Tag Archives: grief

A Course in Healing

1. No one wants to be here, and here we are. Exactly where we’re required to be. So welcome to an experience you never asked for. Welcome to an experience you did not choose. Welcome to “A Course in Healing.” I’m glad you’re here.

2. By the way, the word “glad” (above) is an example of the feigned positivity that will become a norm of your grief experience. Get excited. That was example No. 2.

3. There are no clear learning outcomes for this course, although learning will soon be projected onto your experience. “What have you learned?” People will ask in clipped, expectant tones.

4. “Misfortune is a great teacher,” they will say, and you will learn how to nod wordlessly.

5. It is considered bad form to respond, “I have learned that in the face of my discomfort, I am expected to comfort other people.”

6. It is equally bad form to say, “I have learned that when people ask me how I’m doing, I must say something like okay or fine because those are the only acceptable responses.

7. Do not say, “Sometimes I sit in a dark garage and weep.” Do not say, “I configure my day around ‘Growing Pains’ reruns.”

8. In short, during “A Course in Healing” you will learn how to be a good faker. Some people will even say faking is a key ingredient to your healing. We will cover this dynamic during our unit on Erasure.

9. It’s okay to wonder why the expression of vulnerability upsets the relationship non-grieving people have with permanence and/or the performance of happiness.

10. You may have figured out by now that “A Course in Healing,” should be renamed as “A Course in Lying.” I have brought this suggestion to the Curriculum Committee, and its chair reminds me that “lying” doesn’t resonate, but “healing” has cache. Healing is rainbows and holidays and sparkly love magic. Grief is blech.

11. Now you might be wondering: “Will there be any tests?”

12. Each moment of your life is a test, and there are no grades. Only choices and questions. You pass no matter what choices you make. You pass even if you choose to eat potato chips for every meal, even if you listen to that one Jeff Buckley song until the CD player skips.

13. There is no extra credit. At the end of this course, you will not be a better person. You will be a different person. You might be a person who can tangle with competing truths. You might be better at letting go of appearances, other people’s expectations, your own miscalculated dreams.

14. If I do my job well, I will impress upon you that there is no bright side where your pain fizzles out forever. There are black holes of sorrow. There is dark matter we live inside of and between. There are moments when we wish to disappear forever, if only to stop the pain.

15. There are the people we would have been without our losses, and there are the people we become because of everything we have lost.

16. There are the futures we claim.

17. There are the dreams we rewrite.

18. Take me as a case study: Before my mother died I kept a diary. My college roommate gave it to me one Hanukah. She wrote a quote from Oscar Wilde inside the front cover. “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.”

19. And that is what I thought life was back then –– sensation for the taking. A nonstop adventure romp. The long weekend between adolescence and middle age.

20. I was twenty and twenty-one in the last years of my mother’s life, and I wrote sad poetry in that journal. And I wrote about boys I thought I loved, who maybe loved me, who didn’t love me as much as I wanted them to love me.

21. And I wasted my time with these boys. Wasted my worrying. And then my mother died, and I lost interest in boys. I ignored them, avoided them, until I fell hard for a man I never expected to meet. He lived an ocean away. But I wrote to him every day the way I’d once written to my mother. And he wrote back to me.

22. “Hi Sweetie,” his e-mails began. It was the same cheerful salutation my mother had used daily with me. In my first year without her, this man was sunshine pouring down after a night where I believed I’d never see light again.

23. He was the first proxy I made for my dead mother, and he would not be the last.

24. Even though it was not his job, he championed me the way my mother had. He made a big deal of my birthdays. He said, “I love you” without choking. He mailed me mix CDs with heart wrenching songs I’d never heard.

25. He knew where I was at night and in the morning.

26. When we were together, he held me until I fell asleep, the same way my mother had held me long ago.

27. But –– but –– a lover and a mother are not the same thing. A lover cannot be a mother. Such a burden will crush the most sincere loves.

28. One night we both cried, and I boarded a plane alone. I can still hear the sound of my suitcase scraping the pavement on the way to the airport. I thought I was leaving him temporarily. But it turned out that my leaving was permanent. I just didn’t know how to say that yet.

29. I didn’t want to leave this man, and I had to leave this man.

30. I’d never find my mother in another person. If I wasn’t careful, my search for her would destroy every chance at love that came my way.

31. I could never save her.

32. I could only save myself.

33. When I walked away from a man I loved, I walked toward a life I couldn’t imagine, a life he could not walk for me no matter how much he wanted to. I had to walk alone, toward a motherless future awaiting me.

