I belong to a club I never wanted to join.
My mother died last year.
Although she suffered from physical and emotional issues for years and the parent child roles were often reversed, the profound loss I feel is for a distant time, when she comforted me like no one else could.
I was a kid who got homesick at sleepovers and at 2 am, ashamed and embarrassed, would have to wake my friends parents to call my Mom to come pick me up. We called it “the feeling.” I wasn’t missing home, I was missing her. It was an unbearable longing to be near her. As long as I was close to her, nothing bad could happen. Scary thoughts vanished when she walked into my room at night.
She read the newspaper cover to cover everyday and knew everything that was happening in the world. There wasn’t a question she couldn’t answer. She could fix any problem. A perfectionist, her life was meticulously organized. Tasks were executed slowly and with precision. I found a book of notes recording dinner parties she had thrown. The menus were written out in her beautiful cursive handwriting. Cheese balls, quiche, Swedish meatballs, fondue ….it was the 70’s after all.
She was a supreme researcher, before the internet. She could hunt down the most esoteric item or find someone to repair something that had long become obsolete. She was the one I came to in tears when I messed up an art project or waited till the last minute to write a book report due the next day. In elementary school, she stayed up late with me and helped me write papers on mammals and the human body. She drew beautifully and did the majority of work on many dioramas and art projects which I took credit for.
After everyone was asleep she would stay up late into the night balancing her check book to the penny and working on her endless list of tasks she hadn’t finished that day. How could I understand that she compulsively kept busy to suppress the vat of anxiety that was simmering and would years later boil over until she could no longer control it? Till it would take over her life. Of course I didn’t know any of this at the time. All I knew was she was omnipotent in my tiny world.
I look back at photos of her at my age and she looked so sophisticated and elegant in her long batik hostess dresses and black pulled back hair in a tight bun. Always striving for simplicity, she never pierced her ears and only wore the simplest of jewelry. I’d lie on her bed and watch her get ready to go out for the evening as she meticulously went through her ritual of applying make up, brushing her long black hair and then finely spraying a light mist of Chanel 5. She was everything I hoped to be when I grew up.
The sadness when my mother first died was so deep. I could feel it in my bones. I remember thinking, I have never been alive with out my mother. From the moment I was born she was there. It felt like the molecules in my body were going haywire because they could sense the person I was most connected to was dead. Although I was now a mother myself and a capable, productive independent woman, who had long since relied on her, the mothership was gone and I felt like I was drifting into a dark abyss untethered.
Untethered, was exactly how I felt. No matter how prepared you think you are, no matter how relieved you are that your parent is no longer scared or suffering, no matter how much you have thought about this day, you are completely unprepared for how it feels.
It is uncharted territory on the map, you have never been here. You have no idea what it will feel like.
At bookstores I used to walk by the section with books dealing with the loss of a parent like I used to skip over the chapters about “complications” when I was pregnant, with the quiet relief of knowing “that’s not my life.”
Till the day she died, I carried around a lucky gift few people had. My parents were alive and still married to each other. This reward, which I had done nothing to earn, was with me always. I had this foundation, that was rare and special. And no matter what happened to me it was indestructible. It defined me. It was who I was. Like being short, having brown hair and brown eyes, good at planning trips, funny ( I think) and bad at math. I am all those things and that will never change. And then that’s not who you are any more. A parents’ death so profoundly undermines your sense of who you are. Suddenly who you are is irreversibly changed.
Which begs the questions what else can change that you took for granted? Well of course, your own mortality. It is an unspoken understanding that our parents die before us. Once a parent dies the invisible gate that seemed so far away just got close, unlocked and swung open. That safety net that you weren’t aware of, but was always floating beneath you is gone. Now what? Anything is possible. In your child mind which runs the show a lot of the time, at least my show, your parents guarded the gate that was way off in the future. And then suddenly it isn’t.
I look back now and feel ashamed at how simplistically I viewed the death of friends parents when they had died and had been suffering. Oh you must be so relieved they aren’t in pain anymore….I would say. Or when someone’s parents died quickly I would say, at least it happened fast…..what an idiot I was. I had no idea that at that moment the grief is so raw and deep that I was being ridiculously callous and clueless.
My life is so busy, that days can go by and I won’t think of her and then the sadness can rise out of nowhere, often with no trigger. It lays dormant and then erupts and I have to stop myself from sobbing if am not alone, or on a plane as I was last week. Suddenly I am remembering my mothers long bony fingers holding mine. And the realization that I will never feel them again can make me cry.
Things I know that can trigger the sadness: when my kids do something funny or accomplish something, I can’t call her anymore and tell her. Your parents are the only people in the world you can show off your kids too. They have a vested interest in wanting your kids to be wonderful and unique and clever. No one else will ever feel that way. Your friends with out kids, kind of, but not really.
And when I am traveling and having adventures I want to call her so badly and tell her and try to distract her and cheer her up. Or when something rotten happens and I feel mistreated, she was the most sympathetic of anyone. My pragmatic father would invite me to see both sides of the situation and calmly ask me how I may have contributed to the misunderstanding. But not my Mother. She never took the other person’s side. If I was mad at someone then she was mad at them too. And If I did something courageous, she being a shy person, would be more proud of me than anybody else.
My days are busting with the responsibilities of running a business, making decisions, scheduling, navigating a marriage, raising three teenage boys AND amidst all this commotion I miss her so much. I long to have my mother back for just a moment. I wake up from dreams where I find a phone and dial her number and she answers. I’d give almost anything to turn back time. Back to her bedroom where she was often lying in bed in her pale pink flannel pajamas. And although I am in my 50’s, and am shocked by my grey hairs and the lines and brown spots appearing on my skin I am a little girl inside and I would give anything to lie next to my Mommy and hold her for just one more minute.
Lydia Miller is a mother of three boys and runs an Inn and farm on Orcas Island, Washington.