My mother believed in heaven, not hell. I learned this a few weeks before she died, when I drove her to a dialysis appointment. We knew the end was near, but we both pretended she might live. I felt time closing in on us. There was so much I needed to know. I had no idea where to begin. In the car I blurted out, “Are you afraid to die?”
No. She told me.
As a Jewish woman who came of age in the 1960s, my mother never had a Bat Mitzvah. She could not read Hebrew. She had no clear concept of the afterlife. But she believed hell had been her life on earth. And that is what she said as I drove and cried and watched spring rain drench the windshield of her minivan, a car I’d soon inherit.
She died six weeks after my twenty-first birthday. That morning, my best friend drove me from my D.C. apartment to the house where my mother had lived outside Baltimore. We were both numb with grief, barely able to speak or listen to music. When I saw my mother’s minivan parked outside, I expected to see her appear at the front door, as she did whenever I came home. The door stayed closed, and nausea climbed in my stomach. I could not imagine ever wanting to sleep or eat again. Each step I took felt like a mile.
Truly, I lived on another planet, a world familiar on its surface, but utterly strange at the core. I reread Alice in Wonderland, desperate to find a door leading out of my rabbit hole and back to my mother. I looked for her in other places, too: her red comb that still held strands of her red-brown hair; her pillow that still smelled of her Dove soap; my dreams, where she led me to a house in the middle of a woods, then disappeared.
Jewish custom forbids open caskets, but I sat beside my mother’s coffin the night before her funeral. My grandmother asked that the coffin lid be opened, so that my sister and I could say goodbye to our mother. I kissed her face and forehead, flinching momentarily at their rock-hard firmness. I wanted her to awaken the way princesses did in fairytales, even though I was far too old to believe in magic. I could not believe she was dead. Gone. Forever.
After the funeral, I followed her coffin to the parking lot, then crawled into the hearse. I could not let her go. My grief was raw and pathological, a torment I would not wish on the worst person I knew. A good friend led me away.
My mother died one month before Mother’s Day, which that year occurred two days after her birthday. I cannot remember how I marked either day, nor do I want to.
There are now 14 years between my mother’s death and me. But I always think of her on Mother’s Day. How can I not? Other than my birthday, Mother’s Day is the holiday that most connects me to her, and reminds me of my life on a faraway planet, of the time when I once had a mother, when I once was someone’s daughter.
I remember setting my alarm and waking up before sunrise to make her breakfasts of scrambled eggs and peanut butter toast. My sister and I gave her cards and handmade friendship bracelets, which she’d tie around her ankles. She’d scrunch her whole face into a smile and exclaim, “I’m the luckiest mother in the whole wide world,” before drawing us to her chest in a tight, all consuming hug, the kind of hug we thought would go on forever. She was the luckiest mother in the world, and we were the luckiest girls.
You would think I’d hate Mother’s Day, but the holiday doesn’t rankle me in the ways one might expect. I don’t wake up wild with grief. I might cry, but that’s because Mother’s Day falls on the most high stress time of my working life. It’s a frenzied end-of-semester day for me, a day of grading and dog-walking and rushing to get lunches packed and dinner on the table. This year, I’m able to squeeze in brunch with my sister, and I’m unfathomably grateful for time with her, given her own demands of a full-time career and full-time mothering.
Like my friends who still have their mothers, I’m irritated by the gender stereotypes Mother’s Day embodies, the pinkwashed sentimentality that implies women are delicate and soft and devoted to caretaking. Mother’s Day denies our complexity and renders women like me invisible, since I have neither a mother nor a child.
And yet, I love Mother’s Day, because I loved my mother.
Her laugh and smile and exuberance come back to me on this day, remind me of how important it used to be that I wake up early and thank her, make her feel appreciated and loved. I still feel her presence when I am kind and appreciative, when I go out of my way to help a person who is struggling, when I sit with a person who is staring down a staggering loss.
I will never get to tell my mother how much she meant to me. She will never get to see her legacy live on in me. She will never know her grandchildren, or see the homes her daughters have made, or the flowers I plant in my garden to remember her.
This is how I survive beyond my mother, and how I choose to celebrate Mother’s Day. Even though she cannot see or hear me, even though she exists now only in my memories and choices, I say, “Thank you,” as if she is sitting right here beside me, waiting to pull me to her chest, and remind me how purely I have been loved.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.