It’s seeing the pictures that’s the hardest.
You think I’d know better by now, but year after year, I make the mistake of thinking I’ll be fine when Mother’s Day comes around and everyone posts photos of their mom.
But I’m not. I never am.
For most people, holidays like Mother’s Day (and Thanksgiving and Christmas) are a celebration and time to be with family.
For me, they’re a reminder of what I lost. The family I don’t have.
Especially Mother’s Day.
And that’s because next Friday will mark 25 years since my mom passed away.
I was two-years-old at the time, which means I was too young to understand what was happening. You don’t have a concept of death when you’re two-years-old. At best, you just know that someone who used to be around isn’t anymore.
I have no memories of my mother, nor do I really remember what the few years after that were like. The truth is, having a parent pass away at that age is a strange experience. Because you’re always aware of the void, but you’re never quite sure what to do with it. Not having a mom is the only life I’ve ever known. The only memories I have are of life without her.
I’ve watched my dad and grandmother and the rest of my family grieve her loss over the years and in most cases, haven’t known what to do. I’ve tried to comfort them and understand as best I can, but it’s been difficult. Their grief has never been my grief. How can you grieve what you don’t remember? How can you understand the gaping hole in you and your family’s lives when you don’t see it as a hole?
These are questions I’ve wrestled with over the years. For a long time, I thought I was okay and that my mother’s passing didn’t really affect me. Whenever it inevitably came up for the first time with a friend, or on a date, or with co-workers, I tried to re-assure the other person that I was fine.
No one really knows what to say to the news that your mother died of leukemia when you were two years old, so I just tried to fill the awkward silence and move onto a new topic. My go-to response was to say that I was lucky to be so young when it happened, because it probably spared me a lot of pain.
And there’s truth to that. Had I been even five or six, her death would’ve absolutely devastated me. Because I was two, it didn’t. And for many years, I was content to think that I was okay and that my mother’s loss didn’t really impact my life.
But the truth is, it did. Of course it did.
A few years after my mom passed, my dad got re-married. He had been lonely and he wanted to provide me with a mother figure. Both are imminently understandable impulses. But unfortunately for us, he chose to marry a rather unpleasant woman who caused us both a lot of pain over the next several years before they got divorced.
The other consequences of my mother’s death are less tangible and harder to track over the years. Without going down a psychological rabbit hole, some of the insecurities and sub-conscious fears I display in relationships can likely be traced back to the passing of my mother and the worst possible choice to try and replace her.
Then there’s the fact that growing up, I was always convinced I was going to die before I turned 18. It’s dark, I know. But to be clear, I never wanted to die. I just assumed it was going to happen. Death had long since left its imprint on my life when it took my mother, and so it seemed reasonable to assume it would come for me.
This belief in my own soon-to-occur death was so strong that I remember being completely flabbergasted when it came time to apply for college, because I never thought I’d live that long. But I did. And more than ten years later, I’m still here.
My mother’s passing also affected my relationship with my dad. He’s been an absolutely incredible father, but because it was just me and him for most of my life, it’s meant that more is expected on both ends. He had to step up in the aftermath of my mother’s death and his later divorce, and he did. He often likes to say that he had to fill the role of both parents, and he did so admirably. He was ever-present. And as a young kid, I loved that. We were inseparable.
But then I became a moody, anti-social, self-conscious teenager and ever-present became ever-annoying. This led me to become fiercely independent. I was never rebellious and I never got in trouble, but I was also never particularly present with my dad. During high school, I resented being told what to do and often withdrew to my own cocoon, and then I went off to college and became even more independent.
Fast forward ten years. I’m more patient, a little more mature, and a lot less dumb, but things are more or less the same in my dynamic with my dad, with one big caveat:
The balance of responsibility has shifted and dramatically so.
My dad has spent most of 2019 in the hospital. Because I have no mother and because she passed before they could have a second child, I have no brothers or sisters. This puts the responsibility to help my dad squarely on my shoulders. To that end, I’ve had to move home to New Jersey for the time being to help deal with the fallout of my father’s illness. I have help from my uncle thankfully, but by and large, it’s my responsibility to bear.
This situation has been difficult, to say the least. Aside from his medical issues, I’m also juggling his finances and helping keep his small business afloat, which has been no picnic.
But what’s been the hardest about this hasn’t been the amount of responsibility I’ve had to take on. It’s the amount of independence I’ve had to give up.
If you know me, you know that I fiercely value my independence and resent feeling like I have no control over my life.
There’s a privilege and a naïveté that comes with that sort of attitude, and I can’t deny that I’ve been guilty of both of those things. But I’ve also realized they’re also the direct result of my childhood (yeah, we’re going to play armchair psychologist for a second, so bear with me).
I had no control over my mother’s passing or my dad’s decision to re-marry and I had very little say over my middle school or high school years. So for me, adulthood was a blessing. It was my time to do what I wanted and live the life I wanted.
That’s not to say I became some selfish Neanderthal, it’s just to say that control and independence were everything to me. They allowed me to move across the country to Los Angeles, enter and have relative success in the notoriously brutal entertainment industry, and then pivot without consequence to another line of work last year. Control and independence were the things that I valued the most.
And now, dealing with my dad’s illness, it feels like I have neither. But after everything he’s done for me, this is the least I can do for him. He raised me in lieu of a mother figure, I love him, and it’s the right thing to do.
As we’ve inched closer to Mother’s Day, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my mom has loomed large over my life and how surreal that is considering she’s been gone for the vast majority of it. But it’s the truth — so much of what’s happened in my life can be traced back to what happened 25 years ago this week.
I may not remember her, but her absence is remembered.
For years I rejected that my mother’s passing had a significant affect on me and pretended I was okay. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to understand the void she left and its impact on my life. And in rare moments, I’ve begun to grieve that loss.
But Mother’s Day is still a struggle for me.
Seeing other people’s photographs of their mothers makes me sad. Sometimes, it even makes me feel bitter and resentful.
We all know that no one’s life is as neat and tidy and happy as it appears to be online, but even with that knowledge in hand, I can’t help but feel like every photo and heartwarming story is a shot across the bow at those of us who lost our moms.
I know it’s not. I do. And I genuinely wish for everyone out there to have a Happy Mother’s Day.
I don’t know if I will, but I’m going to try to. I’m going to do my best to avoid social media tomorrow. I’m going to spend the day with my dad, watching playoff basketball, and doing my best to remember how lucky I am to have had him as a dad.
In the moments that I get sad or gloomy thinking about my mother’s death, I’m going to try and take comfort in the fact that it’s not a bad thing that her absence still impacts my life.
It’s proof that she was here. That she lived. That she mattered.