Why the Cicada Breeding Cycle and the Death of My Mother Will Always Be Intertwined

The roar of both is impossible to ignore — all I can do is wait for them to eventually release their hold

Laurahankin
Moms Don’t Have Time to Write

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Illustration by Rebecca de Araujo

Every seventeen years, a massive brood of cicadas descends on the Washington, D.C., area and wreaks havoc. The last time it happened, I was in high school and my mother was dying. People talked about how overwhelming the bugs were — disgusting, noisy creatures who chased us all indoors before disappearing back underground. But in my memory, the cicadas barely registered. What was a biblical plague, next to losing her?

Grief changes over the course of seventeen years. Something that once seemed like it would never let me go grew smaller, until I was able to keep it mostly out of sight. Sadness began to level me only on rare occasions, like Mother’s Day or the anniversary of her death.

But this year, I am planning a wedding. And as the masses of cicadas started climbing up from under the ground, my grief reemerged, too.

Wise people say that you never truly stop mourning those you’ve loved and lost. I thought I knew what that meant. I pictured telling my grandchildren someday all about my mother while a single tear traced down my cheek.

Instead, my grief exploded. Forget the acceptance promised by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages. I found myself weeping constantly, uncontrollably. I fell apart the day I bought a wedding dress, tears and snot collecting in my mask in the middle of the beautiful showroom. (What a glistening bride-to-be!)

When I sent a photo of myself in the dress to a friend, she texted back about how it was nice to see “teary, happy Laura,” but I came home and lay catatonic on the couch until bedtime. On Zoom, my fiancé and I talked with a potential photographer. She asked if either of us thought we might get emotional on the Big Day, and I immediately started to sob. (She handled it very well and got the job.)

I imagine the version of my wedding this fall where my mother is alive. She draws my friends to her with her warmth. She lets my dad give the majority of their joint toast because she hates public speaking — the one time she had a line in her school play, she said it so softly no one could hear. But when she does speak, her words are perfect. She’s thrilled I get to marry a man I love so much, and she loves him, too.

When I imagine the real version, I worry that I will not be able to get a single word of my vows out. The guests at our small outdoor ceremony will shift uncomfortably in their seats while I howl on the ground over how very wrong it feels to have a wedding without a mother.

Before the bugs came out, our neighbor mentioned that she was worried about having to work during the height of cicada season. What if the deafening buzz bled through her windows, a cacophony in the background of all her important video meetings, making her somehow less capable, less present? We laughed about it. Surely it couldn’t be that bad.

But that’s exactly how it feels right now: impossible to ignore. Out of control. A little bit disgusting. I can close the curtains and put in headphones, but that won’t make the roar disappear. All I can do is wait it out.

Eventually, both the cicadas and the grief will release their hold. These cyclical things come around like this every once in a while — persistent, annoying, and semi-terrifying — but they do not kill you, and then they go away. We can almost forget how they temporarily paralyzed us, until the next time they return.

Along with the frustration, there is some wonder. Scientists and bug-lovers have been thrilled by the reemergence. How lucky we are, they say, that once every seventeen years, we get to experience this natural miracle, these cicadas who have evolved in such a funny, fascinating way, who flock out in such large numbers that the predators who want to destroy them can’t possibly eat them all.

And how lucky I am, to have had the mother I did. Grief comes from love, and what a wonder, what a miracle, to have loved so much.

Laura Hankin is the author of Happy & You Know It (2020) and A Special Place for Women (2021). She has written for publications like McSweeney’s and HuffPost, while her musical comedy has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and more. She splits her time between NYC, where she has performed off-Broadway, and Washington D.C., where she once fell off a treadmill twice in one day.

This essay is part of our Moms Don’t Have Time to Grieve column.

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Laurahankin
Moms Don’t Have Time to Write

I’m the author of A SPECIAL PLACE FOR WOMEN and HAPPY & YOU KNOW IT