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My daughter is upstairs weeping. She’s been up there in her room for three days, six hours, and thirty-two minutes, weeping. For three days, five hours, and forty-one minutes, I indulged her. A broken heart may not be as visible as chicken pox but the scars are just as bad. So I listened and I commiserated and I clucked sympathetically while she examined and reexamined every detail of her first love’s betrayal. I took her meals upstairs on a tray, made tea to soothe her nerves and mine, and resisted every opportunity to say, “Phoebe, my darling, I told you he wasn’t for you in the first place.” The last thing you need in the throes of first heartbreak, when you’re still not sure you’ll survive it, is to hear the absolute, unvarnished truth spoken for the second time by your mother, who first uttered the words when you brought the young, betraying fool home and confessed, Oh, Mama, I think he’s the one!
He was never the one. He was handsome and interesting and sexy and as serious as she was about saving the world by next Tuesday at the very latest. He was also way too full of the blazing sexual energy of his emerging manhood to be anybody’s one for very long. But at seventeen, how was she supposed to know? She handed him her heart, and everything else that wasn’t tied down, and they were inseparable from October of her junior year until June, when they had to go their separate ways for the summer. She was determined not to let distance destroy their relationship, but once they were apart he seemed to be drifting away from her, and neither one knew what to do about it. After a summer of long-distance spats and tearful reconciliations, he confessed via a long e-mail that he had fallen in love with someone else and closed with a wish that they could always be friends.
That was three days ago, and I’m still sympathetic. I am her mother, after all, and I do love my child. But it was time for her to dry her eyes and blow her nose and get herself together. Nobody ever really dies of a broken heart except in the movies, and it is my opinion, motherhood aside, that more than three days in mourning for the demise of a relationship with any man is unseemly, not to mention a real strain on the women who have to help you through it. It was time for her to segue from self-pity to self-examination by asking the all-important question: What is the lesson here for me? Although it is deceptively simple, this question cuts to the heart of the matter because it turns that trembling, accusatory finger you’re pointing at everybody else right back around to yourself. My darling daughter had spent enough time blaming her boyfriend. Now it was time for her to look at what she could have done differently to avoid this painful moment.
When she was younger, I would consider the lesson question with her so she’d begin to understand how it always leads to the heart of the matter. When she got older, I would just remind her to ask it, then leave her to think about the answer all by herself. That’s what I intended to do tonight. She could review and evaluate her choices while she finished packing and I finished returning three days’ worth of phone calls. I love having my office at home, and since Phoebe went off to boarding school two years ago, it’s been not only convenient, but quiet, the last seventy-two drama-filled hours notwithstanding.
I’d better enjoy it while I can. Phoebe’s going to college next year. She’s got her heart set on Smith, and the Seven Sisters have never been a place for bohemian mothers living on a budget to send their darling daughters. It looks like after all these years of stretching my little inheritance and living by my wits, I’m actually going to have to break down and get a full-time job where somebody else signs the check and covers the health insurance. I’m going to try to keep some of my longtime clients. Most of them can’t afford to hire anybody half as good as I am, and they’ve never needed me more.
What I do is coordinate and integrate services for programs assisting female refugees and immigrants. Atlanta is a magnet for people trying to make a new start in a new country, and even though the town’s natives still think in terms of black and white, in reality we’re looking more and more like the Rainbow Coalition. My job is to ease the transition on all sides by serving as a kind of conduit, clearinghouse, counselor, and all-around communications facilitator.
I tell people the language I speak is the future, and I love it. All you have to do is help a Cambodian family find safe housing or a Haitian mother register her children for school or reunite a Cuban father with a son he thought he’d never see again or attend a Liberian wedding party to know that there isn’t nearly as much difference between people as some of our governments and institutions want us to think there is. In my line of work, what I’ve learned is that most people are looking for pretty much the same things—health and peace and love and family and a community where you can wave at your neighbors and they wave back.
I love what I do, but it doesn’t pay very well. My parents left me this house, all paid for, and enough money so that I could stay home with Phoebe and not have to worry about the basics. When my volunteer work at the Red Cross turned into a lot of freelance consulting, I was able to make enough to finance our annual trips to somewhere we’d never been before and to send Phoebe to a private boarding school up north when she decided she wanted to go.
But the last of my inheritance paid for her senior-year tuition, and there’s not enough coming in to keep us afloat and to finance four years of college. She keeps offering to get a job, but our deal has always been, You get the grades and I’ll get the money. Besides, it’s only four years. I can stand almost any job that long if it pays well enough. After that, Phoebe’s on her own, and I can feather my empty nest any way I want. Until then, I’ve got to toughen this girl up and get her back to school.
I brewed a fresh pot of coffee and poured us each a cup to signal that the tea-sipping phase of her healing was officially over, then went upstairs to tap on her half-open door.
From inside the silent, darkened room my daughter’s voice was a pain-filled quaver. “Come in, Mom.”
