Category Archives: grief

Mother’s Day 2017

Every English doctoral program I applied to rejected me. This is not because I’m incapable of succeeding in a PhD program. I had the necessary GPA, GRE scores, writing samples, and recommendations. I had multiple publications in my discipline, well beyond what most M.A. student achieve. I did not have the right connections. I did not have the right pedigree, and these barriers were reinforced to me throughout my program discernment process.

I remember visiting Fordham University in August 2009.  That summer, my husband spent two weeks driving across the country with me, so that I could meet with faculty and students at PhD programs that caught my interest. Carl has more class privilege than I do. He knew exactly how the system worked, and he did for me what many parents do for their children. He became the champion of my college visits.

Fordham University was our last stop. There, I met a female graduate whose first question was, “Where did you go to school?”

This might seem like an innocent question, but in academia few questions of this nature are truly innocent. Unlike her, I had no Ivy League schools on my CV. I suspected her question had more to do with scoping out my pedigree than genuine interest. I’ve had so many experiences like this one in academia that I’ve stopped being generous in how I read another person’s interest in my “background.” In my head, I say the metta prayer before I respond. (May you be happy. May you be well.)

Another professor at Fordham refused to meet with me altogether. Actually, no faculty at the institution agreed to meet with me. I’m not sure why I persisted on visiting this university when it was so obviously a poor fit.

My mother was the first person who taught me I deserved to pursue my ambitions, no matter how far out they seemed. Perhaps I went to satisfy her. Perhaps I went because I have never been one to give up on myself.

The Ivy League grad student eventually determined she liked me enough to invite me to lunch at McDonalds, but I declined. The highlight of my visit was my husband showing up with donuts, then driving us out of the Bronx.

The following winter I began receiving rejection letters. The trail followed me into spring. I cried each morning when I woke up and before I went to sleep. I cried in the shower. I cried in the back room of the Writing Center where I worked. I cried on the phone to my friend Caleb, as I burned my dinner.

By May, I was so disillusioned by academia that I didn’t attend my M.A. graduation. I never received my hood. A few months later, Carl and I moved to Maryland and I found an adjunct job at a community college.

This job restored my faith in higher education. This job reconnected me to myself and to my mother. This job saved me.

***

I don’t like to think about who I would be now if I’d been accepted by even one of those PhD programs. I don’t want to think of myself as a person who actually cares about where another person has gone to school. I don’t want to be a person who confuses so-called pedigree with talent. I don’t want to be a person who confuses class privilege with ability.

I know I would not have an exceptionally rewarding teaching career in higher education had I pursued a PhD. This is because the PhD would have prepared me for a career at institutions that do not operate out of the same foundational mission of community colleges.

Community colleges offer open access to higher education for everyone. They educate people like me, people like my mother, people who have disabilities, chronic illnesses, and real financial struggles. Community colleges eliminate barriers, whereas my experience with four-year institutions has been the opposite.

A former English professor I once knew liked to talk about gatekeeping in academia. In other words, he pressured faculty to weed out students they perceived as not belonging in college.

My mother would have been one of those students who was weeded out. Her juvenile diabetes impacted her cognitive development. She was hospitalized during formative times in her secondary education. She never attended a four-year institution, and she was conditioned to believe that she was not smart enough for one.

Let me be the first person to tell you that my mother was the smartest person I have ever known. She’s been dead for 15 years, and I am still living off her wisdom. Through me, my students are still living off her wisdom too. But I’ll get to that later.

My mother attended community college after separating from my father. She failed multiple courses. She was leaving a bad marriage. She had a chronic illness and two babies at home. She had zero support. Failure, unfortunately, was the inevitable conclusion of her semester.

I am afraid she equated her failure to a lack of intelligence, not a lack of resources. I am afraid she believed she deserved to fail.

It took her ten years to go back. At this point, she was disabled from juvenile diabetes and awaiting an organ transplant. But she completed her degree. At this point, my sister and I were watching. She knew she couldn’t fail.

We didn’t attend her graduation. I don’t know if it was because she was too sick or ashamed. She certainly did not brag about attending community college, even though this decision radically transformed her life and mine.

Hers is the only degree I will ever hang in my office.

***

My teaching semester ended on Thursday. I hate goodbyes. I cried every day last week. A few times, I caught myself tearing up on the way into class and I’d have to take a sip of water to keep from losing it altogether. These were happy tears. These were exhausted tears, sad tears.

This week is always the hardest one in my professional life. It’s the week where my mother’s birthday and Mother’s Day collide. It’s the week when I have zero energy left and am running on pure adrenaline. It’s the week when an academic year reaches its natural conclusion, and goodbyes cannot be avoided.

In my creative writing class, we had readings this week. I listened to each of my students read from short stories, poems or essays they’d spent an entire semester crafting. At the end of each class, I read from my work.

I always worry about sharing my writing with students. My work is deeply vulnerable. My work reveals me as flawed, imperfect. The woman I am on the page is the woman I am in life –– and she is different.

The woman I am on the page dreams about eating her mother’s ashes. She ignores the pleas of a hungry animal because she cannot bear to be needed by anyone. She runs away from her family, her mother’s home. She runs toward her own life.

By revealing my own imperfection or vulnerability, I hope I give others permission to do the same. When I read about my mother, I bring her into my classroom in a way that’s visible. Her presence, while profound in my teaching, is often invisible to my students, the people who benefit most from the way she mothered me. In my classrooms, there are no weeds. Only flowers. My mother taught me how to see them.

***

This morning, my sixteenth Mother’s Day without my mother, I’ve awakened to streams of social media posts that I initially feared.

