Mother’s Day Loss and Love
This year my birthday came less than a month after my mom died. It was harder than I thought it would be and I didn’t know how to “celebrate” the day without feeling so sad. My daughter Annie and I shared a little black humor about it: I said it’s not like we had some big deal birthday tradition that I’m going to miss, it’s just sad to know we’re not even going to talk on the phone so she can tell me why she didn’t send me anything. (One year she sent me a catalog with a few items circled with a post it note on the front where she had written, “I thought you might like these things.”) Annie said, “She would probably say she stopped sending you gifts just for this reason, to prepare you for her death.” It was funny because it sounded like something she might say. What was funnier was that Annie said it and it turns out she is more like my mom than I will ever be.
My mom’s death in January was a shock, but the kind where you know it’s going to happen, but it still doesn’t make any sense. The cancer came on fast — just three months earlier in October she was being treated for pneumonia. In November, she had surgery to relieve the fluid in her lungs and by the end of December the oncologist confirmed her terminal status. Two weeks into the new year, she was transported to a hospice house where she died a couple of days later. On the day she died, I was on a conference call with her doctor, which included my brother Richard, sister Susan, and our cousin Diane. They were in the hallway outside my mom’s room at the hospice house in Florida and I was home in Connecticut. The doctor told us she had between 3–5 days and I remember mentally calculating the earliest flight I could catch. The conversation with the doctor ended, but my brother kept me on the phone as they walked back into her room. I could hear hurried talking and Richard said, “Cindy, she’s gone.” Then, suddenly, there was another voice urging me to say something to her, telling me she would hear me. I didn’t realize it at first, but it was the doctor trying to help me connect with her one last time. Through my shock and tears I told my mom I loved her and I would keep all the love she had for us with me. I said other things, too, but I don’t remember anything else. I was sitting with my husband in my sunny kitchen in Connecticut at the moment my mom left this world.
Throughout the whole illness, the one thing she kept reminding us was that she wasn’t a big fan of pain. Never liked it, never would. Even though we didn’t have a real diagnosis for weeks and weeks, I think she knew her days were numbered. She was on oxygen, which she hated because it made her anxious to think that it might not work somehow. There were other indications that her body was tired and worn out — random swelling, occasional pain, a general achiness and periods of delusion. This wasn’t how she wanted to live. One of her mottoes had always been, “If it isn’t fun, don’t do it.” What she was dealing with was definitely not fun, but I think she hung on because of my Dad. Legally blind and still recovering from a coma a year and a half earlier, he had his own limitations that she was pretty much in charge of managing. When I was in Florida with them during my shift (Richard, Susan and I took turns staying with them since the surgery in November) my mom kept asking, “what’s he going to do?” a reference to what would happen to my dad if she died. I kept answering, “We’ll take care of him.” Sometimes she looked at me with skepticism, as if there was no way I could take on such a job and other times she looked at me as if she was considering the prospect. She was always a little stubborn and definitely liked to have things her way, but after a few weeks, I think she finally believed us and decided she could let go.
And now it’s Mother’s Day. The first Mother’s Day without my mother. For weeks I couldn’t bring myself to look at all the emails that came in urging me to choose something special and significant and expensive for my Mother. I avoided the pastel and glitter card displays in stores and clicked through the abundant ads for floral bouquets online. Anything to do with Mother’s Day underscored the loss of my mom. Like my birthday, it just didn’t seem like a day I wanted to celebrate. Even though there are other mothers in my life. My two daughters are mothers; one of them brand-new this year. To twins. My sister is a mother. I am a mother. I think mothers are great and there should be more than one day to lift up and honor the women who bear and raise children. But this year, it didn’t feel right. My mom is not here anymore. It was just too sad a prospect to consider.
I’m a grown up. I’m almost 60 years old. It’s not like I don’t know that after a certain age, people older than you start dying — and that includes your parents. In the year prior to my mom’s passing, I lost fifteen people from my life through tragic, violent, gradual or sudden deaths. Some of the people were very close to me and others were family members of friends, but it was a barrage of loss that rearranged my ability to process grief. Death bombarded my life and shoved unimaginable situations into my awareness; parents losing children, young children losing parents, spouses and friends and siblings. All gone. I don’t want to say I became inured to loss, because each death was uniquely tragic and intimately crushing. It might be better to say I became saturated with loss. I was in the middle of a huge lagoon of it and was never able to manage to reach the shore.
And then I lost my mom. Shock gets you through the first few weeks so you can tend to such matters as funeral arrangements and thank you notes, but as life goes on and being without your mother takes on normalcy, there’s a tendency to fight it. It can’t be normal that my mom isn’t here, how can that be? Grief is like the rumble of distant thunder. You become aware of it almost unconsciously, in the back of your brain, a signal of sadness. It can just as easily become a downpour you’re drenched in or it move away as imperceptibly as it arrived. Grieving my mom’s presence in the world is like the phantom limb of amputees. It feels like she is here and not just as a memory; it’s like she’s right here.
When I shouted through the phone into an unknown room where my mother lay dying…or dead as far as I know…I promised to keep the love she had given us with me. I think that’s part of the loss I’m feeling now. There is an extra layer, a fine film of love that has been integrated into my life and my actions and my decisions. It makes as much sense to feel that she is always with me as it does to feel the loss of her. Missing her is loving her. Maybe I can celebrate Mother’s Day even as I grieve her, because it’s all part of the same feeling: love.