The Great Chimera

You will always exist in the universe in one form or another — Suzuki Roshi

            While it’s been known for over a century that a mother’s cells can travel through her placenta into her unborn child, it wasn’t until 1979 that scientists discovered that the reverse is also true, finding Y-chromosome cells in a pregnant woman’s blood. In 1996 a geneticist found male fetal cells in a woman’s blood 27 years after she gave birth. These “microchimeric cells”—cells of one person that have embedded themselves into the bodies of another—are named after the monstrous fire-breathing she-creature Chimera from Greek mythology, whose sighting was an omen of disaster. The infamous 15th-century anti-witchcraft treatise Malleus Maleficarum cast women as the embodiment of Chimera, describing her as a “monster […] of three forms; its face was that of a radiant and noble lion, it had the filthy belly of a goat, and it was armed with the virulent tail of a viper.” In other words, the treatise explained, those who embody the Chimera are “beautiful to look upon, contaminating to the touch, and deadly to keep.”

            Cell-sharing between mothers and children isn’t limited to blood: a 2012 study found that most of us have our mother’s cells embedded in our brains, and vice versa. That means that our mother’s brain is likely home not only to some of our cells but also to some of her mother’s cells: three generations of cells inside a single brain, living and functioning alongside each other for years, ultimately accompanying each other into the grave.

            I came across this study a few months after my own mother died, following a harrowing five-year ordeal with breast cancer that spread to her brain and robbed her of her ability to walk. Her name was Gry. She was 59 years old. While the prospect of her death had loomed large for me for half a decade by then, nothing could have prepared me for the unmooring I experienced in its wake. From the moment she died, I felt the whole world shift somehow: colors appeared muter, sounds less vibrant. I felt a gnawing feeling deep within me that part of me had died, too.

            Of course, many parts—or versions—of me died when my mother did. The Iselin who called her mom each evening after work as she unlocked her bicycle for the ride home: she died. The Iselin who relied on her mom to help pick out glasses frames that had just the right combination of quirky and elegant: she died. The Iselin who would sit curled up on the couch for hours with her mom gossiping about politics, literature, religion, celebrities, and the unbearable sweetness of my brother’s children: she died.

            And on and on, so many versions of me died that day. Every one had up until that moment been bound up with the physical manifestation of my mother and every future version of me that  could now never manifest. The Iselin who could tell her mom that she would one day work as an academic in Australia and Sweden: she died. The Iselin who could boast to her mom that the Law Review article she spent a year writing was accepted for publication: she died. The Iselin that may still one day have a child and who would have had her mom with her in the delivery room, who would have brimmed with joy at the sight of her mom holding her child for the very first time; she died. She died, she died, she died.

            It wasn’t until I stumbled onto the study about microchimeric cells of unborn children being found, years later, embedded inside their mothers’ brains that I realized it was actually true. And not only in some metaphorical, existential sense. I knew it, I thought. Part of me really did die that day.

*          *          *

            “There is no birth, there is no death; there is no coming, there is no going; there is no same, there is no different; there is no permanent self, there is no annihilation. We only think there is.”January 30, 2012: posting this Thich Nhat Hanh quote to my mother’s Facebook page, I announced her death to the world. Born in post-World War II Norway and raised without significant religious influences, she was a practicing Zen Buddhist for the last thirty-odd years of her life. She spent much of her final years teaching mindfulness meditation to women incarcerated in the Baltimore Women’s Detention Center.

            Buddhism deeply influenced my mother’s worldview and informed the way that she parented. She taught me and my older brother to meditate and often brought us to events at the Zen Community of New York, where she was a student for many years. “Everything is interconnected,” she would often say, referencing the Buddhist principle of pratitya samutpada, or interdependent co-arising. She explained to me as a child that this is true on every possible level: symbolically, figuratively, literally, scientifically.

*          *          *

            One summer day when she was eighteen, my mom was reading a book in Oslo’s Frogner Park. A young man approached her—an American man—and asked for directions to the nearby swimming pool. He never made it there, the story goes. They started chatting and eventually the man—my father—walked my mother home, and met her again the following day. The rest is history: after a few days, my dad went home to New York City. The following summer he returned, this time visiting Veneli, my mother’s family’s hytte—Norwegian for cabindeep in the wilderness beside the Hardangervidda national park.