There are lists that begin with questions like, “How long has it been since you last called your mother?” (More than 15 years … can’t remember the sound of her voice.)

There are the mother-daughter pics. There are the mother-baby pics. There are young mother pics. There are old mother pics. I’ve yet to see a dying mother pic.

The dying mother, the dead mother, the absent mother are not celebrated on this day. Nor are the childless women, the motherless women.

Yesterday, a fellow motherless daughter announced that she’d take a break from social media today. I wish I could, but I am by nature an observer. Even as I am in pain, I am also curious about the source of that pain. I am curious about who I am as a result of this pain.

Just as I know I’d be a different person if I’d gotten into one of those doctoral programs, I know I’d be a different person if my mother hadn’t been sick, hadn’t died. I suspect I’d be a shallow person, the kind of person who might care about pedigree. I think I’d be a person the woman I am now would not like. I might be a person who is afraid of vulnerability, who sees it as a weakness.

I am glad I am a different person. I will never be glad my mother died.

This blog, which today is exactly one-year-old (happy birthday!) began on Mother’s Day 2016. It began as a place for me to document pain, to document what it means for a young woman to live without a mother, what it meant to live with a sick and disabled mother, and the thousand ways in which my dead mother has never truly left my life.

The thing about grief is that our dead stick around. They are with us even when we cannot see them, even when we wish them away. My mother is not an angel or a ghost. But she inhabits me like breath, like blood. This blog began as a way to free her and keep her close.

Thank you for reading.

Mom & Me

You Should Frame This

Guest Post by Holly Aldrich

When she started hospice, my mother chose to go home rather than getting her care in the hospital. It sounded nicer, she said. Cozy. She was an optimist, even as her besieged body sunk her to the rude depths of these options. I was 27 and terrified and my mother had brain cancer. I was ready to throw myself at any shred of familiarity hiding in the bleak clinical narrative of her discharge paperwork. I convinced myself that we would be okay if we just went home. I tried to silence the insistent bleakness of words like malignant and terminal and palliative, because that is what she taught me to do.

I still had a lot to learn about the expert gaslighting of death, how it can use benign words and glossy pamphlets and fake smiles to lull you along. How tumors can grow slowly at first, and so can coups. But as mother and daughter, we soon found ourselves unsettled and bewildered, subjects of a strange new establishment. Home was no longer home.

Here is what I mean: Close your eyes and picture your bed. You know its shape and its place in your room, its small tactile histories. Feel your limbs weighting the mattress. Notice the particular scents of skin and sweat and sleep. Imagine the way your linens look when you wake in the morning, their customary jumble. See the way the light slants through your window. Now put on your most comfortable outfit. The touch of the fabric on your body, the way it knows you, how it outlines your place in the world, is perfect. Answer your everyday hunger and fill your mouth with your favorite food. The flavors dance. Delight in the textures, the pageant of spices and seasonings. Be there, in that sensory nest of bed and clothes and food.

Now rip the nest apart, piece by modest piece, and replace it with a clinical model pumped out by Big Med. When my mother came home, there was a huge sledge of a hospital bed with metal guardrails and a touchy remote for adjustments, stacks of adult diapers, a hoard of orange medicine bottles, and gowns with ties in the back. An oxygen tank hulked in the corner. For meals, there were big gray trays and children’s sippy cups. Staff began bustling through on their rounds, taking temperatures and scribbling notes about pain levels and possible UTIs.

I clung to the hope that none of it was real, like it was some peculiar game of Hospital. We would try out the accessories for a few days, buzz the bed up and down just for kicks, play nurse with the pills, and then my mother would become my mother again. She would ease up from the bed, pull on her customary jeans and tee shirt, and walk into the kitchen to make a cup of instant coffee and get back to normal. Her hair would grow back, her steroid-puffed limbs would smooth out, and the ugly tumors would slink from her skull and disappear. She would be 55, and healthy, and unremarkably alive. Everything would be fine.

That same day, I caught her gazing at me with the monk-like forbearance that was becoming so customary with her. Her eyes protruded from the steroids, but they weren’t manic. They were still calm and brown and warm. “It’s weird to think that I’ll never wear real clothes again,” she observed softly. And that was when I knew, with a sudden lurch in my stomach. None of this was a game. She was going to spend the rest of her life lying in a hospital bed, swaddled in diapers.

Until she died.

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Until she died, and I was left here. Without her. Without my tether to goodness and compassion and love, but somehow still here, floating in the world like a tiny piece of thread.

As much as I squirmed against this reality, I had no way of changing it. I was helpless to prevent the tumors from growing. But I knew from some fierce internal place of fundamental justice that I could not let her spend the rest of her life in the generic gowns from the hospital. No way in hell. The greenish one was the color of a swamp, and the other was coverall blue. Their pattern was essentially the textile equivalent of institutional linoleum floor tile, soured with the antiseptic smell of the hospital. They reminded me of a hostage huddling away from life. And that kind of apathy was simply not her.

My mother was an observer, a modern Hestia of the hearth minding the connection between home aesthetics and feelings. Color, texture, and form held meditative significance for her, especially in fabrics and furnishings.  When she was growing up in Chicago her father owned an antiques shop. Some of her fondest memories, she told me, were of accompanying him on trips to track down new items for resale. Weekend treasure hunts, she called them.

She sewed most of her own clothes in high school, and in later years she made my Halloween costume dreams come true with the same rickety seventies Singer. I was Tinkerbelle, Ariel, a medieval princess, and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  My junior high years were stereotypically anguished, but she got onboard. She gamely stitched getups for a bloody bride, a mad butcher, and a dead Victorian maidservant. As labor-intensive as they were for the busy mother of two kids with disabilities, those costumes were also evidence of impressive skill, a sharp eye for detail, and genuine maternal love. They proved her belief that all of my feelings and fancies should be honored.

