Two weeks before you died, we curled up in your bed and watched “The Golden Girls.” On the TV across from us, four women huddled around a kitchen table, nibbled cheesecake and laughed fake theatrical laughs. I was too young to lose you, and old enough to sense your going. We never said death, dying, dead. If we spoke them, we’d make them true. Denial can be a life preserver. We preserved hope.
The summer before you died, we walked BWI together, and you whispered something shocking in my ear. At first, I didn’t understand. Travelers crushed around us. And I’ve never been good at walking and talking. You stopped moving. You put your arm around me. You said, “My pancreas rejected. It’s okay. I can live without a pancreas.”
I nodded, like I believed you. We walked toward baggage claim. My vision blurred. The airport looked like something under water.
I’d come home to visit the deathbed of your stepfather, the man I knew as a grandfather. I came home to play Sinatra while he took his last breaths. I came home to whisper it was okay to let go. I came home to bury him in Newark beside his first wife.
You couldn’t get out of bed the day of the funeral. We pretended you were just tired.
A month after cremating you, I marked his first yartzheit.
Your ashes. My God. Do you know what it is to be 21 and hear a package thump on the front stoop, make the sound of a body hitting cement? Do you know what it is to see the address stamped on the box and know your mother is inside that box?
Only, your mother is not merely your mother. She is your first god, first home, your mirror, your map, the blueprint of everything.
And then, one day, your mother is in a black box inside a cardboard box with a crematorium address stamped on the lid. Your mother is dust and splintered bones and sooty grit, a shadow you can never touch.
You remember denial is a life preserver.
Then you carry the box to a bedroom that still smells like your mother. You ignore a hairbrush holding remnants of hair that never went grey. You open a dresser drawer and tuck the box beneath a stack of sweaters. There, a burial.
Seventeen years later, you write before work, at night. Pronouns get confused. You are you. She is you. We are she, her, and me. You do all the mixed-up pronoun things you tell your students not to do. You tangle, untangle, tangle again. You make up for lost time. Grief makes a stern knot you don’t want to untie.
You read shitty self help books that say there’s a finish line for grief, say grieving too long is pathological, say sorrow and love are not proportional. You stop reading these books because they make you suspicious. You are not a pathology. You are devoted.
At a lecture, a famous writer talks about desire. Desire is the engine of literature, he says. What we want never adds up to what we have. All books, he says, are actually about crushes.
So you have a crush on your dead mother. There are worse things. But what would it mean to stop desiring her? Would that make it okay that she is dead?
Who would you be if you didn’t want her alive?
You move through your twenties and thirties without her. You are effective, efficient at steering through life without a mother. You have a solid husband, a good mother-in-law, Google. You can find an answer to any question.
And yet, you delay childbearing because you are afraid to mother without her. Your friends have mothers who watch their grandchildren a few times a week. Still, your friends complain about their mothers to you, and you nod. Because what can you say?
You wonder who you will call in a childcare pinch.
Your sister hires a full-time nanny, manages to juggle a high demand job with graduate school, with two children under the age of five and one on the way.
A nephew has your mother’s eyes and all her facial expressions. A niece has her “whatever” attitude.
One day, your nephew asks to see pictures of your mother. He asks for these photos the same way he asks for Harry Potter Legos — he must have them. But there’s not enough time to show him everything, and you pull out a few photos you know he’s already seen.
You recognize the hunger in his eyes, the downturn of his shoulders when you cannot fulfill his desire to know her.
Still, a ghost grandmother is better than no grandmother at all.
You wish you had something wise or prophetic to say on the second week of May when her birthday and Mother’s Day intersect. For so many years, you say nothing, as if silence can erase her absence.
You graduate college on your second Mother’s Day without her.
You mark major milestones on her birthday, May 10: first day of your first job after college, the day you meet your husband, the day you decide to date him, the day he and you buy your first house together.
You mark all the birthdays she didn’t get: 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65.
And all the birthdays she didn’t see you mark: 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37.
And all the events in her grandchildren’s lives that she didn’t see: brit milah, Hebrew namings, Kindergarten graduation, first steps, first words, first Siddur.
As if by marking, you can somehow take something back. Not her life. But the right to tell the story of your desire. Her desire.
Desire, from the Latin, desiderare, means “long for” and “wish for” and derives from the sadly out of vogue expression “await what the stars will bring.”
She used to sing a song of desire to you, a Karen Carpenter song about dreams coming true, stardust, angels.
When you mark her birthday, you remember this song. You remember the gift each line intones, the burden.
She no longer trails your dreams. But nothing stays gone forever.
She finds her way back to you again and again, always in a different form than what you expected.
You watch, wait, listen.
On her birthday, she used to blow out candles, then tell you to make a silent wish.
You can’t say your wish out loud, she said, because then it won’t come true.
Once you gave her a journal and asked her to write down all her desires. She left every page blank.
You fill in the pages for her. You become every wish ever wanted, every wish she never saw come true.