaction. Bow your head. Be humble. Tell your mother, "I want to get better." 


WARNING: Never say that any of this was her fault.

WARNING: Do not let her see you in an ambulance.

WARNING: Get better before it is too late. Do not let it get too late.


TIP: When you hear her crying, knock on her door. Sit on the edge of her bed. Fold your hands together like you’re kneeling at the altar. Tell her that she has done enough. Tell her that there is no more pain. Tell her that it is over now, you don’t have to worry, it was just a bad dream, go back to sleep, you'll feel better in the morning.


When you read her this, count the tears that slide into the hollows of her cheeks. When you get to ten, close your eyes. Remember the tadpoles you found once. How small they were. How you held their slimy new bodies in the cups of your palms. How you wanted to keep them, but your mother said: "They already have a mommy. She will miss them," and you didn't want her to miss them. Count the tadpoles. When you get to ten, open your eyes.