Our 1920s Tudor bungalow was my mother’s sphere, and she always honored its harmonious soul. One of her only personal indulgences was a pricy subscription to American Bungalow magazine. Issues came in the mail four times a year, and she spent hours wandering the rooms on their pages. I can still picture her in the comfy armchair in our living room. Sometimes she got excited and called me over, pointing out the turn of a stately wooden bureau or the pattern of a tablecloth. These things mattered to her. They spoke to some sense of balance in her own soul.

Making her face death in tasteless hospital garments seemed like a needlessly cruel cosmic joke. It was beyond the fraying edges of my tolerance.

I also suspect that, layered beneath my understanding of my mother’s sensibilities, a lot of my attitude toward the hospital gowns had to do with shoes.

See, on the first day of hospice, I was wearing blue and white running shoes with rubberized treads and soft mesh construction. They were the latest in the long line of similar shoes. I have a disability called cerebral palsy, and I wear orthotic braces for support and range of motion. Knee-high plastic supports with Velcro straps and metal buckles, they amp my shoe size from 6 to 10, and any shoes I wear have to accommodate their width and the inch of foam lifts boosting my shorter left leg. I have become adept at honing in on comfort and durability. I track down the grandma shoes sitting plush and quiet in the back of the store, while pointy stiletto heels and chic flats preen on the display shelves. I am a master of practicality.

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And yet my shoe history is far from tragic. I can recall a long succession of well-loved footwear. I was the proud owner of baby pink high-tops with black trim, soft brown loafers with moccasin trim, classic saddle shoes, purple suede oxfords with a fun-to-rub embossed logo, and bright red leather pioneer-style boots. The boots were my personal favorite, and I felt invincible and sassy when I wore them.

All of those shoes were special to me not just because they were cute, but because they were an indication of my mother’s dedication to me, and what she knew I deserved. Finding those shoes was a monumental effort. Every new pair of orthotics was slightly, maddeningly, different than the last, and there was no easy way to find shoes to fit them.

So we pumped ourselves up for a trip to the shoe store, determined to find a good pair no matter how long it might take. We spent hours hunkering down in the aisles, wrestling with tongues and laces, taking wobbly test trips, squishing in lifts and taking them out, and remaining alert to any pressure or pinching.

Our trips were an anthropological study in the range of reactions to my braces, a constant and visible accessory in the outfitting of my life with a disability. Some salespeople were cheerily overzealous. Manufacturing caring expressions, they offered to help with adjusting my braces or wedging on a stubborn pair of shoes. They came from back rooms bearing measuring devices, shoe horns, and their own orthotic-friendly suggestions. Some pretended we didn’t exist, avoiding eye contact from the moment we walked through the door.

Other people wondered about my braces, too. Children stared and asked questions while their mothers vice-gripped their arms and answered with measured words. We either got strained smiles because it was “just so great” that we were there, or evil eyes for basically conducting grisly foot surgery next to the Keds.

Even staff sometimes asked us to move to a more secluded corner. This was for our own convenience, allegedly, but it was also a way to keep us hidden away. My mother always maintained that we were just fine where we were. When salespeople tentatively suggested that we might have better luck in stores carrying “special” shoes, she fired back that we wanted these shoes. I was entitled to the same shoes as everybody else, thank you very much.

She was talking about shoes, but she was also telling me something. You are important, she was saying, so take the time to find the things that feel like you. Remember, my daughter, that you are entitled to beauty and comfort every day. You deserve the same things as everybody else. Be persistent. Never be ashamed of who you are or the life that you live. If people have a problem with your disability, with your body, with you, then it is their problem, not yours. You do not have to hold their filth.

There is nothing wrong with you.

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My perspective on these messages evolved over the years, but they shifted sharply into focus against the bland backdrop of those hospital gowns. That evening, after my mother had fallen asleep, I started Googling. After rejecting overpriced patterned options and depressingly tasteful neutral tones, I stumbled upon a cheery Etsy shop owned by a geriatric nursing assistant.

I smiled when I saw the cute fabrics and perky colors of the gowns, already thinking fondly of the owner making them for her clients. Whoever she was, she was using her time and energy to stitch together swathes of brightness against banality. She was a seamstress warrior fighting the encroachments of bedpans, medicine spoons, and Miralax. I silently thanked her for her courageous compassion and added two gowns to my cart – one in purple paisley and one in jewel-toned floral.

When the gowns arrived in the mail, the tingle of happy anticipation that came with simply touching the lumpy white package was almost startling, a fairy tale magic stone glinting up from the grit of our days. I watched my mother’s face as I tore it open and pulled out the gowns.

For one wild moment, the magic stone worked. The cancer was a beanstalk we could scale and the fear of her death was a giant we could slay. That moment was gold. Her eyes lit up, and her mouth made a small O. The fabric was beautiful. She loved the color. She would feel so much better wearing them. The next day, when her assistant, Dolly, came to change her into her freshly-washed new gown, she started up all over again.

When she was finally clothed in her purple paisley, she was radiant. She kept touching the edges with her cancer-clumsy fingers and a little smile hitched the corner of her lips. And even though her face was swollen and shiny and her hair was nothing more than baby bird fuzz, she was somehow much more like herself again.

In that color, I saw her on our front porch nestling purple mums into a pot of dirt. I saw her on Christmas Eve, the rainbow lights of our tree twinkling off her favorite amethyst pendant. I saw her settling a plum-colored chenille pillow against the back of the sofa, then stepping back to admire her tidy living room. I saw her. She was still there. I could tell that she felt it, too.

