A Mother’s Day Card for Daughters Without Mothers

My mother and I on my wedding day

If, like me, you’re in your 60s (give or take a decade), it hasn’t escaped you that our mothers are dropping like flies — or are about to. We’re losing them at an alarming rate because they are on the front lines, the elders, the longest sufferers of dementia and heart disease and cancer, the ones whose bodies have given out, and it is their time to go.

As a result, we have become the motherless generation, and, although we appear normal to outsiders, showing up for work and tending to our families and friends and soldiering on with our lives, we are the walking wounded. We have been de-mothered, as in decapitated — a violent analogy, yes, but it’s as if we’ve had a piece of ourselves chopped off. Ask a woman whose mother has died; she’ll tell you how much she hurts.

If you fall into the de-mothered category, May 14th will be a complicated day for you. There will be no gifts for Mom this year, no flowers, no cards, no phone calls, no visits during which kisses, hugs and “I love you’s” figure prominently. We are all orphans now.

My mother died in November at 99. Our family was fully expecting her to make it to 100 in January. When you live that long, we reasoned, why not live forever? Besides, she was declining but stable, slowing down but hanging in. We were so confident that she’d be around for 100 that we were planning her annual birthday celebration at the Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, where she needed little urging to get up and belt out “I Could Have Danced All Night” with the piano player. She no longer remembered how old she was or whether she’d been married or where she put her handbag, but she remembered every lyric to the song. Then, seemingly out of the blue, her health took a downward turn. She had always feared death, and she lingered for days in that nebulous zone, afraid to let go no matter how often we told her it was okay and at the same time calling out names of relatives who’d passed on, as if she could see them. She was our touchstone, the matriarch whose family meant everything to her, and she worried about us, worried we wouldn’t be able to manage without her. It was no surprise, according to the hospice nurse, that she finally slipped away in the wee hours of the morning when none of us was there to watch her go.

At first, I didn’t have time to grieve. I was arranging the funeral, planning the memorial luncheon, interviewing real estate agents to sell her house, hiring a stager to render the furnishings more contemporary and, after we found a buyer, to conduct a tag sale to liquidate the contents.

It was once every last trace of Mom was carted off that I allowed myself to feel the intense loss of her. I kept a few of her sweaters and didn’t dry clean them, so I could hang them in my closet and smell her scent. I kept one of her favorite coats, and whenever I wear it I imagine her cloaked in it alongside me. I have a shopping bag full of old pictures of her and I look at each photo and ask, “Who were you when that one was taken, Mom? What were you thinking? Were you happy?”

But it’s the scrapbook filled with clippings of the essays she wrote for The New York Times that make me feel her loss most keenly — essays about domestic life in the suburbs. One of her pieces was about a period in our relationship that pained her, a period during which I was less than a devoted daughter. I was busy with my career in book publishing, busy with a new marriage, busy with my friends. I either didn’t make time for her or was dismissive when I did, stingy with my affection, and she felt stung when I rebuffed each overture. Part of my big chill stemmed from my belief that we had little in common and that she couldn’t relate to my career, my interests or my romantic entanglements. The other part was pure rebellion; I had left the nest, and what I did and with whom was none of her business.

Her essays had happy endings, though, and this one was no exception. I had a crisis and she was there for me without hesitation, thrilled to be needed at last, thrilled that I had let her back into my life, thrilled that we were close again. I cry every time I read that essay. I wish she knew how sorry I am for having shut her out. I wish she knew that she shouldn’t have had to make do with my crumbs. I wish she could hear me say, “You were the best mother. I love you.”

As Mother’s Day approaches, I’m determined not to dread the occasion. I still have a mother to honor; she’s just not here physically. Where is she exactly? Beats me. I don’t pretend to know where people go when they die. Maybe she’s in that pretty cashmere outfit she wore to her funeral, floating among us kids, observing us, nudging us to be decent, caring human beings. Or maybe she’s in heaven cavorting with other dead people, leading a book group the way she used to on earth, playing a little bridge, a little golf, getting reacquainted with the two men she married and outlived. It heartens me to try to figure out what she’s up to or whether she’s simply enjoying a well-earned, eternal sleep.

Since she’s not around, this year’s Mother’s Day card is going out to all the other daughters without mothers — to you who are feeling a sense of abandonment you can’t always express, you who wake up in the middle of the night disoriented because the natural order of things has been irrevocably altered, you who regret those moments when you took her for granted or overreacted to a perceived slight or resented her for mothering too much or too little, you who no longer have a buffer, you who could use a boost. I get it, get what you’re going through, get what we’re all going through, and I’m here for you. This year I’m bypassing the cards that say, “Dear Mom, I’m thinking of you on your special day.” Instead, I’m sending you a custom card that says, “Dear Friend, I’m thinking of you on this especially tough day. I’m cheering you on as you step up to the front lines. We’re in this together.”

Jane Heller is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of 16 books and a forthcoming novel, “The Mourning Show.”

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