Another Motherless Day
By Mary Cella
My mom always hated Mother’s Day. I remember her sitting at the kitchen table, quiet and melancholy, on a day designated to celebrate her. I often wondered why a silly Hallmark holiday still made her so sad even though it had been decades since her own mother, barely 34-years-old, had died just weeks after her fourth birthday.
Once my mom told me it was only after she gave birth to my brother that she began to understand what she’d missed, that she finally began to mourn the loss she couldn’t even remember experiencing. Toward the end of her life she started going to therapy. After a session during which she had recounted the details of her childhood, her therapist asked, “Who nurtured you?” She didn’t have an answer.
Now that she’s dead I know that, no matter how old she was, Mother’s Day’s casual assumption that everyone not only has a mother, but one worth celebrating, served as a cruel reminder of everything she’d never had.
It’s often said that bad things are only supposed to happen to other people, but when my mother was diagnosed with cancer exactly a week after my 13th birthday, I wasn’t surprised. I had always been keenly aware that not everyone got to have a mother, that not every mother got to watch her children grow up. Some part of me had always been expecting this bad thing.
What no one expected was my mother’s survival. She had a melanoma in her rectum: remarkably rare, undeniably funny and almost certainly deadly. But survive she did, after a year of Interferon that left her weak and exhausted, gave her psoriasis and arthritis that would plague her for the rest of her life. I remember only snippets of that year: hushed sobbing behind closed doors, whispering about surgeries in the back of the school bus with my sister, army crawling across the floor to watch “Felicity” after my bedtime. I was old enough to understand everything that was happening, young enough to remain hopeful.
When my mom was diagnosed with a different kind of cancer almost 10 years later, I was still young enough to be hopeful even though the situation wasn’t. This time it was her uterus — which had given her the greatest joy of her life, had transformed her from a motherless girl into a mother of three — that had rebelled.
It was March when she called to tell me. I was 1,000 miles away in Atlanta and had just gotten home from my new job at CNN. I sat on the couch in my new apartment as she told me about her diagnosis, lisping through the night guard she wore to prevent her from grinding her teeth, laughing because I’d always made fun of the way she talked when she wore it. I wear one too now.
She had a hysterectomy. I went home and watched through a crack in the door as my father calmly shaved her head, hushing her gently as she cried. When we all got together for the Fourth of July she was still doing well, her head wrapped in a scarf, her cheeks rosy, her smile wide. Like a miracle, the chemo worked. Until it didn’t. By the end of that month, malignant cells were barreling through her abdomen like wildfire, sucking up fluid, swelling her belly, destroying her body.
My mother’s goal was to make it to my brother’s wedding in Atlanta in November. In September, she stopped treatment. Her friends threw a wedding together in my hometown in Massachusetts with a week’s notice. Only a few people came to the church that day, but everyone cried — except her. She held her head up high and proud, completely focused. She had been living to see this moment and so she would see it. Tears would not obscure her vision. Six days later she died.
I was there, holding her hand, or maybe touching her shoulder. I don’t remember exactly, but I know my fingers were on her body the moment it became a corpse. Four days later, we went back to the church where my brother was married for her funeral.
Two days after that I went to New York City to interview for a job. As I walked through the streets, I thought about the first time I had gone to New York with my mother. I was 17. I knew my mom had gone to college just outside of New York, had spent her weekends in the city, but as I watched her charge confidently through the streets, I realized for the first time how impossible it is to ever know someone else completely. She’d had a whole life before she had me. I knew who she had become, but no matter how many stories she told me, no matter how many experiences we shared, no matter how much time we spent together, I’d never really know who she’d been.
The last moment we spent together, just the two of us, was before my brother’s wedding. It was one of those perfect late summer days particular to New England. She asked me to do her makeup. I settled her on a stool in the bathroom, the early afternoon light streaming through the windows, and got to work as she stared straight ahead at her ghostly reflection. We were silent — because she was too tired to talk, because I didn’t want to cry and ruin the moment, because we both knew it was the end, and there was just nothing to say about that.
When I finished, she thanked me over and over. I was happy I’d been able to help, to do one small thing to make up for all the ways I’d mistreated her. For screening her calls, shutting her out, taking her for granted. For the time I’d instigated a fight over egg whites. For the time I’d given her a look so cutting while we were performing a service at church that she’d cried as soon as we got home. For the moment two weeks earlier, when I’d finally gone home for the first time since the Fourth of July and failed to suppress a look of horror when she’d walked into the room with the help of a walker, her body so warped she looked like a pregnant skeleton. All these small injustices, still so recent, because I was young, because I thought I’d have time to make it up to her, to undo all the stupid wrongs I’d done.
Once my mother and I went to see a high school play. A friend of mine, a girl whose mother had died years earlier, was the star. On the way home, my mom cried. She cried for my friend: because her mother would never know who she had become, who she would become. But I knew she was also crying for herself — because she had recently confronted the idea that she might never see her children become who we are, who we’re going to be, because her mother didn’t know who she had become and, perhaps most of all, because she’d never had the chance to see her mother become anyone.
I never got to see my mom become a grandmother or grow old. I didn’t get to know everything about her — but I got to know her. I had the opportunity to wrong her, to do all the cruel things daughters do to mothers when they’re young then spend their adulthoods making up for. I hurt her because she was the closest person to me and therefore the easiest to hurt. Even my guilt is a privilege.
The last Mother’s Day before she died, I got my mom a card. She was sick but doing well. Still I felt compelled to write her a note telling her that if she didn’t survive, I would be OK. I didn’t know if it was true, but I knew I needed to tell her, to let her know that she didn’t need to worry about me. I still worry about myself sometimes, but I am OK. I’m OK because I had her, because she showed me how to overcome a seemingly insurmountable loss.
Now I hate Mother’s Day. I hate it because it reminds me of who I lost, of everything we’ll never see each other do. But it also reminds me that I have what my mother never did: memories.
For a long time, I was worried I’d only be able to picture my mom as she looked at the end of her life. Now when I think of her, she’s radiant and healthy, her cheeks flushed, her hair thick and full. I can see her falling asleep on the couch during a Patriots game, her cup of tea perfectly balanced on her lap, never once spilling. I can hear her laughing so hard she snorts. I can imagine her hands, the skin soft and almost rubbery, draped tightly over thick knuckles. Sometimes I notice that my hands are becoming more like hers it makes me happy, grateful that I can recognize the similarities, that almost eight years after I last felt them I still know her hands almost as well as my own.