            Veneli is nestled at the edge: of the treeline, of civilization. The journey takes about four hours from Oslo today but took a full day when my grandfather was young, before dynamite blew holes through the mountains and straightened out some of the most treacherous hairpin turns. What Veneli lacks in modern conveniences like running water it more than makes up for in charm. It’s what Norwegians call koselig: an impossible-to-translate word that means, roughly, cozy, only so much more. The closest equivalent is the Danish concept of hygge. Koselig can describe both things, like remote mountain cabins and hand-knit sweaters, and experiences, like sitting around a bonfire eating heart-shaped waffles in the midnight sun.

            The cabin is koselig, but not necessarily relaxing. The moment you arrive, the work begins. Buckets of water—for cooking, cleaning, washing, drinking—must be collected from the nearby stream. In the winter the dirt road gives way to meters of snow and you need to travel the last few kilometers on skis with your clothes and food strapped to your back. Once you arrive you must ax through meters of snow and ice to reach the pond below. You make a fire using wood from the trees you chopped and stacked the summer before. There’s an old Zen koan that says, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” It’s no wonder my mother loved it here.

            My father somehow defied expectations and loved it there, too. A lifelong New Yorker, he was enchanted by Veneli and its sheer otherworldliness. At the end of their second summer my mom joined my dad in New York. Otherworldliness indeed! I often think about that day in 1972 when she boarded the plane from Oslo to New York City for the very first time. I have the small navy blue suitcase that she carried with her that day; I like to imagine what treasures from her old life she may have packed inside. She told me once that when the plane landed, they played Don McLean’s “American Pie” over the loudspeakers. I try to picture it: how that flight was for her the beginning of a journey into an infinite number of unknowns and how simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating it must have been. She was 19 years old and had never been to the United States, and yet when that plane touched down at Kennedy Airport she felt that she would suddenly become a New Yorker.

            In the four decades that followed, my mom lived at various points in New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Boston, Milwaukee, and Baltimore. All places that would have been utterly foreign to her as a child. Even though she never quite fit in anywhere she went, she somehow managed to make a home for herself in each place.

*          *          *

            My mother’s father, Henrik, was an architect by trade but an artist, poet, and adventurer at heart. He was born in 1904, the year before Norway gained independence from Sweden. Horse-drawn buggies cluttered the streets of Oslo, then known as Kristiania. In his twenties, he took a boat to New York City and lived in Brooklyn while working on the design team for the New Yorker Hotel, which for a brief moment was the tallest building in the world. The stock market crash sent him home to Norway, where he would live until his death at ninety-six years old.

            I loved my grandfather but also feared him. He was stoic and a bit intimidating. When he was young, he once accidentally landed an ax in the flesh of his leg while chopping wood; legend has it he took a deep breath and simply pulled it out. The nearly eighty years between us was a gulf both wide and deep, and it felt like the most either of us could do was to cup our hands around our mouths, yell out across the divide and hope that the wind carried our voices to the other side. There is so much more about him that I wish I knew; I wish I’d talked to him more about nature, poetry, art, and music. About the glamour of 1920s New York and about what he thought about the wild world he inhabited for almost 100 years. The world he died in looked almost nothing like the one he was born into.

            I often think about how my grandfather lived in and loved New York long before my mom was born, decades before she met my Brooklyn-raised father and moved to New York to live her own American life. I wish I knew more about what “home” felt like to him, about whether and how he held on to a sense of it despite the world morphing almost unrecognizably around him.

*          *          *

            I wish I knew what “home” felt like to my mom, too. Not wanting to give up being a Norwegian citizen, she never became a U.S. one. She liked to joke that when she looked at me and my brother she couldn’t believe she’d “given birth to two Americans.” But she clearly didn’t feel wholly Norwegian, either. Her prim-and-proper form of Norwegian froze in when she left the country in 1972, and over time the Norwegian Language Council legislated it out of fashion. In my mother’s Norwegian, the word for “girl” is “pike,” which sounds like “lassie” to contemporary Norwegian ears. Her Norwegian was my Norwegian, too. After being mocked once as a teenager for saying “pike” in casual conversation, I vowed to myself to never say it again, quickly adopting the modern word “jente” and leaving my mother’s “pike” to die a quiet linguistic death in my mouth.

            I wish I knew what “home” feels like to me. If it is a place, have I been there yet? If it is a person, have I met them yet? If it is a feeling, have I felt it yet?

