My mother dreamed of climbing Mount St. Helens. She’d never been to Washington State, but once glimpsed the Wasatch Range from a Salt Lake City hotel room.
“They’re capped in snow, like in the movies!” She told me on the phone one morning, before leaving to run in the U.S. Transplant Olympics. Breathy and energetic, her voice sounded like that of a teenager.
At 43, my mother was thriving after an experimental kidney and pancreas transplant saved her life two years prior. Once barely able to walk around the block, she participated in two U.S. Transplant Olympics held in Salt Lake City, Utah and Columbus, Ohio. Her transplant freed her to dream of all the possibilities restored health could hold.
She was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in 1966, before the widespread use of insulin pumps and blood-glucose meters. Although she once aspired to be a flight attendant and travel the world, my mother relinquished those ambitions when her insulin reactions became unpredictable. She chose a career in nursing and worked in healthcare until disabling organ failure forced her to leave her job.
After she left the workforce, I came home from school to find my mother watching Days of Our Lives or Another World, a Diet Coke in her hand, and a Dean Koontz novel spread out on our coffee table. At 10, 11, and 12, I didn’t understand my mother’s malaise. I hated her sweat suits and pallor. I longed to see her dust her eyes in coppery powder and sweep pink gloss across her lips.
I could not know then that my mother’s illness forced me to face my own mortality. The failure of her body, by extension, represented the inevitable demise of my own. I couldn’t understand how terrified she must have been to come so close to death in her thirties, not far from the age I am now.
Nor could I know the grief she felt, as she watched friends ascend their own careers and have enough energy to meet the daily demands of mothering. While her peers attended meetings and baked PTA cupcakes, my mother languished in our living room, caught in the snare of daytime TV.
Her organ transplant changed all that by offering an unexpected midlife reprieve. There were no limits to what she could do, and she wanted to do it all: travel, climb mountains, see her daughters graduate college, become a grandmother. Even when her transplanted organs failed midway through my junior year of college, my mother still clung to her dreams. She ordered luggage for far-off future trips and bought Harry Potter books for a hypothetical grandchild. Done with soap operas, she watched outdoor adventure television.
Maybe her behaviors represented denial, rather than hope. As my mother progressed on dialysis, death began to look like the most merciful path. But she had the imagination to dream of better days in the midst of her worst ones, and she taught me to do the same.
Six weeks after her death, I found myself on a plane to Glasgow, Scotland, traveling to work at a newspaper I’d never visited and live with a person I’d never met, in a city I’d never set foot in. I should have felt terrified, but I’d already experienced the worst thing that had ever happened to me. What could be worse than losing my mother? I embarked on the kind of adventures she’d always dreamed of having.
For a long time, I followed this path of living a mix of her dreams and mine, of doing what my mother could not do because she died, and I lived. I fantasized about climbing mountains that once beckoned her –– Mt. St. Helens and Everest. I even took her last name. I told myself I was honoring her legacy, and that is true. But I was also bargaining, offering up my life for hers, as if such a trade could resurrect her.
I don’t know when I accepted my mother’s death as final. I know acceptance came quietly, after years of reckoning.
People like to tell me my mother is proud of me, or that she’s watching over me. I do not accept these sentiments, but I also do not begrudge them. It is true that my mother is dead. It is also true that the best parts of her live on through me.
This time of year, when spring changes to summer, I remember how I found her sunbathing in our backyard one morning. She wore her black bathing suit. Her skin smelled of baby oil and coconut. A book rested against her chest.
What are you doing? I wanted to know. At six, I was full of questions. Why is the sky blue? Where does God live? Does death hurt? My mother pulled me to her chest, let me burrow into her shoulder, and began to read a story about a girl who rescued a pig.
I took the book inside our house and read the whole thing without stopping. I didn’t cry when Charlotte died after spinning the sack that held her eggs, or after her babies crawled out of the sack and into a world without their mother.
I understood Charlotte had died, but she wasn’t gone. She was the oldest story her children remembered, their first experience of sacrifice and kindness, a foundational current moving through their lives.
I no longer believe in sky gods or resurrection or clear categories of afterlife. I do believe in the force that was my mother, the power of her kindness and her dreams, her immortal love.