Published on May 10th, 2017 | by Betsy Graziani Fasbinder


My First Mothers Day as the Understudy—on Step-Parenting After Loss

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting on the morning of that first Mothers’ Day, but it didn’t happen. I stalled the appropriate amount of so-are-we-going-to-a-special- brunch time, but when Tom got a cereal bowl down for Max, I figured that wasn’t happening. As the Inspector Gadget theme song trilled from the TV, it became clear that though I had marked this day as my first Mothers’ Day, it had escaped Tom’s and Max’s awareness. How could I say anything? After all, what if there was some sweet little card waiting for me, yet undelivered?

By early afternoon, I felt a full froth of resentment. When my sister Di called and said, “Happy First Mother’s Day! How did you guys celebrate?” I said only, “Oh, pretty low-key. We had breakfast at home.” It’s the only half-lie I ever remember telling her.

The day wore on. Tom worked in the yard. Max batted whiffle balls up the slope of our backyard hill and waited for them to roll back, only to repeat the procedure three hundred more times. The adaptive play of an only child.

In my stomach broiled a vile cocktail of disappointment and sadness. The clock’s hands ached around with sluggish insensitivity, keeping the day from ending.

I poked my head out the back door. “I’m taking a shower,” I called to Tom.

Photo by Maritè Toledo / Creative Commons License

He leaned his elbow on the handle of his shovel and smiled. “Let me know when you’re done, baby. I’m next.” In the shower, I let myself cry raw, self-indulgent tears. I let myself mutter angry mini-speeches I knew I’d never deliver. When I’d exorcised the worst of my bitter little demons, I got out of the shower and wrapped my long hair into a white towel turban. My puffy face mocked me from the steamy mirror.

Robe- and turban-clad, I descended the stairs. Max sat at a TV table, a bowl of baby carrots before him, Nickelodeon on the screen.

“Hey, bud, would you tell Papa I’m out of the show—”

Max turned to me, but before I could finish my sentence he leapt from his chair, toppling the table, sending carrots like small torpedoes across the floor, the bowl tumbling with a clang. Like the surprise of dry lightning in summer, the room was split in two by his scream. It was the shriek of an otherwise silent animal—a deer or a rabbit—caught in a trap. Max’s mouth was a gaping maw stretching his baby face into a contorted mask.

I sprang toward him. “What!? What!?”

His screams were a siren with a deafening rise and fall that reverberated through my skull. He ailed as I tried to hold him. What agony caused this happy, easy boy to scream so? A burst appendix? An aneurism?

With a bang, Tom flung open the sliding glass door to the family room, his faced washed of all familiarity, wearing only garden dirt and panic.

“Take it off!” Max screamed. Finally, words. He was a human again, if not one I recognized. “Take it off. TAKE IT OFF!”

I puzzled about the “it” in his newly found words. Tom grabbed Max around the shoulders. “Make her take it off!” Max screamed and he started to sob, fat tears escaping his eyes.

When my eyes caught Max’s, I could see that he looked at my towel-wrapped head. “This?” I asked.

He nodded through his sobs. His small body convulsing as he gasped for air.

Tom looked at me and shook his head. I unwrapped the towel and let the long wet strands of hair fall to my shoulders. As each damp tendril fell, Max’s face relaxed, his breath becoming rhythmic gasps. Tom held him in desperate containment, wearing utter confusion on his face.

And then it clicked.

From the time when he was three and his mother got sick, until she died when Max was five, Janet had been in one or another stage of losing or re-growing hair robbed from her by chemotherapy and radiation. She’d worn a collection of turbanlike hats, some knit, some felt, and one white. I’d seen her wearing it when I’d bumped into her once at Safeway. Unwittingly, I had embodied a dormant image that Max had tucked into the recesses of his memory. I’d marched right into his grief, his trauma, his most profound loss.

I felt so small and petty for my earlier self-pity, for my wanting of the lacy cards and burnt pancakes that husbands and children delivered on Mothers’ Day in movies and Hallmark commercials. This wasn’t just my first Mother’s Day, a little play to be acted out. It was a day rife with barbed memories and painful loss for the boy and the man whom I’d only gained through inheritance. I was not just the maker of PB&J and the deliverer of tidbits of facts-of-life education. I was the understudy, a replacement for the star for whom the role had been written. Shame tightened with a straight-jacket grip around me. A “real” mother would have thought about how hard this day might be for this boy.

That night, the three of us snuggled together on the couch, watching “Animal Planet,” no one talking. As if it was the silky edge of a well-loved blanket, Max rubbed strands of my long hair with his fingertips as we watched TV. Eventually, he fell asleep there, his fingers woven into my hair, his small body’s weight a comfort against mine. I stroked his powdery cheek. I followed Tom as he carried the Raggedy Andy boy up to his room and together we tucked him into bed.

When finally the two of us found our way to our bed, we both fell into it, exhaustion making our limbs limp and eyelids thick. Tom wrapped his body around mine spoon style, and I listened as his breathing slowed.

“You’re a good mommy,” he whispered.

It was the very best Mother’s Day present I could have gotten.

Excerpted from Filling Her Shoes: A Memoir of an Inherited Family by Betsy Graziani Fasbinder, published by She Writes Press, May 2017. 

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About the Author

Betsy Graziani Fasbinder became a second wife when she married a widower with a young son. Their family fashioned itself with loss and love as their foundation, and with tenderness and commitment as their guides. She is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Fire & Water and the founder of The Morning Glory Project, which celebrates those who have not only survived tragic loss and trauma, but have turned their heartbreak into heroism and their history into inspiration. Betsy has been a licensed psychotherapist in California since 1992. She lives with her husband in their intermittently empty nest in Marin County, California.

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