34. My mother taught me there are no escapes.

35. My mother taught me I could withstand being sucked back into the long, lightless night.

36. Her wisdom lived beyond her, lived:

  • in the cat I rescued a few months later, a stray I didn’t want but took, lived
  • in the man I married, and a home where I made my own light, lived
  • in the stairwell of a college, where I sat one afternoon with a student who told me about a man who hurt her.

37. When the student finished her story, I told her a story about my mother.

38. I told her courage means walking toward our worst fears, walking toward the truths we don’t want to say.

39. Then we both walked toward the counseling center.

40. Each time I listen to another person’s hard story, each time I tell my own hard story, I carve another notch on the shrine I built for my mother, a shrine called memory, a shrine called love.

41. Healing is a word I avoid. I’d rather be changed, remade, reborn.

42. I’d rather hold a broken heart in my upturned palm, marvel at a heart that beats in spite of its cracks.

43. In this course, we will be who we are. We will be everything we are afraid to say. We will be the whole story of our pain.

 

A Season of Loss

We’ve had so much going on this year, and I forgot to buy a yartzheit candle to mark the seventeenth anniversary of my mother’s death. This weekend initiates a trifecta of death anniversaries: my mother (April 7), her mother (April 8), and a beloved aunt (April 9).

I have marked these anniversaries back-to-back for years, often lighting candles in my kitchen. For me, marking death in early April can feel incongruous, an affront to the landscape’s perpetual message of rebirth.

This morning, because our past year has been so complicated, I also forgot that today was my mother’s yartzheit. I remembered only after I opened the kitchen door to let our dogs in from the yard. Nature reminded me. Each time I look at a cherry blossom or daffodil, I remember where I was on a Sunday morning seventeen years ago. I go back to the moment before I learned the news of my mother’s death, when I sat on a sofa while the walls turned salt-lamp pink, then swirled around me. I go back to the the moment after I confirmed the news, when I fell to the floor and opened my mouth to scream but no sound came out. My primary experience was one of silence, which now strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for death and grief.

In the past seventeen years I have mourned my mother, I have resisted cultural silences imposed on the grieving. I have resisted avoiding the topic of death. I have resisted language that denies the reality of death and grief. This blog is one form of resistance.

This week, I’ve thought frequently about how hard it was for me to go back to school after I lost my mother, how much pressure I felt to perform normalcy and perfection. I thought about how I learned to hide my sorrow, and how alien I felt in rooms full of 21-year-olds whose parents were still alive, and often paying their children’s bills. At 21, I had no such resources. I was on my own. To this day, I do not know how I graduated from college, only that I did – on Mother’s Day 2003. Some people tell me I’m strong or brave. But I don’t think finishing college was a heroic act. In a period of tremendous instability, the structure of an academic year gave me stability. I clung to stability. If anything, I feared further change. I avoided uncertainty.

After my graduation ceremony, I went out to lunch with visiting relatives but refused to go out to dinner. Instead, I stayed in my apartment with my sister and boyfriend. We ordered takeout. My graduation was not a celebration, and celebration felt fraudulent. My college graduation was the first major milestone I marked without a mother, and I marked this milestone in public, surrounded by jubilant people, on a Hallmark holiday that forefronts motherhood.

That day, I needed privacy. I needed to grieve alone with my sister. The next week, we’d “celebrate” her graduation. I cannot bear to look at photos from either of these events. I had such a sweet boyfriend at the time, and he stayed with me even though it was hard, and we were both too young to understand the emotional pressures bearing down on us. In the graduation photos, my boyfriend stands next to me. He holds me in a protective embrace. But my eyes are vacant, cold, dead.

I am barely there. I do not want to be there.

Something that bonds Carl and me is that we both lost parents young. We both lost the parents with whom we shared a gender identity – my mother, his father. We both walked across commencement stages, received diplomas, fell in love, began careers, bought homes without those parents present. At our wedding ten years ago, we claimed these losses in a candle-lighting ritual. We acknowledged how light and darkness exist side-by-side as natural elements of human experience, our experience. In our family, grief swims beneath each experience of joy.

This morning, because I could not find a yartzheit candle, I walked from our kitchen to our attic, which we’ve recently remodeled into a meditation/Yoga space and writing studio. I sat on my meditation cushion and lit the only candle we have, a rainbow chakra candle I gave Carl for Christmas. Then I carried the candle through our dark house and placed it on the stove, beside a plate of matzah brei I’d made for Carl’s breakfast. A spoon holder that once belonged to my mother sat behind the candle; it’s one of the few objects I have left from her house.

