I lift the bags of groceries into the trunk of the van while my son plays in the back seat. He turns to me and flops his toothpick arms over the last row. He looks at me with eyelashes implausibly long and rests his cheek on his shoulder. With a casualness he’d use to ask me if I’d like to do a puzzle with him when we get home, he says, “Do you still miss your mom?”
My mom passed away almost twenty years ago.
Grief is an animal you cannot tame. He is a duplicitous companion who lies quietly for years, then eviscerates you as you load up groceries while your six year old watches.
I walk into the small, wood-paneled room in the basement. “Hold on,” I say quietly into the phone as I turn to close the door behind me. A black file cabinet anchors the back corner of the room, across from a wall of full book shelves, from floor to ceiling. My mom’s computer sits idle on the desk next to the old kitchen cabinets we now use for storage. Alone in this cordoned room, with my best friend on the other line, I cradle the phone to my ear and begin to pace.
“I need to tell you something.”
We’ve been friends since fourth grade, when we met as the new girls, both starting the school year without knowing anyone else in the class. As high school seniors now, we share clothes, friends, sports teams, weekends—almost every part of our lives. It isn’t the first time in the last eight years she’s heard these words come out of my mouth.
My head feels like someone quickly spun me around too many times before grabbing my shoulders, stopping me and trying to look me in the eye; I’m dizzy from too much change too fast. My chest feels like someone has two hands, one on my back and one on my front, pressing into each other, preventing me from taking a full breath. My arms tingle, weightless. I am lightheaded and suffocating under the weight of the truth I hold, the gravity of what I’m about to say.
“My mom is dying.”
She pauses for the shortest moment, then says with quiet gentleness and understanding, “I know.”
A few days earlier, despite not discussing the possibility of her death at home, the reality about my mom’s progressing cancer and shortening prognosis gripped me like a vice while I stood in front of a wall of Mother’s Day cards.
This will be the last Mother’s Day card I ever buy for Mom.
It split me in two: I was a girl with a mom, I was a woman who would no longer have a mom. It was impossible, and it was truth. I usually bought her funny cards, but I picked a sentimental pink one with butterflies that shimmered purple and gold in the light.
My mom died on a Thursday two weeks after Mother’s Day.
Grief may hit me suddenly, in unpredictable waves, or lay dormant—but there are some days of the year which are inevitable, predictable provocateurs of my normally held-in-check emotions. At this point in life, I acknowledge my mom’s birthday and my parent’s anniversary as fact, but the days typically elicit no emotional response.
But Mother’s Day.
Mother’s Day can undo me.
For those of us who no longer have our mothers, Mother’s Day is one of those days that forces our loss and grief into the front of our minds. We learn to live day to day and talk objectively, My mother died when I was eighteen, My mother died from cancer, but not focus on the pain of our experience. Then this day comes every year when, willing or unwilling, we cannot help but think about our moms.
After my mom died but before I had kids, each Mother’s Day ripped my heart apart, fresh. The day was an unavoidable slap, a painful reminder of what I no longer had.
No one else I knew graduated high school the day before their mother’s funeral.
No one else I knew walked into church every year clenching tissues in their fist, telling their heart to beat, their lungs to breathe, their face to smile, while everyone, everyone else seemed happy. I’d overhear questions about the kids making breakfast in bed and what special plans they had for the day. I’d excuse myself and walk around the hugging and brunch-planning, laughing and smiling—all the things one does when your mom hasn’t died—and I’d push the heels of my hands into my eyes in a locked bathroom stall, as if I could stop the hemorrhage of tears if only I applied enough pressure.
When I became a mother myself, Mother’s Day changed. Having a child was like walking out of an underground ice cave, seeing and feeling the sun for the first time in a decade. I found warmth, nourishment, balance, and repair in experiencing this mother-love from the other side. It somehow instinctively connected me to my mom in a way I never expected.
When your loss occurs young, every big change brings the possibility of grieving her again, but in a new way: It's something else she's missed, something else you can’t share with her. I didn’t know how much I’d miss my mom when I became one.
To be a mother, without her mother, is a heartbreak in and of itself.
It’s the sadness of her not being with you in those first sleepless postpartum days. The absence of her reassurance when you are positive you are failing. It’s in the longing to hear “You’re a good mom”—from the only person that really matters.
It’s in being unable to ask How did you do it? What would you do? Was it hard for you sometimes, too?
It’s in the inability to walk along this road of motherhood and womanhood surefooted, without her to be my guide. As if I carry a white banner over my head that says My Mom Died and hope it’s enough of an explanation when I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.
I know I can ask friends, aunts, in-laws, the women at church anything related to mothering or womanhood or marriage or life in general—but all I want is her.
She was my beginning and my end; half of who I was, half of who I am, and who I ceased to be the day she stopped breathing. I was no longer wholly myself. She was my roadmap, my sense of direction, my home.
On Mother’s Day, many of us stand at crossroads between the joy of our children, their long eyelashes, soft skin, arms that want ours, and an aching pain from deep sorrow, never to be healed. The intersection between happiness over what is and memories of what was; between the reality of death and a hope for the future. What we cannot have and what we hold right in front of us.
I stand behind the van, bags of groceries in each hand, my son looks up at me, waiting for a response. I freeze, melt, then tell myself to breathe. Some people describe it as a wave of grief, a rogue swell breaking on top of you, pounding you under the surf. This feels more like the grip of a hand clenching my throat and a baseball bat to my gut.
I nod, bite my lip, will my throat not to close and beg my legs not to become blown-away dust. I try my hardest to smile and I whisper, “Yes.”