Today was the anniversary of my mother's untimely death at only 49 years of age. In the thirteen years since she's been gone, I've reached the point where I can go about this day in a mostly normal way. But she was the first thing I thought of when I woke this morning - interestingly enough, right about the same time I first heard she had died - and she'll be the last thing I think of before I fall asleep tonight. More than a decade after her death, my mother continues to cast a long shadow in my life, a reminder of who I want to be and who I don't.
As far as young deaths go, I guess it was fairly unremarkable. She had a heart attack in her sleep and was long gone by the time her husband woke up. He called just after 7 in the morning to tell me and my response was exactly how you'd imagine a wounded animal in the wild might sound. I wailed. I dropped the phone. I was in shock. The plans for her funeral, the funeral itself, even the next six months are all pretty much a blur. I worked. I parented. I functioned. But I remember almost nothing from this time because the shadow of grief weighed so heavily upon me. In retrospect, I probably would have benefitted from anti-depressants during this time. Maybe I took them; I honestly don't remember. I do remember feeling like I couldn't breathe because every breath became a ragged sob that threatened to tear from my chest and dissolve the facade of 'okayness' that I cultivated during that time. Sure, I teared up pretty frequently back then, but I capped my grief whenever possible because I was afraid it would consume me. I didn't talk about her lest the grief escape. People tried to console me, tried to offer me their sympathy, but I almost always simply nodded or shook my head mutely as the tears welled up in my eyes and spilled down silent cheeks. I couldn't answer them, couldn't talk about her, couldn't open the wellspring of my grief. I spent lots of conversations simply nodding with tear-filled eyes, spent lots of nights at home mindlessly in front of the television in an effort to avoid dealing with other people, spent lots of time sleeping in an effort to capture memories of her in my dreams.
Gradually, at least a year or two later, I realized I didn't think about her every single day. At first I felt guilty about that, but I realized it was good for me to be able to forget about her occasionally. Her shadow haunted me less. The grief I felt became a manageable cloak I wore invisibly on my shoulders. I'd miss her and think of a memory and even smile inwardly on occasion, but I kept those feelings to myself and rarely spoke of her to others since I still didn't trust myself and the wellspring of my emotions. I still thought of myself as a motherless daughter, felt like an orphan even. Some things did get better. I didn't pick up the phone and almost call her out of habit. I didn't look for her when I drove. I didn't sleep so much or cry so much. Still, I'd wrap myself in her bathrobe on occasion and try to remember what she smelled like, what her voice sounded like, how she used to kiss my forehead and smooth my hair long into adulthood. All through these years, her memory still hurt. I was filled with regret about the terrible things I'd said to her and the things I should have said and didn't and all the ways I had failed her as a daughter. I beat myself up over and over at the ways I was less than and still didn't talk about her very much. The memories I had of her were ones I didn't share with others; they belonged only to me. Even when Kelsey would talk about her memories of my mom or ask me questions, I had a hard time. I just didn't trust myself to talk about her and release that shadow, even though it had become a more manageable part of myself. The shadow of my mother's memory comforted me in some strange way; it was a way I was still connected to her.
Finally, around the ten year mark, I found myself able to talk about my mom without automatically tearing up. I could even remember her faults, her shortcomings, without feeling like I was betraying her memory. I would bring her up in casual conversation occasionally, even having some conversations about her with Kelsey. Now, something will happen - either good or bad, big or small - and I will connect it to my mom somehow. Maybe it's a memory of me as a child interacting with her or a memory of her relationship with Kelsey or even a family story that I never experienced but heard about when I was growing up. Regardless of the memory, most of the time now I can smile at whatever it was. I can remember her as the flawed person we all are, and I can move on with my day. Rarely do I shed tears for her anymore, but when I do, it's almost always because I wish she could hear or see or experience something in mine or Kelsey's life that I know would have brought her joy. The shadow of my mother's death will always be part of me, but these days its length and darkness are just part of who I am. I don't define myself as motherless anymore; that's simply part of who I am,
part of the baggage of my fragile life that I carry.
Today, I can share with you that my mother loved me more deeply and fully and intensely than anyone has or ever will love me. She was my biggest cheerleader, my one woman fan club, my constant supporter. She bragged on me and babied me and blessed me with a giving heart. Her voice, her guiding principles are like a mantra in my head, and I often find myself using her words as an example these days when I teach or talk to Kelsey. She was naive, and selfless, and giving to a fault. In fact, those were the same qualities that unfortunately made her suffer so much in her life. My mom was emotionally fragile, easily victimized by the greed and callousness of others, and ultimately someone who sought to medicate her pain. I'm not sure my mother was ever truly happy, and that hurts me on a level that I cannot effectively put into words. Even in that, though, she is a lesson to me. As the calendar creeps closer for me to reach the age when she died, I remind myself that I am not my mother and will not necessarily die young like she did. Her memory reminds me to take risks and savor the moment and try to eke out every bit of joy that this life offers. Her memory helps me to be strong when I feel weak and sad, forces me to act rather than to be passive, and urges me to cultivate a life that I love every day. Her memory is the long shadow cheering me on each time I try something new, experience some new joy, and treat others with kindness. That long shadow is something I wouldn't trade for the world.