Still No Word from the Quantum Realm: Thoughts on Missing My Mom, 20 Years Later

Last week, I went to see ANT MAN & THE WASP, the second installment in Paul Rudd’s comedy-cum-superhero morsel of the Marvel movie smorgasbord. Though Rudd’s ageless, precocious charm is the feature’s headline attraction, he doesn’t appear until several scenes in. Instead, I watched as the film’s other leads, a father and daughter team of scientists, discussed a wholly unfamiliar (to me, at least) chapter of their backstory. The woman’s mother (the father’s wife) had died when the woman was just a girl. Mom had sacrificed herself to the Quantum Realm and for decades had been considered dead. The father and daughter had soldiered on without her, building lives and a business and changing the world with their ever-improving shrinking rays and magic matchbox cars. They missed her, but she was gone.

Moments into the film, the father looks seriously at his only daughter, now a woman. “But what if…” the father begins to ask.

“Goddammit,” I whispered to myself from my fourth-row seat. I knew where he was going with this.

“What if Mom were still alive in the Quantum Realm? What if we could get her back?”

Bringing a loved one back from the dead. It’s the ultimate human yearning, is it not? To be paid back in joy for all the grief we’ve spent in mourning. But I’m not crazy about back-from-the-dead plotlines. It’s like watching someone on television cook and eat a decadent chocolate torte. Looks pretty amazing, but there’s none for me. Of course, while I can make my own chocolate torte at home, I have little hope of ever getting my mother back from the Quantum Realm.

This is not a movie review of ANT MAN & THE WASP. This is a reflection on a deeply complicated personal anniversary. On this day in 1998, my mom died. It was about a month before I would begin my sophomore year of high school. 20 years ago.

On a recent trip home to Chicago, I flipped through a memorial photo album that rests, mostly undisturbed, on a dresser in my dad’s room. I’d made the album myself in the days after she died, filling it with photos of my mom and our family though the years. This fact alone says a lot about my teen grieving process: I skipped it (or, rather, saved it for later), switching straight into a survival mode resembling acceptance. On the album’s inside cover, I’d scrawled her date of death in my aspirationally elegant teen cursive. Rereading it a few weeks back, I was stunned by the date I’d recorded: July 21.

If you’d asked me a few months ago, I’d have told you that mom had died on July 29. Isn’t that weird? For multiple decades, I’d misremembered the ugliest date of my life. (The same kind of grief-fog addled my dad’s memory for a number of years too; without the landmark of grade school to anchor the year, he thought for a while that he knew for sure mom had died in 1999, just a few months shy of her 50th birthday.) It seemed unlikely that I’d written down the wrong date at the time, but I wasn’t sure I fully trusted my teenage self as a record keeper.

Back home in LA [side note: how odd, to use the same word, “home,” to describe two distinct places. So I’m coming home from being at home? Adulthood in a nutshell. Both places comfortable, neither quite complete.], I decided to look up my mother’s obituary, which would have the date on it for sure. But it’s the Internet, so naturally, in my quest for hard facts, I came across some real hard fiction.

When I Googled Mom’s name, I easily found the obit. Most of the search results were about me or other Flaxbarts — it’s a unique last name, so there were no surprises. Well, one surprise. Just a few items from the top, a headline read:

“Lynn Flaxbart, 68 — Chesterton, IN”

It was a MyLife.com page. For my mother. MyLife, a site straight out of a bad Black Mirror episode, a site that did not exist when she passed away, had a listing for my mother as if she’d never died at all. What’s more, she had a rating: 4.5 out of 5. Not too shabby for a dead lady.

The page contained little information, but the headline alone sent me reeling. I often wonder about the ways in which my life would be different if I still had her, or if I’d had her for longer. Would we have fought more as I got older? (Probably) Would she have passively pressured me into dating more? (Maybe, but probably not until college.) Would I have…oh, I could go on like this indefinitely. Seeing that “68” brought on a different feeling altogether. Instead of thinking about who I might’ve been, I was suddenly struck with the thought of who she might’ve been.