In our kitchen, the makeshift yartzheit candle still burns, will burn all day. I’ll light another candle tomorrow, and another candle the next day. Outside, the daffodils and cherry blossoms will open more blooms. Each time I see them, I will hold despair and hope in the same gaze. Despair. Hope. Neither cancels the other out. Each magnifies the other. Each reminds me how precious, how beautiful a life touched by death can be.

 

How to Survive the Holidays as a Grieving Person


1. Our dead are gone, and they are everywhere. They are absent, ever-present, the way some people talk about God.

2. Our dead come back. Again and again. When we least expect them, they shout, “Surprise!” For example, I lost all my mother’s recipes after she died. Barely 21, I couldn’t imagine living without her, much less becoming a person with her own kitchen and recipes one day. And yet, this year, I found a Taste of Home recipe that replicates a chocolate pizza my mother served at our Hanukkah Party each year. Melted down chocolate chips form the pizza’s crust. Cheese comes from dried flaked coconut. Melted maraschino cherries serve as pepperoni. I’ve decided to serve this dessert during my family’s Hanukkah celebration this year. When I place my own chocolate pizza on the dining room table, I suspect I’ll feel like my mother has returned to me once more, a most welcome and unexpected guest.

3. Headphones. I don’t know what I would have done without them the summer after my mother died, when I moved abroad to work at a newspaper in a country I barely knew. Each day, I’d walk from the flat where I stayed in Dennistoun, to the newspaper in the Glasgow City Centre, where I worked. The Cure sang me forward. I believed every song on one particularly tortured album was written just for me. With headphones on, I tuned into myself and a pain that might instruct me, if I learned how to listen.

4. Now I use headphones to tune out the nonstop Christmas anthems that play everywhere this time of year. I cannot bear the public performance of joy. There is no right way to be happy, just as there is no right way to be sad. Our memories bring comfort, and they bring knee-deep sorrow. Headphones help me tune out the less helpful noises of this season, help me quiet the expectation that happiness comes easily to us all, that happiness isn’t the battlefield of my life.

5. A path lit by joy and sorrow runs down the center of my heart. How bright, how beautiful. How lucky I have been.

6. When I am feeling at my worst, I remember I dared to love after I lost the person I loved most in the world. I do not believe in god or heaven or clear categories of afterlife. But I believe in salvation. I believe love saved me, just as love will save you.

7. Get out of town, if you can. Take a road trip, a flight, a ride on a boat. Make new memories, memories that are yours alone to cherish. After my mother died, a friend told me, “Life goes on.” She wasn’t trying to silence my grief. And she meant what she said. My life would continue beyond the point where my mother’s life stopped. I had to stand up and walk toward her death, walk past my grief, and understand there would never be a point where I surpassed my grief. But I could walk along side this unbearable loss, make grief my companion on a journey I barely understood, a journey that is mine alone to understand.

8. I chose to travel because I was young and could sleep in a closet and live on potato chips and candy bars. So I left my mother’s house. I left my country. I met my life for the first time. I cried every day, and I ate a lot of potato chips and candy bars. I gained ten pounds. I fell in love. I grew big with wonder and joy. I started to live the life my mother wanted for herself, which became the life I chose, and the life she wanted for me.

9. I am not religious anymore. But my favorite prayer is the V’ahavta. It literally means, “and you shall love.” When I was a little girl, I used to wait for this prayer during the Shabbat service. We sang those words over and over again, “and you shall love.” They are the only commandment I’ve kept from Judaism, the only prayer I remember and return to. These ancient words remind me that loss hurts in direct proportion to how greatly we have loved.

10. Even after I gave away all her clothes and scattered her ashes in the Chesapeake Bay, my mother’s love refused to leave me. The longer I live without her, the more powerfully I feel her love. It’s there when I wake up each morning and kiss my husband. It’s there when I write, when I listen to a friend in the midst of a struggle. It’s there when I refuse to lose my shit at my horribly behaved dog or a student who needs a second chance. And you shall love. My mother’s voice rises up in my memory, as fervent as the prayer I once chanted. Dead, she is everywhere, an ineffable god.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Silence Is the Wrong Response

We had a neighbor who never said anything after my mother died. I kept waiting for her to say, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “I’m sad your mother died.” Each time I ran into her, I expected her to offer a condolence. But she never said a word.

This woman was not a distant neighbor. She lived a few houses down. As a girl, I played with her children. She fed me at her dining room table. She told me stories about her own childhood.

Now, when I think about her, I do not remember the nice things she did. I remember her silence. I remember how her silence hurt me.

When she failed to acknowledge my mother’s death, my neighbor also failed to acknowledge my mother’s life. Her silence angered me. Her silence amplified my fear that my mother would not be remembered.

You see, the word remember means to reconstruct, to put back together. Remember is the opposite of dismember.