            Melbourne, Australia, 2014. On a three-month fellowship to collaborate with law professors on the other side of the world, I walked into an old academic building and pushed open the doors to the grand spiral staircase and was stopped in my tracks, consumed by a dizzying rush of familiarity. That smell. Somehow that 19th-century spiral staircase had the exact same smell as the 19th-century spiral staircase in my long-dead grandparents’ Oslo apartment half a world away. Impossible to describe, there was something grand and sophisticated and slightly sweet to the smell, something I had only ever associated with a particular kind of stately Norwegian architecture. Perhaps the curving wooden banisters had been cut from the same long-dead trees? I stood motionless on those Australian stairs and inhaled deeply, slowly, eyes closed to soak it all in. For a fleeting moment I was convinced: home is a smell, and this is it.

*          *          *

            In August 2017 I moved to Malmö, Sweden for a yearlong sabbatical from my job as a law professor in Washington DC. Despite spending every summer of my life in Norway, I’d never been to Malmö before, but its Scandinavianness felt instantly familiar. The way the air tasted, the crispness of it. The way the wind whipped my skin. On my first day of exploring I happened upon a small women’s clothing shop named “Gry.” My mother’s name. My stomach flipped. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen it in print. I knew it, I thought to myself. I knew I’d find her here. Like me she’d never been to Malmö, but I felt her presence more in that moment than any other I’d had in several years. This, I allowed myself to think, this feels like home.

*          *          *

            We cremated my mother at a soulless funeral home in Baltimore near the highway. A day seared onto my brain like a series of Polaroids.

            The bitter cold and blinding sun.

            The way the funeral home director avoided my eyes.

            Shaking his sweaty meaty hand.

            Meeting the robe-clad Buddhist monks in the parking lot.

            Gathering in a small vestibule beside the incinerator, separated by a narrow pane of glass.

            Watching the technician line up the casket just so in front of the glowing furnace.

            The way he glanced at us for permission.

            Pressing play on the iPhone for the song she had asked us to play at this very moment: “Alexandra Leaving” by her beloved Leonard Cohen, fellow Zen Buddhist, her faithful companion in song for nearly fifty years. How suddenly his throaty voice was there, mingling with our icy breath on that freezing January day:

Suddenly the night has grown colder / The god of love preparing to depart / Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder, / They slip between the sentries of the heart

            Locking eyes with the technician. Giving him a slight nod.

            Steeling myself. Watching as he slowly pushed her inside.

            Watching her begin to burn.

            It’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving / A fitful dream, the morning will exhaust / Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving / Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost

            The technician joined us. It was obvious that he wanted us to leave. We aren’t ready, I said plainly. Inside, I was thinking: we can’t leave her here like this.

            This moment, this moment, this moment, I remember thinking, trying desperately to hold onto it to keep it from slipping away into time’s abyss. She is here, she is right over there, she’s not gone, not yet. I wished I could run in after her and pull her out, tell her it was all a horrible mistake. But instead, she continued to burn.

            Can home be a song?

*          *          *

            After my brother was born, my grandfather built Liatun for my mother’s new family. Tucked into a scenic knoll a minute’s walk down a grassy path from Veneli, the cabin is a place beyond mobile phone reception, beyond email, beyond the daily grind of everyday life. It lives inside of me when I’m not there and makes the rest of the world disappear when I am.

            It’s a place I know perhaps more intimately than any other. The cheerful babbling of the stream where we collect water. The almost deliciously unbearable coldness of it. The distinctive taste of it, like nothing else on earth. The way the air tastes, sweet and cold and clean. The foot-shaped rock halfway up the dusty path, the one I’ve been placing my foot onto for nearly forty years, just so. The hvilestein—resting stone. Large as a boulder, perfect to lean against or sit on. Where the birch forest gives way to an open expanse of vidda, mountain plateau. Where we always stop on our way up the mountain for a rest and a square of chocolate.

            Forty years after my mother took that first flight to the United States, my father tucked her inside his backpack and we set off to catch the plane. To take her home for the very last time. We walked up the mountain, taking turns carrying her in a silken urn. My five-year-old nephew Storm held it stiffly, solemnly, as we climbed Rondenut, the area’s highest peak. Oh, how she loved him! She once told me that her biggest fear about dying was that Storm wouldn’t remember her. He will, I assured her. How can you be sure, she asked quietly. I promise, I said. I won’t let him forget you.

            We scatter her by the cairn at Rondenut’s peak. It’s a perfect blue skies sort of day. A few patches of snow remain from the winter that’s just left us behind. It’s June. Someone takes a scoopful of ashes and casts it into the wind. Then another. And another. We take turns until suddenly, thunk. Something strange and heavy falls to the ground amidst the powdery ash.

