Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Fictional Mothers #1

Wow! Who knew a contest could draw out so many good ideas. From now on, I'm getting all my blog ideas from questions I ask my wise readers :)

I'm trying to not let all my random thoughts of the past few days spill out at once. So I'll stick to this one for the moment: Age and Experience Have Changed What I'm Looking for in a Fictional Mother.

I'm no longer looking for the kind of mom I want to have, or even one who reflects my own (beyond fabulous) mom. I'm 41 now, I have four kids--two of them teenagers--and what I want in a Fictional Mother is someone I could be. Or want to be. A mom who speaks to all the complicated parts of myself.

Frankly, I'd prefer to be neither dead nor destructive, which is too often the kind of mom found in fiction. Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice? As fun as she is to mock (love the comment about watching a car wreck in progress), please oh please tell me I am not her. Molly Weasley? Totally the mom I would want to have. But do I want to be the one who worries in the background and knits sweaters? (Though in all fairness, I thought JK Rowling was brilliant in letting Molly finish off Bellatrix.)

And it's true that YA is going to have most adults (not just moms) in the background. My manuscript currently going the rounds of editors has a mother who's both destructive and absent (one good thing about time travel--it removes you far from your drunken mother's requests for money.)

But that doesn't mean that YA can't have a mom who, though a secondary character, is rounded and real.

Which brings me to my first inspiration: Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick.

Though written for a younger YA audience than I usually read, I recommend this book without reservation to anyone who wants to know what's it really like to be part of a cancer family.

Steven Alpert is in 8th-grade, dealing with all the usual troubles of school, girls, and parents, when his 5-year-old brother is diagnosed with leukemia. What's a boy to do? Quit doing homework, lie to his parents about it, and try desperately to keep his friends from finding out about his brother.

I can relate. Because when my 11-year-old was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma two and a half years ago, I had three other children as well. And guess what? They didn't go anywhere for the duration of that year. They all still needed me. And I failed the other three many more times than I ever wanted to. The oldest had to give up plans with his friends when his brother needed a transfusion and there was no one else to watch the younger ones. My daughter turned into a control freak at school because there was nothing she could do about what was happening at home. My first-grader never knew when Mom would be home or at the hospital overnight.

Cancer sucks.

But here's the thing--we were still ourselves. We were not drama divas. We didn't live in a constant cloud of fear and tragedy. (We were not, in short, the family from My Sister's Keeper. Which I do not recommend.) We made jokes. We laughed at ourselves. I got mad when they didn't do their homework and they still had to brush their teeth and be nice to each other. Even the one with cancer.

And that's why I love Drums. Because Steven Alpert's mother was a woman I could relate to. When Steven, justifiably angry about being ignored for months at a time, looks at his mom and realizes that everything she's doing for his brother, she would do for Steven in a heartbeat, I cried. Because I hoped my children saw the same thing in me. When his mom shows up at his first junior high night dance in her slippers and drags him out because his brother has a fever and they have to go to the ER, I was right there with her fear and her fashion sense. When she later tells Steven that she'll try to make it up to him someday, maybe by wearing curlers and pajamas to his high-school graduation, I laughed when Steven did, hoping that he really felt his mom's apology.

But when I knew this was a mother who could stride out of fiction into everyday life without a second thought was when she got the flu. Here's the thing about getting sick when your child has cancer--you can't. Unless you do. And then everything turns upside down. Because if your child has an appointment in clinic for chemo and you're running a fever, you can't go. These are immune-compromised kids, which means viruses that are a minor inconvenience to most of us, could kill them. I laughed and cried at the same time as I read the scene of Mom giving instructions to Dad about the appointment while throwing up in the bathroom. "White blood count . . . gag . . . liver function test . . . gag . . . test reflexes for neuropathy . . . gag, gag, gag."

The first day I knew I was a real mother was the day I held my nine-month-old in one arm while a nurse drew blood from my other arm. While the baby was spitting up on me.

Real moms do real stuff. It doesn't often get written about, because fiction shows truth, not the details of reality. Harry Potter is about Harry's quest, not Molly's background knitting. But you know what? One of my favorite moments in Harry Potter is when Molly hugs Harry in the hospital wing. Because all that background stuff that she does is what makes Harry's quest possible.

But still, I don't ever want to be Mrs. Bennett.

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