When a person remembered my mother, that person reconstructed the part of my mother that mattered. That person revealed the impact of my mother’s spirit in a world where her body would be forever absent. But silence erased her completely.

Silence is how the dead die twice.

A few weeks ago, I shared my post “How to Comfort the Bereaved” on Facebook. A few people commented that silence was the best response to bereavement. They reasoned that when we are silent in the face of another’s loss, we are safe. We do not risk saying the wrong thing.

I liked these responses because I understood their intent. I believed people genuinely believe they are doing the right thing by staying silent.

But I need to say now that I believe silence is the wrong response. I interpret silence as erasure. I interpret silence as cowardly. I interpret silence as taking the easy way out. Even well intended silence can have this effect.

We are not to blame for our silences. Modern society does not teach us how to speak openly about death or how to comfort the bereaved in meaningful ways. So we must teach ourselves.

In that spirit, here are a five things people have done or said that brought me comfort during a time of grief.

1. Say the word died. Do not say “passed away” or “met her maker” or anything else that belongs in a children’s book or cartoon. When you say died or any of its variants (death, dead, die) you reverse the spell of cultural denial that hangs over death for many Westerners. When you say died, you make the the subject of death less taboo, less shameful. You make it easier to talk about this normal bodily process that happens to everyone. You make grief and death less confusing

2. Be present. Invite a grieving person to lunch, to take a walk, or to another low key, low stakes one-on-one social event. After my mother died, lunch dates with family and friends saved me. Sometimes, I cried at the table but I also remembered what my life looked like before my loss. I remembered I used to be a girl who did normal things like eat pizza and laugh. I also glimpsed a little of my future: I could again be a girl who laughed and ate pizza. I could reconstruct my life around my loss.

3. Tell a story. If you knew the person who has died, share a story about what that person meant to you. At my mother’s shiva, my close friends told stories about my mother, stories I’d never heard until that day. From these stories, I learned my mother had relationships with my friends. They trusted and valued her. These stories affirmed something I needed to hear, that my mother would live beyond my own memories. She’d live in theirs too.

4. Send a card. If you do not know what to say, let the card speak for you and sign your name at the bottom. When you send a card, you let a grieving person know that the loss has not gone unnoticed by you. You relieve a grieving person from the burden of having to tell you about the loss. My sister saved a stack of all the sympathy cards we received after our mother died. I keep them in my attic now. Once a year, I look through each card and remember how many lives my mother touched. I realize the full impact of her legacy will never be known.

5. Say “I’m sad.”  The more common expression “I’m sorry for your loss” is not a terrible thing to say, yet it can feel like pity. But saying “I’m so sad X died,” extends compassion. Did you know compassion literally means “to suffer with?” Compassion is not supposed to be easy. Culture tells us to deny suffering and sadness, but grief lets us reclaim them. When we say, “I’m sad,” we turn away from pity. We turn toward empathy.

How to Comfort the Bereaved

1. Do not say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Just don’t. Okay? No matter how many times someone has said this sentence to you, recognize its words as vacuous substitutes for real words that actually have something meaningful to say. What reason are children taken too soon from their mothers, or mothers from their children? What reason does your child get to live and another has to die? Luck? Chance? Probability? Suffering is random, indiscriminate. Not personal. When you personalize suffering, you are not offering comfort. You are saying, “You deserved this.”

2. Do not say, “It was meant to be.” See above.

3. Do not say, “This was God’s plan.” I don’t know what kind of god or God or G-d you believe in, but these words make your god/God/G-d sound like a calculating psychopath. Do you really mean that? A glimmer of my own god, which I call goodness, tells me such putrid malevolence can’t possibly exist. Or if it does, it’s called evil.

4. Do not ask, “What can I do?” You might be short on ideas. This is normal. Grief is overwhelming for everyone involved. But now is not the time to give a grieving person one more thing to do –– i.e. authoring your “To-Do” list. Figure out what you can do, and then do it. For example, you do not need to ask permission to leave a meal on a porch. Not a good cook? Leave a bag of potato chips. Anonymous potato chips can be a great comfort. Better yet, start a meal train and/or order takeout.

5. Do not ask “What happened?” You know the answer already, i.e. something horrific. So why are you really asking? Are you afraid this horrible something might happen to you? That’s not surprising. Another person’s loss can force us to confront our own deepest fears, ones we’ve buried so far down we can barely see them. Do not turn away. Call each of your fears by name until they rise up from the deepest part of you. Understand their power. Understand projection.

6. Do not ask, “How are you?” When a rabbi asked me this question at my mother’s shiva, my heart shriveled into a piece of coal, and I said something sarcastic that he well deserved: How do you think I’m doing?