The gowns did not change everything, of course. They did not stop the uncontrollable seizures or loss of motor control or pain. They did not keep her from weeping on bad days. They did not vanquish the ugly words and exhaustion and resentment of a family rapidly losing its center. Some days I was not a giant killer. I was nothing more than a daughter-shaped pile of ash and shit and memories, the Little Match Girl with her desperate flares against the dark.

But those flares mattered, so I kept up my orders from Etsy. She watched as I scrolled through the listings and then she made the final pick.

Every few weeks, a new gown or two came in the mail. Those days were not perfect, but they had at least a frisson of magic. The gowns assured a smile, a moment of appraisal, and a sense that life could still be exciting. Sometimes, in the middle of reading to her or feeding her a snack or asking how she was feeling, I caught her gazing at her gown with that same little smile. When her nurses came, she asked for their advice about what to wear next, and she loved telling the story of how her daughter had ordered the gowns especially for her. “Aren’t they beautiful?” she asked. “Holly got those for me.”

New gowns sometimes garnered embarrassingly sentimental praise, especially as her illness and medication turned her into someone softer, more emotionally porous. One particular gown was white with a pattern of flowers, butterflies, hearts, and birds. When she saw it, tears came to her eyes, and she couldn’t stop touching it. “This is like a work of art, Holly,” she breathed. “You should frame this so that you can keep it nice.” When I tried to convince her that I didn’t need to frame it because she was going to wear it, she couldn’t stop saying how lucky she was. I told her I was the lucky one, but I don’t think she believed me. It was a touching and bittersweet moment, but it was quickly sucked into the ocean of her illness. Later, after she was gone, it would resurface.

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If the beginning of hospice is a no-nonsense medical takeover, the end is a beloved house falling to ruin. It goes like this: One day you wake up and the air is filled with the stench of spoiled milk and bad meat because the refrigerator went bust overnight. Moldy water makes the floor slick. You should care, you should get up and clean, but all your energy has sapped away. And besides, you aren’t even hungry.

The next day you discover that the toilet clogged up and sewage flooded everywhere. It’s brown and stinking in the bathroom, but also in the living room. There is something wormy and acid green wiggling on the couch. Plump gray bugs crawl out of your favorite armchair, the place where you always used to read, but you could never concentrate on a book now.

Maybe you are a little bit hungry? There are still some things in the kitchen cabinets. A can of tomato soup with a Best Before date from 1998. A re-jarred quantity of dark green dried herbs with the word “Sage” on the cap in black Sharpie. The handwriting is yours, from before your letters got shaky and misshapen. An open box of multigrain crackers with the corner chewed off. In the shadows you see strange, obese rats with elephant skin. No, not really hungry at all.

And then the power goes out altogether. You are left in the dark, and everything smells rotten, and you can’t see or move. What if something happens? How will you charge your phone? Where is your phone, anyway, and could you even manage the technical map of buttons and screens? You don’t even know who you would call, or why, so it doesn’t matter. You just want to sleep.

And then someone touches you, so gently. Someone pulls soft fabric over your body. Someone takes your hand, and someone begins to read. From very far away, you hear a story about a girl and a pig and a spider.

You don’t really understand the words, but you are sure that the story is about love.

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Her last gown arrived just a few days before she died. She was starting to lose her appetite altogether and she spent more and more time sleeping. Talking was an effort. But she often rallied for Dolly and her nurses, as if she wanted to put all of her remaining energy toward being a good patient.

As usual, Dolly clucked over the new addition to her wardrobe. It was ocean blue, with an opulent array of Hawaiian hibiscus and vines. “I love it,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m going on vacation.”

Aloha.

Maybe it was an innocent comment, but I suddenly remembered reading about how people nearing the end of life sometimes talk about going away on a trip, or needing to get ready to leave. A chill flickered up my spine even as I smiled and gripped her hand. “You’re right,” I said. “It does. You look gorgeous.” She smiled her trembly smile, the one that looked like a sideways J on the unparalyzed side of her face. “You know, Holly,” she said, “These gowns have made all the difference.” All I could do was protest dumbly and blink back the brine of tears.

She was the one who had made a difference for me. That old cliché. But of course she was.

She died a few days later, in the early morning hours of a Wednesday in late May. She was wearing her favorite lavender paisley gown. Her face in death was like a blurry photograph of a long-ago relative. She was a stranger until I looked closer, and then familiar features began to emerge. The slope of her nose. The curve of her eyelids. The shape of her lips. I kissed her and touched her face.

When her body was gone the nurse on duty said, “You did a great job, you know. You did the hardest job you will ever have to do.” I felt in my bones that she must be right. What could possibly be worse than watching the most loving and wonderful person in my life sicken and die?

The months after her death were barren, and I soon realized that their sterile drip was going to be worse than the months I had just survived. There was no more magic. It wasn’t that I was clinging to idealized nostalgia. I was just stuck. If there is a place where nothing shines, I was there. I woke up not knowing what to do without her presence in the world, and I longed for something – anything – to reconnect us. I wanted to make her toast with butter and jam and feed her Jell-O. I wanted to talk to her about what she was like in college. I wanted to bring her medicine. I wanted to read her Charlotte’s Web. I wanted to discuss her excrement, if it meant hearing her voice and seeing her chest rise and fall and touching her skin. I wanted to do anything to show her I cared. I just wanted her.

