I originally wrote this piece on the eve of the one year anniversary of my mother’s death. I’ve held it tightly to my chest for months, and yet, no day seems more fitting to share it than Mother’s Day. So here it is, exactly five months after I wrote it and exactly one year and five months after my mom left this world. Happy Mother’s Day in heaven, Mama.
I’ve spent the past year reading everything I could get my hands on related to loss. It’s become an almost-perverse obsession. I feel connected to these authors of blog posts and articles and books and essays as they so smartly and succinctly explain the empty, aching feeling of grief and loss. When I read these little pieces of someone’s heart that they were brave enough to share, I suddenly feel less alone. As a writer, I understand the cathartic process of writing, but found the task of writing out my grief next to impossible. It was too big, too insurmountable to try to work though. However, my grief has been working a hole in the back of my brain so I’m going to try.
I was naïve to think this season of life wouldn’t come so soon. That season of life being the one where my friends and I begin to bury our parents. As I sit here writing this, I am mere minutes away from the first anniversary of my mother’s death — 12:35 a.m. on December 14, 2015. I was 31, she was 54. Fifty-four years old. I assumed, haphazardly, that because I had a young mother, I had many years left with her — decades were what I was planning on, but that isn’t what I got. I got just 31 years, which isn’t enough. Last December on that crisply cold and clear night, when cancer finally overtook my mom’s body, I looked toward a future as an adult orphan. From now on, happy moments will also be sad. Everything sweet will also be bittersweet. She won’t be at my wedding, she won’t help me pick a dress or get ready, and she won’t give me a reason to tease her for being sentimental. She won’t hold my babies. Those babies won’t have sleepovers with Grandma or help her bake Christmas cookies. She won’t tell them what I was like when I was their age. Those thoughts feel so raw that I don’t even say them out loud — they are still too difficult to acknowledge. My mom was a single parent until I was 8 years old, it was just she and I at the beginning so our bond was an exceptionally close one. I never fathomed that she wouldn’t be there for all of life’s big moments.
However, as lonely as all of this feels, I know I’m not alone. I know of at least five college friends who have also lost a parent in the time since I’ve lost Mom. That reality doesn’t make me feel better, it makes my heart break for them too. “Tomorrow isn’t a guarantee” may sound trite, but when you suddenly face some sort of precipice in life, you realize just how true those words are. We are lulled into the comfort of tomorrows until they turn into weeks, months, years, or decades and then suddenly, it’s too late. Even if you get 80 or more years in this life, it won’t feel like enough. Don’t leave things unsaid or undone on the hope you get another chance tomorrow.
Grief is a strange beast. It comes in waves and often when you least expect it. Grief never smacks you in the face on big days like holidays or birthdays because part of your brain has been working around the clock to prepare. No, it’s the small things that catch you off-guard. It’s the mundane, day-to-day occurrences that will crush your heart without warning. Like the time I nearly had to pull over on the interstate because Patty Loveless’ “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye” came on the radio. Or when our small town mall finally got a much-awaited Sephora and my first thought was to call Mom and let her know. Or the times I’ve come across articles about an actor who died or one of her favorite TV shows being cancelled and I instinctually reach for my phone to text her. Or, even worse, on a particularly difficult day during a particularly difficult week, I accidentally hit her number in my favorites list instead of my best friend’s. I just stared at the letters M-O-M as the phone dialed. I couldn’t bear to hang up. The number is disconnected, but I’m not ready to delete it. I’m not ready for her to give up her top spot on my list of favorites, and I’m not sure when I will be. I talked to my mom nearly every day for 31 years, and that’s not the kind of habit you can just break.
Some days I feel like a petulant toddler, easily irritated and spending a great deal of energy simply trying not to scream my head off at anyone and also no one at all. I remember the thing that gave me the most anxiety about her funeral was the fact that everyone was going to want to hug me and I didn’t want to be touched. I was so worked up about it that I nearly gave myself a panic attack just anticipating it. The only people I told were, ironically, the people who I wanted to fold me up in their arms — my closest friends. I’ve picked fights irrationally with people for no reason at all. My ex, in particular, has been the unfortunate receiver of most of that attention. I struggle with wanting to be left alone and feeling incredibly lonely.
