We brushed remnants of sand off our feet and shuffled into the family room of the rented beach house. My parents, siblings, and our spouses squeezed onto the worn couches, while a few nieces and nephews sat on the floor. This family vacation wasn’t one any of us really wanted to take—or at least under these circumstances. It’d be the last time we’d be together while my mom was still alive. She sat next to my dad, and the two of them updated us on her cancer prognosis. My mom’s t-shirt sagged over her thin frame. Every once in awhile, her eyes closed mid-conversation, her body grasping for whatever rest it could find.
We talked about what hospice would look like, their financial picture, and when my dad would take a leave of absence from work. We asked if he could adequately care for her in the wake of his own cancer diagnosis a year earlier. It’s a conversation I wish I’d never had, but I’m grateful for it. Not many people get to ask such blunt questions and be given honest answers.
I stared at the carpet, shifting my weight in my seat every few minutes and mentally cursing the old sofa for my discomfort. The tears fell and we passed tissues around. I tried to listen and be present in the conversation, but I could think only about the gaping hole in my own future.
My mom would never be there when I had kids. She’d never be in the hospital with me, and she’d never come visit. She’d never go to Buy Buy Baby to help me register or throw me a baby shower. My kids would never call out, “Nana!,” and she’d never answer the phone when I needed advice.
I felt silly and stupid mourning a reality that was years away. There she sat in front of me, dying of cancer, and my mind fixated on loss that hadn’t even happened yet. But somehow the weight of the future grief felt almost heavier than the present. At one point, I mumbled those feelings out loud, and my mom turned her head to look me in the eyes. I knew she grieved the same loss.
We wept over the pain of the present, but grief doesn’t live only in the moment. It steals a piece of the future—one you wonder about, long for, and miss—even though you never really had it.
My sister-in-law spoke up. “I know it’s not the same thing,” she confessed. “I know there’s nothing like having your mom with you, and I know there’s no replacement for her. But we’re going to be there.”
“Is your mom going to come stay with you when you have the twins?”
People innocently asked that question all the time during my first pregnancy. I’d usually say something about how my dad and sister planned to fly out from New Jersey, and I had local family to help.
But the question felt like a knife in my back, a reminder that the grief I anticipated a couple years earlier at the beach house arrived in full force. The loss was no longer a future one but a very present wound cut open with each parenting milestone. My pregnancy announcement, the call back to update that it was twins, my baby shower, giving birth—all sweet pieces of my motherhood story but ones flavored with a hint of bitterness I never wanted.
Five years after that beach house conversation, I sent a frantic text to my sister and sister-in-law who both live nearby. I intended only to vent about potty-training twins with a very active 10-month-old in tow. My sister hopped in the car the next morning to help, arriving about thirty minutes before my three-year-old son started screaming because the upstairs toilet overflowed, soaking his lovey (the real tragedy in his mind)—and of course the whole bathroom. I yelled for towels, and my sister ran upstairs to help while my nieces occupied my other two kids.
We mopped up toilet water, towels dripping, kids still screaming, and me shaking my head at my own naivete. I thought I could potty-train twins by myself in just a couple days. No doubt I would have been sobbing had I been alone. But there we were, loading up soaked towels in a laundry basket and laughing at the absurdity of it all.
The women in my family have been at the hospital after my kids were born, stocked my freezer with meals, taken over 4 a.m. feedings so I could sleep, and passed along box after box of hand-me-downs. They’ve traveled with the kids and me, babysat, answered texts for parenting advice, thrown me baby showers.
They’ve mothered me, even though I thought that possibility passed away with my own mom.
The loss still hangs heavy in the air. At times I miss her so much I can only curl up in bed and weep. There’s no replacement for her. But mothering and being mothered doesn’t always come in ways we expect. We long to share pieces of our lives with people we hope, or even assume, will be there. Then grief hits because of death or abandonment or unmet expectations, and it feels like those pieces of our lives shatter into a thousand more.
But sometimes a surprising thing happens. Others step in and start picking up those pieces, carefully putting them back together in a way we never expected. The loss remains, but we don’t sit alone holding the brokenness.
The women in that beach house years earlier promised my mom and me they’d be where she couldn’t. I had no idea what that’d look like. I didn’t know the lengths they and other family would go to make sure not just my kids were taken care of, but I was. I certainly didn’t know that the grief over losing my mom would one day birth this unexpected joy.