I pushed open the door with my foot. Once inside, I could see that there was one small candle burning on the bedside table. The air was faintly perfumed with the roses Amelia brought over yesterday when she came to check on the progress of the patient. Amelia Douglass has known Phoebe since we all still called her Baby Doll and is more like a favorite aunt than a next-door neighbor. Phoebe herself was curled up in the center of the bed under a wool blanket her grandmother brought back from South America years ago and which is so smotheringly heavy that we use it only on those rare occasions when the furnace goes out in one of those freak Atlanta ice storms and we want to stay cozy until Georgia Power gets around to reconnecting our block.
But there was no ice storm. It was, in fact, the end of August, and the temperature outside at nine thirty at night was still eighty-five degrees. I suppressed a smile. Baby Doll was playing this scene to the hilt. The candle flickering over her sweet little face was the perfect theatrical touch. Right out of Camille. My child intends to major in performance studies. Looking at the scene she’s constructed here, I know she’ll make the dean’s list.
“I brought you some coffee,” I said casually, like she’s always in bed with the lights out at nine thirty on a Friday night.
She sat up slowly and reached out to clutch the cup I was offering. Consistent with her cold-weather motif, she wrapped both hands around it and breathed deeply, as if we were huddled in a tent at the foot of Mount Everest.
That quaver in her voice sounded so genuinely sad, I was tempted to sit down on the edge of the bed and spend another hour or two cooing and comforting. I know that’s what she wanted, but part of being a good mother is knowing when to exercise some tough love, even in a raw moment like this one.
“Can I turn the light on?” I said. “I can’t hardly see you.”
“I look a mess,” she said, running her hand over her hair, cut short and curly. The flickering candle threw her shadow on the wall dramatically. The award for best lighting design goes to . . .
“You can’t look a mess to your mother,” I said, turning on the lamp. “It’s against the law.”
She managed a shaky smile, but she was right. She looked a mess. Not a terminal mess. Just an I haven’t had a shower or brushed my hair or changed my clothes in three days because I’ve been too busy crying mess. Her suitcases were open at the foot of the bed, but her clothes were strewn around like she’d closed her eyes and thrown them in the air to see where they would land.
“I see you’ve started packing,” I said, taking a seat at the foot of the bed. She was propped up now against a nest of pillows, the two-ton blanket still draped over her knees. She gazed around at the colorful piles of her back-to-school clothes like she was seeing them for the first time.
“I was trying to get it organized,” she said. “But . . .” Her voice trailed off like no further explanation was necessary since I was clearly familiar with her situation.
“So you want some help?” I said. “You know you’re not going to want to tackle all this tomorrow.”
She took another sip of her coffee, put it down slowly on the table near the candle, and sighed deeply.
“There’s something I have to tell you, and you’re not going to like it.”
This is not a sentence the mother of a seventeen-year-old girl in the middle of a marathon crying jag wants to hear. Trust me. The possibilities are endless, and endlessly depressing. I willed myself to remain calm and not jump to conclusions.
“What is it, sweetie?”
She just looked at me while a big fat tear rolled down her cheek. She dabbed at it with a soggy tissue that had seen better days. Please tell me this girl isn’t—
I interrupted that thought before my brain could finish it. “What’s wrong, Phoebe?”
“I haven’t finished packing because I’m not going back to school,” she said, her voice a mixture of misery and defiance.
“Not going back to school?” I said, not sure whether I was more surprised or relieved. This was a fantasy, not a problem. “Why?”
It was a rhetorical question. There was no possible answer that would result in my agreeing to such a move. Phoebe was a straight-A student at Fairfield Academy. This was her senior year, and she was practically guaranteed admission to any school where she applied. This was no time to take a break.
“It’s just too painful,” she said with a delicate shudder. “I’ll have to see him practically every day. Everybody will know he broke up with me for . . . her.”
Phoebe’s voice cracked on the word, and she tried to collect herself. I didn’t rush the moment. I wanted her to get it all out before I inquired as to whether she had lost her whole mind. In a nice way, of course.
“I just don’t think I could stand it,” she said. “You understand, don’t you, Mom?”
I chose my words carefully. I was a modern mother and I wanted to be compassionate, but absolutely clear in what I was saying.
I patted her knee through the rough wool. “I understand that at this moment, it may seem like the whole world has fallen in on you,” I said calmly. “But hiding at home is not the way to get through this. Sooner or later you’ll have to go back to school, and the longer you wait, the harder it will be.”
“Why do I have to go back at all? You homeschooled me when I was little. Why can’t we do it again?”
“Because I can’t teach you calculus,” I teased her gently.
She was not amused. “I’ve already had calculus.”
“Listen, sweetie,” I said. “I know you loved him, and I know it’s hard to face your friends, but dropping out of school your senior year isn’t an option. It doesn’t make sense.”