Life is like cooking a delicious bouillabaisse. First, you get all the ingredients right, as fresh, as pure, as wholesome as possible. Then you chop, mix, blend, and spice, adding whatever seems appropriate for the time and place. Next, comes the most important part of all for a well blended array of sensory delights: the cooking period.
For me, my relationship with my stepdaughter is such a masterpiece that it required extra-added attention in so many ways. Mostly in the cooking time. Nearly half her lifetime our beautiful daughter has marinated slowly in the souring juice of hating my guts, her stepmom … until … until the day finally arrived people told me would come: “Wait till she has a kid of her own,” or, “Wait till she’s thirty; then she’ll appreciate you.” Sure enough, that is now – and her ratatouille is thankfully done.
Soon after the very day that she turned thirty she spoke to me about her healed heart.
“I finally realize how very much you’ve always meant to me, teZa. I wouldn’t be anything without you having been there, guiding me, nudging me, showing me how I could be what my own birth mother couldn’t, no matter how hard she tried.”
All the years, all the misery, all the stabbing spears and arrows, poisoned glances, ignored or denied by her, taken directly in the heart by me, flung unmercifully at my long-sought, self-preserving detachment – all was healed with one that honest, soulful and soothing conversation.
In an instant, a decade and a half of our heartbreaking estrangement – erased.
How did our daughter arrive at this juncture in her life? Where she was finally able to see that I had always been her devoted friend as well as full-time custodial mom – her advocate and not the enemy she determined I was since first arriving at her adolescence’s fickle door?
The hands of fate pointed the direction of her healing; I had nothing to do with it. Since she left for college, well over a decade before, I’d settled for her calling me “my father’s wife, my stepmother,” instead of the more true “Angel Mom” that I flippantly called myself when first I decided to marry and help my man raise her and her little brother, aged 7 and 4 then.
Now she is indeed a mother herself, for nearly three years. And now – finally, after so much time, in agony since her pregnancy activated the hidden, now understood-to-be dormant symptoms, unleashed only then – she’s been diagnosed with long-term undetected Lyme disease. Now, instead of an unknown ailment that topsy-turvy tossed our once-strong daughter’s health upside down, she realizes she has a formidable disease that others – if they work hard at it – have been able to recover from. No one could have foretold that the bite of a tiny deer tick the size of the period at the end of this sentence, gotten so long ago, could so drastically change a family’s destiny.
A theory among some is that nothing, absolutely nothing, happens by accident, including personal tragedy and disease of all sorts, even worldwide catastrophes. When our daughter’s earliest weeks of pregnancy included quizzically severe symptoms, no one knew what the heck was happening. Her husband, inevitably, began to believe she was losing her mind: newly fraught with the anxiety of the couple’s happily greeted pregnancy. She lived among her husband’s extended clan out West, far away from us. From our two-thousand-mile distant point-of-view, we heard of the strikingly bizarre maladies she was having: a distinct lack of energy accompanying constant nausea, persistent insomnia, excruciating joint paint, limb-twitching, and severe mood fluctuations ranging from off-the-charts crying jags of depression and anxiety to, sadly, totally unlovable rage.
Admittedly, her husband suffered tremendously from our daughter’s strange, uncharacteristic change. Neither he nor anyone, not the legions of doctors or any holistic healer was able to figure out what her problem was. When their healthy baby boy came bursting into this world, instead of everyone greeting him with ridiculously ecstatic feelings of life’s continuous renewal, all we could do was glance at our still-suffering daughter bent over like a broken pretzel, hunching her way through breast feedings, diapers, limping through the marathon demands a newborn added to her and her husband’s already burdened mountain of medical woes.
All of us were puzzled, her father and I, along with her husband and his family.
But, like I said, those of us who believe that even bad things happen to good people for purposes that, when finally figured out, can lead to making life a little more bearable, maybe somewhat easier if we’re lucky – her disease ended up bringing her before a closed door that had somehow shut around her heart years before.
The day arrived when our daughter and her distraught husband, plus her ever-giving, concerned father, my husband, met in an office in Dallas. There, the specialist handed them the news that indeed our daughter did have Lyme, the hard-to-detect, often-camouflaged, spirochete-shaped, killer-bacteria that attacks neurons in the brain, among other places in human physiology. Our daughter’s initial reaction was more weepyness over her life’s fate. Being given a clinical diagnosis of such magnitude, her depression was understandable. Her innate anxiety was now exacerbated, since most Lyme patients get emotionally whacked out, even without the added pressure of a nearly-done, care-giving mate and a demanding two-and-a-half year old.
Within a month our daughter and her husband weren’t just legally separated, but in a whirlwind they became – consciously or unconsciously – uncoupled. In the western state they lived in, such a “dissolution of a marriage” type of divorce happens literally overnight if both parties agreed not to squabble. There would be no custody battle either. Our daughter was given primary parental rights because our ex-son-in-law was … well cooked, if not fried.
And so our daughter – my long-lost child-pal, besides my charge – came back to me, her nurturing champion, her childhood’s main female-link to healthy living. Within days after that diagnosis of Lyme given on her thirtieth birthday, she made a heartfelt, earnest amends to me. She apologized for all the shitty things she’d ever done, said, and thought about me, ever since she’d become a teenage werewolf, transformed from the angelic girl I’d fallen in love with, along with her younger brother, when her dad and I married so long ago. But when she morphed into the bitch-on-wheels, at fourteen, never again did she regard me with respect or love – until now, she humbly admitted.
This disease of hers, then … was it needed to teach her, to show me, too, that, weird as its flavor was, our life-stew hadn’t yet mellowed into a palatable, tasty morsel, that could now be made triumphantly scrumptious with that secret ingredient of ours – forgiveness on both sides? Could the innocuous tick bite that probably happened when she was a 16-year-old camp counselor in Lyme-ridden North Carolina, possibly have festered, asymptomatic in her system all these years? Did her disease, crippling too many with the rampant spread of this tick-borne plague’s spread, keeping people from woods and meadows everywhere – did this illness come into her life as a gift, disguised as torment?
We shall see.
After just one more of countless tests, and a big decision about what type of therapy she’ll choose, the years-long treatment will soon begin for our daughter. We’re expecting her symptoms to worsen, a typical reaction when Lyme spirochetes are attacked. We expect she’ll get sicker before she begins to feel better, it’s part of the recovery process. But already she feels relieved, her anxiety lightened. She has returned home to Florida, her innately troubled marriage, now over. Now her son will have two separate sets of parental families to view life through, as our daughter did herself. Her son will have a blended family, as his mother has had, to both love and help expand his worldview.
Our daughter’s disease has brought her a renewed commitment to working with life’s signs – as they are handed out by the winds of fate, not as she or anyone else wants them to be. That miniscule tick bite brought – now that recovery lies hopefully on the horizon – the ability for our daughter to accept life, not resist or fear it. She now sees her choice: to greet each set of circumstances as the next step, the next breath she can inhale with either resentment, or joy.
When our daughter was a child, she and I loved each other – deeply, magically. Now we are free to love each other again, both of us, woman-to-woman.
I’m happy to not be Angel Mom to anyone anymore. Now I’m just a trusted pal to our daughter and her brother. I prefer that easier, softer way of loving. True friends accept each other’s faults easier than some moms can.