This has been, to date, the most difficult essay I’ve ever written. Usually, I can bang one out in a day or two. A week, even. But writing about the death of my mother has been a series of stops and starts, deletions and revisions. How do you write about something that feels as if it happened yesterday and not three months ago? How do you distill grief and heartache in a few paragraphs?
It’s hard to get out of bed, most days. There’s a heaviness in the air, and it’s hard to breathe. Sometimes the grief paralyzes me. I’ll lay in bed and stare at the ceiling, silently willing myself to get up and start the day.
“Mommy, I wanna see grandma.” The toddler always makes this demand casually, usually as I’m picking him up from school or fixing him dinner. Sometimes he’ll ask looking up from his tablet while watching one of his favorite shows. Three months later and I still can’t find the words to tell him she’s gone for good. “We can’t see her right now,” I’ll say, knowing that in a few minutes he’ll forget he asked.
For two months, I’ve been staring at a cardboard box. It is roughly 5×7, and it’s blue. It contains what is left of the woman who taught me everything from tying my shoes to picking greens. Her last name is misspelled on the side. The blue box sits on a shelf in my bedroom, amid books and clothes. Boxes filled with her personal effects crowd the hallway of my apartment. Furniture from her oversized studio take up my dining room. Pictures from her photo albums are strewn across a table in the living room, the same table where I ate dinner until I went away to college. The “Thank You” cards I bought a week after her memorial are in a bag on my desk, untouched.
Every morning I’m greeted by these reminders, and I summon the strength to navigate around them. I will occasionally glance at the blown-up picture of her, perched on a barstool wearing a black dress and a demure smile. It’s tucked in the corner of my living room, near the window. I replay our last conversations while I’m working on an assignment, or look at the blue box as I’m brushing my teeth.
I am drowning in her.
Last month, at the suggestion of my sister-in-law, my husband bought me a copy of Hope Edelman’s Motherless Daughters. Edelman, a mother-loss survivor herself, interviewed hundreds of other women who had lost their mothers at various points in their lives. While the book is geared towards women whose mothers died when they were young, it has helped me a great deal. I no longer try to suffocate Grief with a pillow, or stab it with a fork; I hold on tight and ride the wave until the tide settles, until the calm returns. This isn’t a process, Edelman says, but a life-altering event.
“Expecting grief to run a quick, predictable course leads us to over-pathologize the process, making us think of grief as something that, with proper treatment, can and should be fixed. As a result, we begin to view normal responses as indicators of serious distress,” Edelman writes. “The woman who cries every Christmas when she thinks of her mother—is she really a woman who can’t let go of the past, or just a woman who continues to miss her mother’s warmth and cheer at holiday time?”
One of the last hospital visits, days before she passed in mid-June, taunts me. We’re sitting on the couch and it seems like she’s back to her old self. I am brimming with hope. I’m telling her of the plan to move her into our apartment, to take care of her the way she took care of grandma years ago. She’s excited at the prospect of living with her grandson, of us being under the same roof again. I wondered if I could handle caring for her and a four year-old boy. I had support, but those people had lives and responsibilities of their own. If she fell while my husband was at work, I’d have to find a way to pick her up. I’d be responsible for her diet, her health, her overall well-being. The enormity of what lay ahead frightened me, but this is what I wanted, for her to live out the last years of her life surrounded by love and family, not in a place I no longer trusted. In the Nicholas Sparks’ version of her last days, she quietly slips away as she sits in her favorite chair, catching a final view of the lakefront from our highrise as she goes.
She asked me to stay a little longer. I couldn’t. An appointment to enroll her grandson in Pre-K had been scheduled for weeks. I remember the feeling of relief I had as I left her room, the feeling that everything was going to be okay. Three days later I’d be standing over her body, clasping her hand as the warmth evaporated from her body, as blood spilled from her nose. The third attempt to revive her after another cardiac arrest had done the most damage. In my head, I’d had years to prepare for that moment, years of hospital visits and grave diagnoses. But no amount of preparation will ever soften the blow.
Even as I watched my mother’s health deteriorate in recent years, I still held fast to a glimmer of hope that somehow, someway things would turn around. Maybe she’d get bitten by a radioactive spider, regain full mobility, and take up crime-fighting. It didn’t hit me until hours before she passed, as I sat in the hospital chapel after visiting her, that she was literally in the process of dying. But that’s how denial works. Though it’s taken some time to accept, I realize now that she left when she was ready, and that I knew my mother well enough to know that when she was ready to go, there was nothing you could do to stop her.
Edelman says that most motherless daughters my age process the loss differently than our younger counterparts because we’re able to confront it with a relatively intact personality and more mature coping skills than a teen or a child. “Losing a parent at this time violates fewer assumptions she has about her future,” she explains. “A motherless woman continues to renegotiate her relationship with her mother throughout her life, changing her perceptions and trying to fnd a place for each new image as it develops.”
In my case, my mother’s death has forced to reexamine choices made and opportunities given. That she died in my 37th year, the same age she gave birth to me, is not lost on me. It signifies rebirth. Renewal. A chance to accomplish the things she wanted for me, all the hopes and dreams she’d share throughout the course of my life. It is her legacy that I carry with me wherever I go, and I am grateful that I was loved by such a remarkable woman.
Jamie Nesbitt Golden is a journalist originally from Chicago.