On the third ring a bored-sounding but polite woman answered the phone. “Dr. Alaska’s office, this is Kay speaking, how may I help you?”
“Hello Kay, my name is Mary and I’m a patient of Dr. Alaska’s, I’d like to make an appointment.”
“It looks like Dr. Alaska doesn’t have an opening until the end of the month. What’s the reason for your appointment?”
“I would like to talk with the doctor about my cancer risk and preventative screening because… because my…” and now I felt awkward because I didn’t need to tell the receptionist a reason and I was wading into T.M.I. territory, but I’d already started to say it so I finished my sentence.
“Because my mom died of cancer recently,” I blurted out.
Kay’s voice softened and she scheduled the appointment for me. Before we hung up she said, “Listen, my mom died seventeen years ago and sometimes it feels like it was yesterday…” She could hear it in my voice, then, that I am still so broken.
“But it does get easier with time. It does,” she insisted. After we both hung up I thought about what Kay had told me, about what we had told each other. It felt good to have her reassurance even though I didn’t know her. I hope it felt good for her to remember her mother and to tell me that she still misses her.
One year ago my mom was feeling really sick and she was about to be given a death sentence. The anniversary of her illness has grabbed my ankle and it’s tugging me down a little. Today I googled “grief anniversary,” because I wanted to hear that I’m in good company and lots of people are struggling eight months after a death, nine months, one year or seventeen.
I clicked on a link and it took me to an excerpt that I’ve read maybe a dozen times since my mom died, but never before that. It was part of Meghan O’Rourke’s “The Long Goodbye.” Meghan’s experience sounds similar to mine—she lost her mom to cancer at the age of thirty-two. I was thirty last December when my mom died. And the things that Meghan says about missing her mom and the way she remembers her, they’re perfect. It’s exactly how I feel. I saw this quote shortly after my mom died and it has really stuck with me:
With my mother’s death the person who brought me into the world left it, a door closing behind her, a line of knowledge binding her body to mine in the old ways. Who else contained me, felt me kick, nursed me? She crosses my mind like an exotic bird flying past the edge of your eye: startling, luminous, lovely, gone.
Meghan describes the mother/daughter connection well–our bodies bound in the old ways, I love that. It’s a bond that I took for granted sometimes when my mom was alive. The four adjectives Meghan uses to describe an errant mom-memory: startling, luminous, lovely, gone. The memories are all of those things. They sneak up and startle, but they are pleasant in nature. I am left with an empty feeling. She’s gone. The memory is bittersweet, but I am always grateful for her presence in my mind.
The other thing I’ve been feeling since my mom died is this recurring disappointment that she isn’t here. It’s as though, on some subconscious level, I expect my mom to reappear and the pain to cease. How could I expect such a thing when I am so reasonable a person? I understand death. I know it is final. How can I actually expect my mom to come back? Meghan describes this feeling in “The Last Goodbye,” and reading it for the first time was surreal. I felt I could have written it myself:
But I still believed she was coming back. Deep down, I felt she would, through some effort of mind, reconstitute herself and appear to me, even as a ghostly form. Grief is not linear, it turns out; it comes in waves, which ebb and subside at unexpected moments.
Grieving is such a strange experience. Mourning my mom has opened my eyes to the brevity and power of the mother/daughter experience. I am crushed because my life with my mom is over, but I have these three beautiful sprouting relationships to nurture. In the recent months I’ve been able to turn my attention back to my own daughters. Our life together is bringing me joy again. I am trying to hold on to that feeling.