Mom didn’t have a gray hair on her head before she started chemo. She said that when it turned gray, she’d grow it long again, like it had been until I was born. I can picture that version of her so clearly: spangled in silver and turquoise Santa Fe Chic, complaining about the hotter summers, concerned about how many books my dad’s read about global warming. Obsessing over Roxane Gay and driving to Purdue to audit one of her classes. Writing angry letters to senators in her head, but emailing them to me instead, asking “too harsh, or not harsh enough?” Maybe she’d be into Overwatch or Fortnite (little known fact about my mom: she used cheat codes to beat Doom on PC in, like, 1995). Maybe she’d get sick of the Midwest and follow me to California. Maybe she’d try being Paleo for three months.

It’s beautiful, and worth considering. But when imagination time is over, I’m left alone again, and I don’t know whether what hurts is the lack of her RIGHT NOW or the cumulative lack of her for more than half my life. I have a hunch it’s the latter — I no longer spend much time crying because I miss her, but tears will start to come when I think about what she has missed.

I emailed MyLife right away. It’s a notoriously difficult site to be removed from, as they request that you prove your identity by sending them a copy of your driver’s license (!). After stating my case clearly, I added just a touch of color:

“I don’t have a driver’s license to upload because, as I mentioned, despite the fact that she has a respectable 4.5 star rating as a human being on your Orwellian website, my mother has been DEAD FOR TWENTY YEARS.”

I got a response fairly quickly. “Dear Lynn,” it began. Not promising.

They told me the page would be removed in 7–10 days, including removal from all search engines. That was almost a month ago and as of yesterday, the page was still up. Despite having only one rating, Mom is now down to 3.75 stars. That’s what you get for sending your living relatives to complain, I guess.

Are we talkin’ “Fair” for a living person, or what?

I have spent many nights the past 20 years wading through dreams in which I had my mother back, only to wake up in this same reality, the one that goes on changing without her. They aren’t even good dreams — in them, I’m always asking her where she’s been, or trying to figure out how the hell I’m going to explain her return to our friends, or how I will catch her up on all she’s missed. I awake from these dreams in a tangle. They are unpleasant, except for the part where I get to be with my mother. If I could control my dreams, I’d stop worrying and arguing and questioning and explaining. Hell, if I could control my dreams, I’d ride my science rocket into the Quantum Realm just to have a quick chat with Mom about what’s new in snack foods. But I’ve never been a lucid dreamer.

On the bright side: I am here, in waking life, in this realm. I live and breathe and remember and record. I have no illusions about how fleeting life is, and if that knowledge is torture, it is also grace. When the grief I’d outrun for three years caught up to me in college, I found myself slogging through an unfamiliar, fearsome, gray version of the world that felt so permanent at times. But it was not permanent, and that simple lesson (though it took a very long time and a great many repeats to learn) has brought me to a deep appreciation of the small beauties and frequent miracles of this world (yes, even this world, so full of scary news, of rising panic, of uncertain futures, really is overflowing with grace and beauty).

And yes, I would trade this lesson in a heartbeat for Lynn Flaxbart, 68. But I can’t. So I will take joy in the way that walking through an unexpected and uncontrollable fire can refine us into something stronger, more resplendent. In that sense, we CAN be paid back in joy for our grief.

I could fill a library on the topic of my mother — I could write about my long journey back to myself; about the hard, good work my dad has done to keep Mom’s memory alive where so many parents would have buried the pain so they didn’t have to face it; about the ways in which I inadvertently grew into her mannerisms even after she was no longer around to model them for me. Some of that will probably make its way to paper, or to my computer, over the next 20 years. But one of the many things I have in common with my mom — the International, broomstick-skirt-wearing, Doom-playing, Midwestern smalltown feminist — is a diversity of interests. And I don’t think she’d want me to be the woman who only writes about her mother.

Then again, I imagine that somewhere out there in the Quantum Realm, Lynn Flaxbart is just a little bit proud that I have so much to say.