We used to argue about how to fold the towels.

I folded them in half. She folded them in thirds.

Sometimes I’d open the linen closet and all the towels would be refolded in thirds. They were tidier that way and the closet doors would shut without having to force them. Still, it irked me. I was the mother. I wanted control over the towels.

But it’s a flimsy thing to control how the towels are folded. And a foolish thing to make towels a metaphor for everything.

In the hospital, the morning of her heart surgery, she took a stack of towels and a clean hospital gown into the bathroom, unwrapped the antiseptic scrubs and scrubbed her own chest. She was deliberate and thorough, going lighter on the long scar from her previous three heart surgeries, but scrubbing the rest of her chest, not missing even the tiniest spot. It was amber where she’d scrubbed, the color of iodine.

She washed her face then and brushed her teeth. Refolded the towel and put on the clean gown. And then she walked out into the hospital corridor and climbed on to the gurney that would take her to the operating room where she would be the next eleven hours.

She was so fully formed, so completely defined, in control of herself. Powerful. But quietly powerful. She walked to the gurney with small, measured steps. No hesitation or turning around. I admired her.

A day later we talked in the quiet murmuring tone people use when they are hurting or very ill. I’d been waiting a while to say what I’d planned, that I was sorry about our long life of conflict, sorry about fighting about the towels, the towels being a metaphor for everything, remember. “I was hard on you,” I said.

She smiled, barely moving her head, lines into a neck port largely immobilizing her and monitoring wires and tubes criss-crossing her arms and chest.

“It’s okay, Mom,” she said. “It made me stronger.”

It was hard to imagine our conflict had made her stronger; that it had had a positive result. Hers had been a hard childhood for layers of reasons, many having nothing to do with me, others having everything to do with me. She’d had a family and a life before and that had shaped her and clouded our relationship. We’d had to forge something different between us and it had been difficult. Many bright spots, but difficult. That is the one word I would use. Difficult.

So I figured she was joking and then thought maybe not. We had both been changed by our life together, our difficult life. She was calm and strong and glad I was there. I had come when she called. We had let go of our difficult connection in favor of something else.

We continue.