Biographies & Memoirs


Long ago, I lost touch with the Tanner family. John sent a letter shortly after I returned to the United States to say the kids were getting along quite well and that he’d been dating a nice woman. She had children of her own from a marriage that fell apart, and everyone got on. They were getting married. John and the kids had moved into her house, leaving Evan and Pop alone on Lewiston. Everything was good at Qantas. He didn’t say if he had started doing theater again. I hoped he had.

In the past few years, I’ve tried to track them down through Facebook and LinkedIn. I found the house on Google Earth and came upon Pop’s obituary, alongside a handsome photo of him in the prime of his life, when his daughter was alive.

I worked with a private investigator in Sydney to find John and the kids, but the voting records she sent did not show birth dates, and their real names are so common that every search yields hundreds of leads. Finally, this past year, I found Evan. He did not reply to my first email, or my second, or third, and I worried that it wasn’t him, but eventually he wrote a short note saying hello and that he was so sorry to have made me wait and that I had his blessing to write about my experiences on Lewiston. He did not share contact information for John, Martin, or Milly. I can’t begin to figure what would hold him back, but I have learned that we don’t always know people as well as we think we do, as well as we want to.

I think about them.

Martin and his flamboyant, untimely joy. The first child to love me, to make me feel capable. The cheeky monkey. I wondered how long it took him to stop asking people what their mothers’ names were and what all his boyish obsessions—pirates, Ninja Turtles, roly-poly bugs—gave way to. I wondered if he majored in marine biology so he could talk to Evan about oceans forever.

Milly, who was old enough to guard the door but young enough to watch Beauty and the Beast twice a week. I wondered if she ever ate PB&Js again and if she became as gorgeous as I guessed she would. I was glad she had someone to make Mother’s Day treats for, even if it left her with a tinge of guilt. I hoped her stepmom did a decent job with the sex talk, and that she introduced the whole mess in a timely fashion. I used to think Milly might come find me in America, that I would pick her up at the airport, throw her backpack in the trunk, stare at her at every stoplight, looking for the girl whose hair I brushed. Mostly, though, I thought about how, all these years, twenty and counting, her mother never came back—not for graduation or a Sunday barbie, not to go for a walk or to split the last piece of pizza, not on Milly’s hardest day, not on her best.

Evan, who I was just beginning to know. His needs had been deferred until Martin and Milly, first in the pecking order, were deemed stable, and to make matters worse, he was part of a different family, a family that had not operated as a unit in many years. I wondered if he ever got to grieve, full stop, flush out all the pain clinging to his insides, and then I wondered if that was even possible. I am still illiterate in the subject of loss.

I wondered what it was like when Evan finally moved out of the garage and into the house proper. Which room did he take—the master?—and how long did he live there? Did he stay on for years to help Pop die, burying him next to his daughter so Martin and Milly could visit both of them in one trip? Or did Pop make Evan fix his transmission and drive away, back to finish uni or to a new job as a park ranger on some mountain?

I saw online that he married, even after he saw close up how that sometimes turns out—divorce, death. I don’t know if they have children but I imagined what it would be like to meet Evan’s kids, turning them inside out by telling them that one spring I was a girl to him, a girl to kiss in the kitchen after midnight. Evan would ask whether I ever play chess or do the crossword—it would be the obvious small talk. No, never, I’d have to admit. I reverted to myself. We all go home. We all speak our first language forever.

And Ellen.

I thought of her first in 2004, when I found a lump in my breast, and again in the summer of 2006, when I had my ovaries removed, and finally, in the fall of 2007, on what I’m sure was the longest night of my life.

After thirty infusions and two surgeries, I’d had some champagne and returned to my regularly scheduled life, but six months later I rubbed up against something new and stony in my breast and went cold. When Edward got home that evening, he felt it, easily, and sent me over to see Emily Birenbaum, my OB friend, who gave me an exam on her sofa.

“Yeah, it’s right here,” she said, walking back and forth over the lump with her fingers. “It could be scar tissue … but I can’t say. I’d get a biopsy appointment. Tomorrow, if you can.” I emailed Susie Eder, my oncology nurse, and she wedged me into the morning schedule.

We went to bed, me in tears, Edward holding me from behind. He asked if he should cancel his business trip. I said no, just be back soon. There was no use in his staying home just to watch me get a biopsy. If I cried on the table, I had Susie Eder. And he’d be back before the results came, when the phone rang, and that was what mattered. There was no more talking.

After three appointments—exam, mammogram, fine-needle aspiration, the fastest way to biopsy a mass—I picked up the girls from school and took them over to Betsy’s for dinner, where I drank three glasses of wine in half an hour. Although we referred to the tests, we didn’t talk about them openly because we were not going to prelive it. I felt okay when I left her house, strong, but after the girls went to bed, I cried into my pillow like a teenager (or worse, like a grown woman). The road map I’d made on Outward Bound gave me until 2057, and though the next morning Susie Eder would set me free by saying No Tumor, Just Scar Tissue, that night, with my thumbs pushing on my new lump, I was sure the most awful thing was happening. All I could do to settle myself down was map out the future without me. Every mom I know has done this. All it takes is a jolt of turbulence on a plane or sliding across a patch of ice in your minivan.

I told myself that Edward and some merciful combination of nannies, teachers, coaches, and other people’s mothers would take care of my girls. Beth would cook extra for them; she’d do it for a year without ever asking for permission. Betsy and Meg would take them to get fitted for bras and talk them through various dramas. Kim, Pam, and Sarah would edit their college essays until they rivaled any New Yorker piece. Tracy would invite them out to Fire Island and tell them stories she knows about me that other people don’t. My parents would take them to church and go to their plays, games, recitals, and graduations. Booker would teach them how to tell a joke. GT would take them to Broadway shows and get them the best lacrosse sticks on Planet Earth. Together, my brothers and my parents, for as long as they lived, would make sure the girls knew that Corrigans were standing by, ready to show them a good time or keep their mother alive to them, whichever the situation required.

Then there was what I could do: make photo books to show them what our life together looked like, leave notes in their drawers that said, Things happen when you leave the house! and Be awake to the possibilities!, write letters about marriage and motherhood for Edward to give them on their big days, maybe record a video, jokey and light, just to be sure they could remember the sound of my voice saying nice things to them.

Somehow, like Martin and Milly, they would find a way forward.

I didn’t worry so much about Edward, either. He would date again. Mary-Hope would set him up with newly divorced women from her office, and Mellie would scrutinize any companions he found on his own. My parents would try to hang back, but they’d have to sniff around, my mother less subtle than she imagines. Someone would find him and take him and love him, making for him an easy second act after an excruciating first. People do this all the time. They get on with it.

Even after imagining all this fineness—the girls (check), Edward (check)—I bawled, stuck on the awful thought that the reason I’d ended up in Ellen Tanner’s house, the reason no one had hired me as a waitress or bartender, the reason I’d been fired by Eugenia Brown and answered an ad from a widower, was so I could see how a family goes on, so I could witness their suffering, their slow but indisputable survival.

That was how I knew I’d been crying for me. Because that’s what I had learned, that it would be my loss above all. So there, in the darkest quietest deadest part of the night, I sent out the same prayer over and over again:

Please let me be here, in this house, with these people.

Please let me stay.


For the yearbook, the fifth-graders at Havens Elementary are asked to name the one person they most admire. Finley Swan said, “My mom!” So did that sweet Madeline Malan. My daughter put “Tom Brady.” The football player.

This one’s for you, Ma. Long overdue.

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