I could no longer order new gowns for her, but I kept the old ones. I just couldn’t bring myself to throw them away. In purples and pinks and blues and greens, there she was, smiling at me. “Hello, my little pumpernickel,” I heard her say. “I love you.”

A family friend is a quilter, so now the gowns are stitched together and folded at the foot of my childhood bed. Deceased Mother Quilt has never been on my wish list, let me be clear. In some ways, I can’t help but think of it as a shroud. Those gowns clothed my mother’s body when it was aching and messy and ridden with the cells that would eventually take her away from me. Two of them clothed her body after death. But those gowns also clothed her in dignity. She taught me from childhood about maintaining grace and gratitude even when fear seems easier.

With plastic and metal on my legs and this soft quilt on my bed, I am living our shared history. I am the barest thread unfurling in the space between us. Most days I still falter.

But I am still here, tending that space, because that is what she taught me to do.

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Holly Aldrich is a disability services professional working in higher education. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her amazing cat, Gracie. She is an introvert, a listener, and a disability rights advocate. Her mom, Meg Aldrich, died of brain cancer in 2014. She will always be her mother’s daughter. You can contact her at hmaldrich@gmail.com.

“You Should Frame This” first appeared at Entropy. 

After You Died

We cremated you. Without a will, or any written instructions, this was a difficult decision to make. I wasn’t sure of your desires, but I believed my sister, who said she recalled your final wishes were to be fully released from your captor body. So I signed my name on a piece of paper the day after you died. Your funeral would be the next day, as per Jewish custom. Your cremation horrified me, but not because it bucked tradition. I could not bear the image of your body burned to a cinder, your ashes mine alone to scatter. Still, you would have laughed at the funeral director. Instead of mom, he called you mother. Very Norman Bates. Had you been there, we would have giggled until our stomachs ached.

The other night I told my husband I felt like I have lived two lives, the one before you died and the one after. We were both falling asleep, and I can’t remember what he said back to me but I think it was, “You have lived two lives.” He has only known me in my second life. He never knew me in my first life, as a person with a mother. He never knew you. But he has carried the weight of your absence with me for the past thirteen years I have known him. He has never once told me to get over it. He has never told me to be a person other than who I am. We met on your birthday, by the way. You’d been dead two years by then.

Around that time, I took in my first stray. He was a black tomcat, like the one you used to have before I was born. He appeared near my apartment in the Louisiana delta. At first, I didn’t want him. But my sister, who was visiting, forced me to adopt the cat. She put her hands on her hips the way she did when we were kids and played “Business Women.” (You should remember she was always the boss and I was always the employee.) She convinced me I could take care of something else again, that I could stand to be needed. So I adopted him that very afternoon. He opened the heaviest door I shuttered after you died, the one marked LOVE.

It felt wrong at first, to love beyond you. But the moment I started, I couldn’t stop. I have four rescues now. No child. For a long time, I was afraid to become a mother, afraid to lose a child the same way I lost you. I was well past 30 when I realized losing you taught me I could bear anything. Losing you taught me not to withhold love. Fingers crossed, I’ll give you a grandchild in the next year or two. Maybe twins :-).

By the way, you are already a grandmother. I know: You look like you could be my sister! But your other daughter already has two sons and a daughter. The eldest looks exactly like you. He makes all your most hilarious facial expressions. Like you, he loves music, loves to sing. He’s particularly fond of The Beach Boys & Billy Joel. His sister has a thing for Taylor Swift. You should hear her sing “Firework.” It’s really something. The youngest isn’t talking yet, but he has the chubbiest thighs we’ve ever seen. If you ever had the chance to squeeze them, you’d never let go.

When I awoke this morning, I remembered the morning you died. I was the same age as many of my students are now. No wrinkles then. No grey hair. At first, I mourned the big things, such as how you would not be at my college graduation –– on Mother’s Day that year. Ugh. But I felt your absence in the small things, how there was no one to tell me to be home by 10 p.m. or to complain that I’d used all the hot water AGAIN. I missed you most in the mornings, that time when we used to sip coffee and read the newspaper. I still miss you in the mornings. This is when I resurrect write about you.

Today is an anniversary, but not the kind that requires flowers or chocolate. Today you are fifteen years dead. My sister will likely light a candle for you, say Kaddish. She has been so good about honoring you on the terms of your faith. I will go to my Spin class, grade papers, prep lessons, steal an ordinary day from the impossible shadow of your absence.

After you died, I didn’t think I could go on. I didn’t want to go on. But here I am, missing you as much as I did on my first day without you. Only now, I can balance the unbearable loss of you on my head, walk beneath it without sinking.

‘Beauty and the Beast’ & Other Tales We Tell

A savior complex is at the heart of most fairytales. Usually, it’s the woman who needs to be saved. But sometimes, it’s the woman who both needs to be saved and who has to do the saving. This is what happens in “Beauty and the Beast,” which in full confession I know only from film.

I saw the 1991 version when it opened in theaters. This was one of the first films I was allowed to see at the movie theater with friends, without my mother. I remember sitting in the theater with 10 of my closest friends, and watching the candlestick try to make out with the feather duster, and thinking, “This is weird.” But the songs were catchy. (Be our guest. BE OUR GUEST!) For better or worse, the lyrics and story have stayed with me.

I watched the 1991 film last Thursday in preparation to see Disney’s remake during opening weekend, which sold out in my city. I’d forgotten that the beast is a scary, shouty, beating-on-doors beast dude. I had also forgotten that the word “consent” is not part of Gaston’s limited vocabulary.

I found myself holding my breath during tense moments between Gaston and Belle, when he appeared close to assaulting her. Rape is the subtext of these scenes, and I certainly didn’t see that in 1991. Nor did anyone point it out to me. In our family, Disney was not questioned. Its myths were pure.

