My mother died 25 years ago yesterday, when she was 62. I realized this fact sometime last night, and it astounds me.
First I was astounded because I remembered how, at the time, I thought that she was appropriately old enough when she died (whatever that means—another thing I now realize is how insolent it sounds to suggest anyone is ever old enough) when she died after a lengthy illness. I thought her life had been long and full, when in fact it ended unjustly soon. At the time (and I cringe to write this now), I thought I was the only one who was young. And there’s that insolence again.
Which leads me to the second astounding thing: My mother has missed most of my life, much more of it than she saw. I thought of this because when I think about my mother I still think like a child. In other words, I think of her in terms of me. I’m guessing most people are this way when they think of their mothers, but I don’t know.
I thought of how my children are her only three grandchildren she never met. I thought how she wouldn’t recognize me. (Although maybe she would recognize my legs. Because my legs weirdly have become her legs—the very same ones she had when I was a child. One day I woke up and my legs were gone. And in their place were hers!) She wouldn’t recognize any of the life I’m now living, or most of the people I love.
It’s sad to miss someone you love. Our family misses my nephew, who died unexpectedly this spring. My sister-in-law misses her brother, who died 8 years ago (I was surprised to realize) on the same day my mother had passed away 17 years earlier.
But I’ve come to realize that the worst part isn’t the looking backward at the life you had and lost. The worst part is the present, when the missing comes with wonder: Wonder what we’d be doing now? Wonder whether he’d laugh at that as much as I did? Where would he be sitting at the table? Where would she stand in this photo?
I like to think—when I wonder about that present with my mother—that she and I would have it good. That my daughter and I would take her to lunch. That she’d come along to pick up my son at the train station when he rolls in from college for the summer, and that he’d bend to hug his grandmother and lift her feet off the ground and dangle her there for a few thrilling seconds, like he does me. That she’d knit us all something matching and goofy for Christmas, and she’d sleep over the night before. But of course that’s only because I get to choose, in my thoughts, what I’m missing.
The truth is that what I’m more likely missing is the stuff that my friends whose mothers are still around tell me about: How their mothers often drive them nuts. How quickly an extended visit gets annoying. How they are embarrassingly clueless on Facebook. How some of them judge when they comment how they wouldn’t live their lives that way, but if that’s the way you kids do it now, then I guess you make your own choices.
(Most of them don’t complain to be mean—they love their mothers. But that’s the way complex relationships over decades can go. You’d think that time would grind the rough edges smooth. But, oddly enough, it often leaves behind shards that are surprisingly prickly. I suppose some children can truly be friends with their parents. But even when that’s mostly true, there’s something about one camp that perpetually confounds the other.)
I was the youngest of four children, born when my mom was almost 40, and my three older siblings were well into the swing of growing up. I sometimes used to feel—playing in the backyard (my mother at the sink in the house), or riding alone in the back of a car headed god knows where—that she was already missing a lot of my life.
Always I felt loved. There were times I felt adored. But there were also times I thought I rooted my parents in a chapter of their lives they were ready to close before they could. I sometimes felt that being the caboose in the family wasn’t as darling as it sounds. Some days, my mom was the waiting car at a railroad crossing, tapping the dash in anticipation of the end of an improbably long train. When the caboose isn’t as much celebrated as it passes with some relief – thank god that’s over! – so you can go about your day.
Possibly she didn’t feel that way at all. Possibly she would read this with some measure of dismay: Oh no, sweetie! I never felt that way! Possibly I’m being a little self-indulgent here. But that’s the thing about wondering: I can’t ever ask. So there’s that part about missing the present more than anything.
People tell me I will see her again—the devout like to think that we’ll all see the beings we’ve loved and lost. I hear this and picture them, the whole flock of them, my nephew, your brother, my son, my mom—all beaming at me in a ragged half-circle on the other side of something. Waiting.
But I don’t know if I believe that. And when I really think about it, I start to worry about logistics: Will the group include close family only or friends? What if other people who died that day need greeting committees, too? Will they need to make a choice in some sort of afterlife lottery? And I worry about the meeting itself: If I hate surprise parties in this life, how will I possibly compose the necessary thrill of meeting this whole group at once, all over again?
I’m kidding, of course, in a way. But you can see how pretty soon the whole thing begins to feel improbable. And I decide to consider it as I might, say, scratching a winning lottery ticket: If it happens, great. But I’m not counting on it.
And so I do what we all do. I live my life—the one she doesn’t recognize, the one she’ll never know. I’m astounded at the time, as it goes by. I think of how love rolls downhill more easily than it rolls up. Every day I roll the love she gave me further down, and I wonder about questions—unasked, unanswered, but still good questions.