I was 28 and living in Kyoto, Japan when the letter arrived. An ex-boyfriend wanted to let me know he had tested positive for HIV. The year was 1988 – early days of the disease when a positive diagnosis was still thought to be a death sentence. For a week I waited for results of my test and stared my mortality in the eye. Up until then, my life in Japan felt almost ideal – I could spend only a few days teaching English with plenty of free time to sculpt and paint and explore one of the most fascinating, inspiring cities in the world. I loved my life there, living primarily as an artist in a remarkable community.
That letter changed everything. I did not mourn I might never visit Morocco or make some piece of art. During that week of waiting, I walked up into the mountains around Kyoto, biked along the river and felt lonely in that beautiful place. I discovered what I’d regret: the chance to be a mother. For the first time in my life, I not only thought about but wanted a baby.
When my test came back negative, I decided to return to the States. I’d had a Japanese boyfriend and imagined how beautiful a child would be – but I worried that for me, the differences between a man and woman were hurdle enough without adding cultural and language challenges to the mix. I returned to the USA with my new dream and hopes of finding my mate.
My years in NYC, working at the United Nations were punctuated by a few adventures but no man who was right. In 1992 I joined a UN Peacekeeping mission to the Former Yugoslavia – still determined to find a way to start a family even as I went off to a war zone. (I know, I know!) There I met Neil – the charismatic, handsome, funny and loving – but troubled Englishman I would marry. He too was keen to have a baby and we got right on it.
At 36, I gave birth to Molly in Italy. (Another adventure I wrote about here.) I was right about the man-part of creating a family being a challenge – it turned out to be even more impossible than I imagined. Neil’s demons got the better of him and he ended his life a month before Molly turned 9. Being a single mom was never part of my dream and I know both of us have had flashes of feeling sorry for ourselves. Certainly there has always been the financial stress, but I have also worried about being the only one to cheer her on in life.
Except – I haven’t been and I am not. Together we learned to find love and support beyond the boundaries of home. This neighborhood has become family for us, pitching in to lend a hand on the turn of a dime, showing up — well, you can see in the photo below taken just before her high school graduation. Living in this community helped me to be a better mother. And my girl has learned what it means to create a ‘family’ of support and love.
A week ago, Molly picked up tickets for her college graduation. She was allowed 10 but needed only 1 ticket – for me. She felt embarrassed to just ask for a single ticket so took 3. As always, I fretted about how she’d feel when all her friends would have a cheering section for this momentous event. And she would have ME. In fact, two of her adorable friends joined me – cheering and tearing up beside me.
Over the years, there has always been noise for my girl when she has taken a bow or crossed the stage for an award. I clap until my hands sting, and hoot and whistle. But beyond my racket, there is always more of a roar from a circle that knows and loves her – though they may not share her blood. Molly has created friendships that run as deep as family. And like her two friends that sat beside me (and there was another row besides!) they show up and they make lots of noise so she will have no doubt that she is loved.
We are a devoted duo – proud of each other. “We did it!” she captioned her graduation Facebook picture of the two of us. And it’s true. We did do it. She has graduated with pretty minimal debt and that, these days, feels big. For the last 20 plus years my primary, heartfelt focus and drive has been to nurture and launch my daughter in every way. And it is the best thing I ever did.
That glimpse of mortality delivered to a Japanese mailbox in 1988 clarified my dream and it came true. I write this on Mother’s Day – a holiday I mostly dismiss as a ‘Hallmark Holiday’ – but for the record on this day and everyday – I am indeed a happy mother!
PS – While the HIV positive ex and I do not stay in contact, I know that thanks to remarkable advances in medicine, he is still alive and well.