Everything I experience with my 13-year-old daughter comes with ghosts.
Not gauzy, woo-woo supernatural ghosts. But shadows, echoes of the past, hazy reminders of lessons painfully learned that haunt me from the depths of my mind.
They are not visible or audible to anyone but me, but they are there. They cling to the edges of our conversations, float just out of my vision when I watch her. The more I try to act like I don’t see them, the more persistent they become.
They want to remind me. They have an important message to tell me.
I listen. I don’t ignore.
Because I fear them.
Always just on the fringes, they tell me of everything I could lose. They exist because of everything I’ve lost already. They say to me, don’t fuck this up. You know what will happen if you do.
And I nod and agree. I do know.
A Conversation With My Daughter
It’s after school on a Thursday, and Sophie is in the kitchen with me. We are making salad with breaded chicken for dinner. Actually, she is making, and I am supervising. Sophie’s chore is cooking. I sit in the wooden chair placed between the little half table under the window and the counter with the microwave on it. She stands opposite me, getting ready to chop the cucumbers.
She tells me a story about her day.
“You know the boy I like, C?”
I nod and make an agreeing sound. I don’t know him. I’ve never met him. I just remember her telling me of the one she has a crush on, the first one since the disaster that was P. “The one you told me about before?”
“Yeah, I only have a crush on one person. C,” she says, slicing the ends off the cucumber on the cutting board. “Did you keep the peel on these?”
“No, I cut a few strips off all the way around and left some peel.”
“Can you hand me the peeler?” she asks.
I reach beside me and open the top drawer, take out the peeler and hand it over.
It’s the drawer that houses silverware, measuring cups, and straws. I know this because three weeks ago we did a massive clean and purge, and we told Sophie to order the kitchen the way she wanted since she was the cook. Silverware on top, lids and utensils in the second drawer, and towels and storage bags in the bottom drawer.
She made me throw out bags of old broken, mismatched, useless sentimental things. She moved the microwave. The counter was only for essentials. Things were less cluttered now. It was less my kitchen and more hers.
“So, we were in art class today,” she says and begins to peel the cucumber. “C’s in my class. And he’s painting. I see him drip paint on his hand.”
She drops the peeler and turns to face me, holding out her hand in front of her chest like a dog with a hurt paw, to mimic him, I assume. “I’m watching him, and he looks around to see if anyone is looking and he doesn’t notice me. Then he looks at the paint on his hand and he licks it!”
She puts her hand up to her mouth to lick it, while darting her eyes to make sure nobody sees her. “Then he sees me looking at him, and I have this weird look on my face like ‘ew, what the fuck,’” she says (side note: we swear, it’s fine with all of us).
She giggles. “He puts his finger up to his lips like ‘shhhh,’ and mouths ‘you didn’t see that.’”
“So, I just shrug and go back to what I was doing, like, whatever,” she says and shrugs as she turns back to the cutting board. “It was gross, cause he, like, ate paint. But it was adorable.” She sighs. “He never talked to me before that, I don’t even know if he knew who I was until then.”
“He date anyone?” I ask.
“Naw, he ‘dates’ L, but he’s not allowed to date so I’m not really sure what they are. I can’t blame him, because L’s like, you know, perfect.”
“Yeah, it’s hard to hate her,” I agree.
“She’s so pretty and talented,” Sophie says. “But she’s so nice to everyone, too.”
In my head, I’m turning over the new C crush and still poking the raw wound of P, Sophie’s first real “boyfriend,” who cheated on her (as seventh graders do) with her best friend and blamed her for making him do it because she didn’t talk to him enough, and then when his Hyde side went away, begged her for forgiveness and promised his eternal regret at the shitty way he treated her.
But he still goes out with ex-bff, so that makes him a piece of shit. Obvs.
I marvel that I know all this. The Instagram messages during their “relationship” came to my phone because her account is on there. Sophie wanted me to see everything. She Facetimed him while sitting next to me. The details of her life: her friends, her conversations, her heartaches, everything goes through me.
I don’t ask, she tells.
The Ghosts of a Mother and Daughter
Later that night, I think about the funny story about C and art class.
Something else was there. A ghost, and it poked me sharply.
I hadn’t figured it out yet. What did this ghost want me to know? It led me down a path, trying to let me see the unseen. I went back two weeks ago. Sophie had her very first period. I was the first person she told, as it was all happening. We talked mechanics, practicalities (when to use a tampon, how to use a tampon), rehashing the occasion for the big deal it was.
Ah. I see the ghost now. The easy conversation, the first person to know when big things happen.
I never had a conversation about a crush doing silly things with my mother.
When I had my first period at 12, I hid it from my mother for several months before she found out, just out of obvious clues built up over time. I would always carefully hide my pads and tampons in the trash under other stuff so it took a while for her to know. Maybe it was because I was using her stuff and finally needed some of my own that I had to come clean. I “grew up” on my own. She didn’t even know until I had already handled it.
I would never talk to her about a crush. I was too uncomfortable to tell her when I started.
The ease that Sophie comes to me with everything was hard fought and hard won. Years of molding her after the traumatic years since she was three finally were paying off. I hadn’t fucked her up after all. Her and I, we were better and stronger now that she was thirteen than we’d ever been.
I recognize this rare gift. Most parents experience the heartbreak of losing their child to the world right now, and me, I was gaining more of my child.
It’s not by accident. Losing my own mother three years before tore such a gaping hole in my life and psyche that all the ghosts had come through and taken up permanent residence. I lost my mother, but she’s still here. She lives ten minutes away.
But we reached the point of no return. I knew I could no longer keep her in my life. It wasn’t healthy for me, it wasn’t healthy for Sophie. She was toxic, insidious, judgmental, and becoming more so. The lies flowed like water. I was turned into the pariah, so she would never have to face her own demons. I knew I couldn’t help her face them, and she didn’t want to on her own. Pretending they didn’t exist, blaming it on me was better, easier.
It seemed sudden, devastating. I was lost, untethered, unmoored.
But now, with more than three years perspective and distance, I see it all for what it is. The ghosts were always there. We never had a relationship that was right. Everything was always just for show. Deep down I would never be good enough, deep down I was always just something she could control.
Until I wasn’t.
When the false floor of our relationship crumbled, the true nature of everything was revealed. I had always been unmothered, in a way. The ghosts hovered near, pointing to the path I had taken, the one I should have seen but couldn’t while I was on it. It is only now, when I look back, that I realize our road was always tainted. I just had accepted it because I didn’t know any better, didn’t see any better until I could see the ghosts.
Now, I can’t unsee them.
They guide me to notice the clues I’d missed, to see the opportunities I have right now in front of me.
It will be different for you, they seem to say. It will be different for her.
Sophie and I have a bond that isn’t just biological. We’re not tied to each other just because we must be genetically. We are tied in a way that defies the mothers and daughters of our family’s past because the ghosts showed me how to stop making those mistakes.
There’s a quote I saw early this year. It reads, “When they say ‘It runs in the family,’ you tell them: ‘and this is where it runs out.'”
Ghosts can heal, but it must hurt first.
Seeing the truth in things was a painful necessity. I accept the ghosts because they keep me looking for the pain, they keep me remembering what it feels like to lose a mother who’s right there.
Because of them, I won’t be lost.
I will never be my daughter’s ghost.