Still, I found the remake stunning. Emma Watson as Belle conveys a human, no bullshit, no fear female power that a cartoon Belle could never accomplish. When it comes time to save the beast from Gaston, Watson subverts the Prince Charming trope by riding a white horse into the castle. That is one cool detail, even if Belle is tasked with saving the beast. (He’s already saved her from wolves, so this makes them even.)

Their romance is complicated by the pursuer/pursued dynamic and caretaking, with Belle being the prime caretaker.

During one caretaking scene where Belle nurses the beast after the wolf attack, we learn that his rage stems from Mommy and Daddy issues. This backstory was left out of the 1991 film: After the beast’s mother died, there was no one to protect him from his wrathful father. So he became wrathful like his father, and only a woman’s love can change him back to his best self. This is a dangerous myth. Yet we all are meant to celebrate the myth. The film’s final dance scene gives us a sense of order restored, the tragic turned comic. We can all leave relieved. Everything works out in the end.

Except the few curses that can’t be reversed, or the dead who will not come back to life, no matter how fervently they are wished for or loved.

Belle’s dead mother is absent from the dance, from the whole story. Her absence is an unacknowledged detail in the 1991 film, but the remake delves into backstory. Thanks to a magic mirror and the beast being in a good mood, Belle learns her mother died from Plague. The loss has been her life’s unspeakable secret, a secretly actively cultivated by her father.

Maternal loss binds her to the beast. It is the bond that seals their fate, the first magic to erode the witch’s curse long before the last petal falls from the rose.

“Beauty and the Beast” is not unusual in this sense. Mothers are absent from many fairytales. But they are often present too, either working magic from beyond the grave or being invoked through the caretaking roles their daughters assume.

Fairytales testify to the influence mothers enact in children’s lives across time and history and culture. The dead mother has incredible power. Her death is the root of deep transformation. Her love defies death, propels magic.

I am still obsessed with these tales, even “Beauty and the Beast,” despite its flaws. Not because I believe in magic or Prince Charming or happily ever after, but because I believe in my mother’s love.

I need to believe her love survives her.

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My mother told me my first fairytales. Cinderella. Snow White. Sleeping Beauty. She read them over and over, rented their cartoon film adaptations from the library, took me to see them staged at a children’s theater near our apartment. If you’d asked me what I wanted to be at ages three, or four, or five, I would have said “princess,” even though I knew the stories were make believe. I wanted them to be true, as in factually true. I wanted to believe in magic.

In fairytales, everything works out in the end. The comatose princess awakens. The abused, neglected child finds true love. The hovel becomes a castle. The wicked are punished.

As a girl, I knew my mother was sick. I knew her health was imperiled. But we never said the word dying, despite our close calls. My sister and I never acknowledged how we lived our own bleak fairytale, saving our mother from death in the nick of time, year after year, day after day. Until the the day we couldn’t.

After our mother died, my sister and I faced the merciless task of placing her clothing and personal items in giant trash bags bound for Goodwill. But I saved one book from the trash bag heap –– her worn copy of Grimm’s Complete Fairytales published by Nelson Doubleday in 1960, when my mother was eight.

I’d taken this book for my own as a girl, coloring on its pages and then highlighting lines from my favorite story, “The Juniper Tree.”

“The Juniper Tree” has typical Grimm gore, but I read the story obsessively. The plot goes like this: a wicked stepmother beheads her stepson. She boils his body and feeds it to her husband, the boy’s father. The boy’s sister, who has been tricked into believing she killed her brother, buries the bones beneath an enchanted juniper tree. This act allows the boy to become a bird, who then flies around singing the truth of his murder. Ultimately, everyone but the stepmother lives happily ever after: the bird becomes a boy; the father never finds out that he ate his son; the stepmother dies when a millstone falls on her head; father, son, and sister return home to eat dinner, likely not human remains.

This morning, I reread the story and realized one root of my obsession. “The Juniper Tree” acknowledges grief –– the boy’s sister cries nonstop until the bird (her dead brother) gives her a pair of red shoes –– and the story makes death impermanent, if only in the case of the boy. Both his mother and stepmother remain dead through the last line, which actually includes the words “and they felt very happy and content, and went indoors, and sat at the table, and had their dinner.”

If only real life could work this way. If only we knew the spell to bring our dead back to life.

I will mark the fifteenth anniversary of my mother’s death in two weeks. Sometimes, I still wish she could come back. I still wish I knew the magic words to save her.

A Little Bit Lost in Washington, D.C.

When my mother died, I lived two blocks from the Woodley Park/Adams Morgan metro stop. I turned 21 in that apartment, which I shared with two other women who were interning with me at Scripps Howard.

They did not like me. I didn’t know why. I learned not to care.

That winter, I had one real friend in my internship program, a Chilean student who had roommate troubles too. In our own ways, we were both “other,” and I think that sealed our bond.

At night we met for dinner at a Chipotle between our apartments. We hung out together on the weekends too. The Newseum had just opened, and we went there once. He took a funny photo of me outside the main entrance. My arms are outstretched, like I’m trying to hug the sky. I found the photo a few months ago, and it made me laugh because I remember the last few months of my mother’s life as deeply unhappy. I’d forgotten tiny moments of joy that seeped through my sadness.

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I threw my friend a birthday party when he turned 20. My mother met him that night. But it’s been so long, I can only remember what she wore, a red vest and blue jeans. I can’t remember if she liked him, or if even he liked her.