Don’t tell me she is in a better place. I know that. We all know that. But in our mind, this place was pretty wonderful too, and now it isn’t as great as it was, and it never will be. Don’t tell me she will always be with me. She won’t. That isn’t how this works. Sure, I can talk to my mom. She may even be listening through the ether, and sometimes I’m almost certain she is, but that isn’t the same thing. That isn’t the same as shopping together at Sephora and splitting an order of chips and guac after. That isn’t the same as her dressing me on my wedding day. Maybe that’s why I don’t want to talk about those things — I don’t want to hear about how she will be there in spirit. It doesn’t make me feel comforted, it makes me feel angry and cheated.
This experience has given me a new perspective on how to support someone who is grieving. It’s okay to say you are sorry. It’s also okay to say that you don’t know what to say. Don’t ask what you can do, just offer to do something. I can tell you that I had lots of well-meaning friends and family members ask what they could do to help and I had no idea what to tell them. I was in shock. I didn’t know what help we needed, I didn’t know what help I wanted. I’d never planned a funeral before. Don’t ask, just do. Bring food. Chances are your friends or loved ones have been living on a diet of fast food and anxiety for weeks. Food is one of the most loving and comforting things you could provide — which is why funerals are chockfull of church-lady casseroles. Do they have dogs? Offer to take them for a walk to burn off some energy and get them out of the way. Clean up the kitchen and wash the towels. Bring coffee. Run errands. Ask if you can do something specific, because I guarantee their brain isn’t functioning at a level that can make that choice for you.
I didn’t realize until Sunday how much I was dreading today. It means one year. I have lived an entire year without my mom and that makes me incredibly sad. It sounds like a long time, and that number will just continue to grow. At some point, I may live more years without than I did with her. That completely breaks my heart. In that respect, I want time to stop, I don’t want to move forward. I don’t want to grow used to a life without her.
On this night last year, there was a brief moment where I was alone with my mom in her room at hospice. She hadn’t been awake in a couple of days, and her breath was labored and raspy. We knew it was coming. Everyone said their goodbyes and slowly filtered out of the room. I refused to leave, so my aunts and uncle left to grab a few things to stay the night too. Suddenly, it was just the two of us. Just me and her at the end just as it was at the beginning. The only words I could muster through my tears were “oh, mama.” I couldn’t tell you the last time I called her that. But sitting there made me feel so helpless. Watching her leave this world is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My aunts and uncle came back and we settled in for one last slumber party. I played some of her favorite music, we shared our favorite memories of her and just like that, the room went quiet. I wasn’t ready, I don’t think you ever are. I had been warned that the last few moments can sound scary, but she simply breathed in and didn’t breathe back out. That was it.
For nine months she lived with extreme pain and smiled through the whole thing. She told everyone she was “embracing the suck,” which was hilarious to me because it’s such a macho and military thing to say, but apropos nonetheless. She didn’t complain much about the chemo pump that she had to wear for two days every other week, even though it made her incredibly sick — she just named it Matilda. She didn’t even complain much about the NG tube that she eventually needed 24/7 — she just said it made her look like Jimmy Durante. She never wanted to be a bother to the nurses, she never really wanted to be fussed over. I know she was just as afraid, heartbroken and angry as we all were, maybe more so, yet she maintained such grace to the very end. It was so quintessentially her to not want to be a bother, even in death. She simply breathed in and didn’t breathe out.
If you are reading this because you also feel like an orphan today, remember that you are not actually alone, despite how it may feel. We are all members of the same club, even if we didn’t ask to be initiated. If you still have a mother to celebrate today, do me a favor? Bite your tongue when she tells you she doesn’t believe in left hand turns, even though she tells you every. single. time. you are in a car with her. Buy her the sappy card with so many verses of poetry that it takes up both inside pages, that’s the card she really wants anyway. Make her brunch, treat her to a pedicure or whatever thing she loves, but doesn’t regularly allow herself. Most importantly, hug her. Really hug her. Not like the quick goodbye you give her on the way out the door after a visit, but the kind you gave her when you were eight years old. We don’t hug our mamas enough when we grow up. Tell her you love her. Really tell her, don’t just write it in the sappy card. Those are the things I wish I could do today, but unfortunately, I ran out of tomorrows.