            A screw. The screw. Her screw. The one that, together with at least a dozen others, held her shattered ankle together after her fall and “catastrophic break.” The screw that connected her foot to her leg for the last two years of her life is now here, out in the world, outside of her body once more, or mixed amongst it, on the earth. I hesitate. Is it morbid to take a photo? Yes, it is. But if I don’t I never can again. I take it quickly. That screw. I study it carefully, thinking it remarkable that with this screw is proof that it’s really her inside that tiny box, that those powdery ashes are really and truly her. Transformed.

            How do you walk down the mountain? She’s carried you within her, you’ve had a tangible connection to her since you were sparked into life, and now this? You just walk away?

            In Buddhism detachment is the ultimate goal. In grief, however, it is virtually impossible. For grief is the great chimera, beautiful and noble but poisonous too, trading in the currency of pain that is the very thing that tethers you to what’s been lost. Detaching means letting go of some of that pain, and with it part of your loved one too.

            Stop clinging! she shrieked as I wrapped myself around her in the kitchen with the Formica countertop. It was the 80s, and I was a child, and I held on tighter, with glee. Detach! she squealed, laughing and twisting with me around the kitchen. I laughed and laughed, twirled and twirled, holding on tighter. Never letting go.

            Later, years later, she wanted to hold my hand in public. But I swatted it away.

Don’t cry, my father said to me once, after we got some particularly bad news about her tumor. I was thirty, maybe he thought I was too old for such things. I ignored him and pressed myself into the nook of her as she sat quietly in her corner of the couch. Smooth cool brown leather. Her slow steady breathing. My vision blurry from tears. Let her cry, my mom said quietly, firmly. Her mother is dying.

            We found a pair of reindeer antlers on the way down the mountain. A rare sight these days. We picked them up and carried them back to Liatun. A reminder of impermanence, of transformation, of things lost, of things found.

            Sometimes grief feels like home. 

            Sometimes taste feels like home. The way a cardamom-infused, custard-filled skolebrød bun is like time travel, transporting you back to the warm Norwegian summer days of your youth in a single indescribable bite. 1987 on a plate.

            I often think my cat feels like home.

            I think of 16, the world’s oldest spider who died recently at 43, and the perfectly round, silk-lined burrow she dug for herself beneath an acacia tree in southwest Australia. “For as long as she lived,” remarked The Washington Post, “this would be her only home.” I think of Barbara York Main, the zoologist who named 16 and who spent countless hours beneath her acacia tree over the course of forty years, retiring last year at 88.

            I think of Wisdom, the world’s oldest wild bird, who has flown over three million miles since biologist Chandler Robbins first tagged her on Midway Atoll in 1956. How despite flying the distance of six roundtrip journeys to the moon and back, she returns to the same spot each year to lay a single egg. And I think of Robbins, who died recently at 98, meeting Wisdom again half a century after their first encounter.

            I think of them and so many more, people and animals who spend their lifetimes tethered to a particular person, or animal, or idea, or place. I reflect on my own tetherings, real and imagined. And I understand this: that home is not a person, or place, or feeling, but a fragmented collection of lived experiences, fleeting moments that when pieced together make up a mosaic collection of a lived-in life. A shifting landscape of scattered moments frozen in time and gathered like fabric in the storeroom of our minds.

            Home is the great Chimera, beautiful to look upon but deadly to keep. Breathing fire and bringing with her the promise of tremendous loss and grief and suffering, yet made up at the same time of dazzling wonder and joy, beauty and strength.

             Home is the cells of my mother embedded within my body and into my brain, shaping my thoughts for all of my days.

            Home is a mountaintop in Hardangervidda where my own cells are scattered among those of my mother, mixing and mingling with the stones and the lichen and the whistling wind.

About the author

Iselin Gambert grew up between New York and Norway. She is a professor of legal writing at The George Washington University Law School, where she teaches courses in legal communication and rhetoric and feminist legal theory. Her writing explores themes of grief and loss, identity and belonging, and entanglements of various kinds. She contributed essays to Satya magazine and Letters to a New Vegan: words to inform, inspire, and support a vegan lifestyle (Lantern Books 2015). She has written extensively on the subject of milk's entanglements with exploitation and oppression; her 2019 Brooklyn Law Review article Got Mylk? The Disruptive Possibilities of Plant Milk was identified as a “Notable & Quotable” by the Wall Street Journal. She was part of the U.S. Feminist Judgments Project, which published Feminist Judgments: Rewritten Opinions of the United States Supreme Court (Cambridge University Press 2016). She is a recipient of a 2019 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellowship in the category of Personal Essay.

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