In retrospect, it seems odd that this boy and I did not date. We spent so much time together. But I was on the verge of losing my mother. I had no capacity to date. I froze him out when he got too close, which I regret to this day. I couldn’t handle another person needing me. I couldn’t be available to his need.

Still, he met me on the stairs when I went back to the apartment a week after my mother died. He held a box full of my notebooks and the last Jimi Hendrix CD I’d listened to at work.

He’d cleaned out my desk for me. He’d carefully packed my possessions. He did not know I’d soon throw the box away because I could not bear to look at its contents. He did not know I could not even stand to look at a newspaper. Grief turned me upside down, inside out, unraveled all the threads that had once tied me together.

He kissed my cheek, then turned away. I never saw him again.

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I’d only come to the apartment to retrieve a few things. I’d go back once more, and then never again. Then I’d leave for Scotland, then Syracuse, then Scotland again, then Mississippi, then Louisiana.

I had a few brief trips to D.C. in between all the years I lived away from Maryland, but I could never stay for more than a few days. I could never live there again.

When I walked the pavement or negotiated traffic, I’d feel like the person I’d been before my mother died. Dread tightened my chest, turned my skin to ice. I’d feel like I was grasping for something I desperately wanted, something just out of my reach. Yet, I also felt certain in my steps, like the person I was before she got sick.

Each time I came to D.C., these two selves collided. I was both the person I’d been when my mother was healthy, and the person I became when she got sick. The question of who’d I have been if she hadn’t died haunted me.

I fled from facing the person I became because she died, the person I am now.

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I’m in D.C. this week for the AWP Conference. Each night, I’ve walked the streets near my old internship office.

These are the streets I walked everyday when my mother was dying. These streets are the last places where I ever heard my mother’s voice. I used to walk them when I couldn’t concentrate in the small office space I shared with other interns.

The last time I walked these streets, I didn’t know it was the last time. I left my internship on a Friday afternoon. I went home for the weekend thinking I’d be back on Monday, ready to file a story I’d worked on all semester and was ready to publish in a national newspaper. But my mother died on a Sunday. So I never went back to that office. I never filed the story I’d worked on for three months.

The other night, as I walked, I realized I no longer recognized this place. All the buildings look different, more antiseptic and cold. I felt disoriented, the same way I felt after my mother died. Like I had no sense of forward or backward, no east or west.

I realized I needed to go back to the internship office. I needed to see it in the light of day.

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Today I walked in circles initially. I couldn’t orient myself. But as I neared the internship office, my right ear ached, and I knew I was getting close.

I thought I’d feel something when I stood in the doorway, peered into the sterile lobby. But the force of self protection is powerful. I just felt numb, like this building could have been any building, insignificant and anonymous.

Only when I reached McPherson Square Park did something break open. My knees wobbled. A wave of dizziness sailed over me. I had to sit down on a bench.

This park was where I most often talked to my mother. She spoke to me from her living room sofa, from hospital beds, from dialysis breaks. We talked about my articles, about my Chilean friend, about the interns who didn’t like me. We did not talk about her death. We never even said the word.

Against the clamor of cars on K Street, I strained to remember the sound of her voice. Was it nasal? Was it high pitched? Did she elongate her Os in the standard Baltimore fashion?

But I could barely remember the answers to these questions.

Now her voice is not even a whisper. It’s an echo at the edge of fading, the sound a leaf makes when it falls to the ground.

Two tears slid down my face at the exact same time. I cried for what it was to be barely 21 and motherless, and what it is to be almost 36 and unable to recall the most primal sound of my life, the voice that called me to this world, the one that assured me I was safe. I was loved.

In the Desert

When I visited the Sonoran Desert for the first time in September 2006, the landscape left me speechless. I felt like I was underwater, experiencing an ecosystem that was entirely “other” to what I always knew growing up on the East Coast.

Carl took this photo of me on our first hike in the Sonoran, a month before he asked me to marry him.

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This was our first hike together, and I was not prepared. But my smile is genuine, even though I’m wearing fashion sneakers that slid all over the pebbly sand. I did not become athletic or even outdoorsy until a few years into our marriage. This trip was a turning point because it showed me what I could do.

Now I am drawn to the Sonoran Desert because of the constant interplay between life and death. While this interplay exists in all ecosystems, it’s most apparent to me here.

We live in a culture that tries to erase death at every turn. Instead of died, we say passed away. Instead of funeral, we say Celebration of Life. But death cannot be erased in the desert. Death defies erasure. The desert is the most necessary memento mori that exists.

Leaving always breaks my heart.

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From what I’m told, my paternal grandmother loved the desert too. She’s buried there now, in the shade of a Creosote.

She lived in a neighborhood studded by prickly pears and Palo Verdes. But she planted shamrocks in her backyard, made them bloom beneath her kitchen window.

The first time I stood in what was once my grandmother’s backyard, my aunt pointed out her shamrocks. I tried to photograph them, but it was too dark. I couldn’t capture their essence. As I stood in the spot where her hands once plunged into rocky earth, I could feel my grandmother’s faith. Her spunk. I could sense her capacity for imagination.

The great sadness of my life is that I didn’t know this grandmother. She moved to Phoenix before I was born. My parents separated a year after my birth. Their divorce was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf messy. But the aftermath is what I remember, and I think it was worse. With the exception of my father’s father, I was cut off from the rest of the family.

Until the day she died, my grandmother carried my photo in her wallet. She wore my name on a charm around her wrist. She never stopped loving me. But I have no memory of her.

Still, I always think of her when I walk the desert. I conjure the story of who she was, and who we could have been together.

Last weekend, when I hiked Saguaro National Park with Carl, tears pooled in my eyes. “I should have seen this with my grandmother,” I told him, then blew my nose.

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Grief is not linear. It’s more like a wave that rolls right back out to sea once it hits the shore. There’s no end point. No exit.

The first time I visited my grandmother’s grave, I wept as I wept when my own mother died. I did not expect the crush of sadness I felt. I placed my hand on her grave, as if I could touch her. This motion staunched my tears. I resolved to know her as best I could.

This year, when I touched her grave, I breathed Creosote and said the metta prayer: May you be happy. May you be well. May you be at ease.

My grandmother died not knowing that I loved her. There is nothing I can do to rectify that fact. On Sunday, I placed a rock I collected from the Chesapeake Bay on her grave. This rock came from the same beach where I scattered my mother’s ashes five years ago. Before I left the gravesite, I picked up a pink pebble and tucked it into my purse.

I wanted to carry a small part of this place away with me, as if I could merge with the desert, with my grandmother, as if such a thing could be.

January 2017

My mother got sick in January. A week after New Year’s Eve, she laid down on our living room floor and couldn’t move. She thought she had the flu. In truth, her transplanted kidney was rejecting, seven years after her experimental transplant.

That New Year’s Eve, I’d gone to a club in Baltimore with friends. I wore a silk top and sparkly earrings. When I went downstairs to kiss my mother goodbye, she said, You are so beautiful.

 Since she died, no one has ever said those exact words to me.

Her last January wasn’t cold. My mother bought me a black pea coat at an Annie Sez on Reisterstown Road. I wore it all winter, through April, when she died. I wore it to her funeral, to the pool the first time I left the house after the funeral, to the grief counselor I saw in those early weeks when I thought grief was something I could work through, then overcome with enough effort. Like turning a C- in Algebra into an A. I wanted an A+ in grief management.

I still have the pea coat. I can’t remember the last time I wore it.

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Twelve years after my mother died, I posted her photo on Facebook.

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It’s a photo that startles some people. We look so much alike.

I wrote, “My beautiful mother died twelve years ago today. She left me her courage, her hope, and her heart.”

A woman I don’t know well wrote that I’d made my mother proud. Then she wrote that I needed to move on.

“There is no moving on,” I wrote back. “There is memory. There is grief. There is love.” But she didn’t respond.

A woman I worked with at the time told me she thought I’d handled the comment well. I agreed.

I didn’t tell her how sad I’d felt when I’d read the woman’s words. How they hit me like icy rain. How I felt like I was getting an F in grief.

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This week, I was walking the windy alley between my garage and house, and I had this thought: In April, my mother will have been dead 15 years. Then I had this thought: By the time I have a baby, she could be dead for 16 years. Or 17.

I have these thoughts even though I meditate, practice Yoga, have a job I love, a house in a great neighborhood, a husband who is devoted to me. I am not ashamed of these thoughts. My mother has been dead for nearly 15 years, and I think of her each day.

She has never seen my college diploma. She has never met my husband. She has never held her grandchildren or known me as professional woman.

I have held all of her grandchildren within hours of their births.

My mother has been dead for nearly 15 years, and I have not moved on.

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I had a cold this week. On New Year’s Eve, I crammed onto our couch with Carl, our two rescue dogs, and my mother-in-law. One dog rested on my lap, the other nuzzled my shoulder. My mother-in-law cross-stitched, while Carl and I watched “Bunheads.” I texted with my friend Anne, then went to bed a little after 9 p.m. I am still not feeling well.

Each morning, Carl asks if I’m feeling better. I have felt pressured to feel better, even when I’m feeling pretty awful. So I say, “Yes,” because I don’t like disappointing people. Also, I want to be optimistic.

I say, “Yes” even though I spent all of Thursday in bed and keep waking at 4 a.m. because my throat hurts and I can’t lay still any longer.

Still, I rallied on Friday. I washed my hands for two minutes. Then I made carrot-ginger soup, and latkes from scratch. I made crab cakes for my mother-in-law. We had a beautiful dinner. So far, no one else has gotten sick.

My mother taught me how to get out of bed, no matter what. She taught me how to get dressed, put on makeup, and go out, even if I felt unwell.

She wore mascara each day of her life. Even on her last day. She never left the house without blush or lipstick.

I wore mascara when I made latkes on Friday. No lipstick.

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I will spend part of January in Arizona. I will visit the Sonoran Desert, one of my favorite places on earth. I will visit my grandmother’s grave. I will wear a red dress I bought in New Orleans and dance at a wedding.

I first visited the Sonoran Desert in 2006. I stayed at a monastery. It was the first time I’d ever seen saguaros, and I photographed them obsessively.

I only stayed a few days. I was not a good monastic. I broke rules. I snuck Carl into my room, then junk food and fashion magazines. I wanted to be outside, in the desert, not silenced by prayer.

In my room, staring out at saguaros, I wrote in a journal I’d given my mother. She’d never written a single word.

I minored in creative writing in college, and used to write short stories. I wrote one short story the year after my mother died, then stopped. I’d begin another short story, but could never finish. It was as if all the words that lived inside of me died with her.

Yet, in the desert, the words came back. And I kept writing after I came home. I filled composition journals, spiral notebooks, and steno pads. I wrote on napkins and index cards. Only this time, I wasn’t writing fiction. I was writing about her and me. I couldn’t stop. Why would I? When I wrote about my mother, I brought her back to life.

My New Year’s resolution in 2016 was to write every day, and I did. I published more essays about my mother, and I started this blog on Mother’s Day.

I plan to keep writing every day in 2017. It’s the only way I can fully honor my mother’s legacy and all she gave me. Thank you for reading.