Let me rephrase that now: How do you think a grieving person is doing?

Not so good. Right? So instead of asking this question, offer a hug, a hand, a potato chip. Offer yourself as a person others do not need to perform happiness around.

7. Do not ask, “How can I help?” See number 4.

8. Do not say “Time heals all wounds.” I wish this expression were true. But, in my own experience, time has not been a great healer because, in this world, we have something called “triggers.” Maybe you’ve heard this word. Maybe you’ve even joked “trigger warning!” before you’ve said something that freaked out a lot of people? Or maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. So let me explain. Triggers are like giant arrows that rip through time and take us right back to our worst traumas. Sometimes you know what will trigger you, and sometimes you don’t.

For example, the morning I began to miscarry my first pregnancy, I fell to the floor and wept the same way I did when I lost my mother fifteen years before. In that moment, two losses swam inside of me. Mother. Baby. Both gone, forever. And there was nothing I could do. In that moment I was me, the 36-year-old, with a cute house & beyond amazing husband & a horribly behaved dog. And I was the 21-year-old who could not even stand up, because the ground – or what she thought of as ground –– had disappeared.

At best, time can offer perspective. But it’s not a magic suture.

It is okay to be broken open by our losses, to be cracked into a thousand unknowable pieces by them. As Leonard Cohen once sung, “That’s how the light gets in.”

9. Do not say “It’s time to move on.This, by far, is the absolute worst thing to say. A loss can live inside a person forever, and a person can live inside a loss, around it, through it, and on into a life s/he never possibly imagined, a life fundamentally shaped by what has been lost.

Respect the awesome, holy, transfiguring power of loss. Honor it. Build an altar in your heart for it. There is no other way to proceed.

 

 

 

 

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

Sixteen Mother’s Days Without You

I don’t remember my first Mother’s Day without you. You died a month before, when cherry trees opened the season’s first blossoms. I remember unrepentant forsythia, dogwoods, and azaleas blooming along the street where you once lived. I remember standing in your living room and drawing the curtains closed. I remember I could not bear the sight of flowers or blue skies.

Surely the mundane and the beautiful could not exist in a world without you. Surely they would not go on. But they refused to disappear. I refused to stop wishing they would.

On my second Mother’s Day without you, I was 22. On this day, I graduated college.

I wore a dress I bought the day before, without you there to tell me whether the hot pink floral print was too much. I wore a matching pink lipstick. No one who looked at me that day would have thought mourner. I was good at hiding, good at pretending everything was normal. As if normalcy could exist on this day, as if normalcy could have been my aspiration.

After the ceremony, I shook Bill Clinton’s hand. (I remember nothing of his speech). Then there was a lunch with a few relatives. But I excused myself from dinner that evening. I cloistered myself in my apartment, ordered takeout. You certainly would not have approved of this behavior. The thing about grief is that it erases social graces, changes all our rules. People pleasing was the first rule I let go.

Still, I did everything I could to avoid thinking about you, which meant I thought about you constantly.

On my third Mother’s Day without you, I slept on the sofa of a woman I barely knew. I had nowhere to live & was starting a new job the next day, which that year was also your birthday. You would have been 51, but I didn’t buy a cake. No one celebrates a dead woman’s birthday. Not even me.

Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten Mother’s Days without you. I don’t remember what I did on any single one of them. Eleven, twelve, and thirteen are foggy too, like the edges of a dream.

On my fourteenth Mother’s Day without you, my husband drove me to a house that was the same shade of storm-blue paint as our first house, the one where he and I lived after we married. This house we went to see had the same street number as our first house too. Weird, I thought.

What magic were you working from beyond the grave? I had this question even though I do not believe in magic or clear categories of afterlife. I know dead means gone. I know dead means never coming back.

Our realtor met us on the porch. Five minutes in, I knew this house was our house, the one where he and I could live, the place where I hoped your grandchild would soon live with us. We already had the nursery picked out. (Top of the stairs. Looks out over the backyard.)

We moved in the same weekend as yours and my father’s wedding anniversary, which also happens to be the same weekend as my in-laws’ wedding anniversary. But I have never known my father-in-law. Like you, he died too young. Still, I am searching for a photo of him, so that I might know him better.

The week we moved in, I placed a framed photo of you on the fireplace mantel. It’s your senior yearbook photo, the one where you are smiling through open lips and your hair is ironed straight.

But I could not bring your clothes –– the ones I saved –– into the room where your grandchild (I hoped) would one day sleep. After 14 years without you, they smelled of mold and rot.

So I did what I did with all your other clothes. I stuffed them in black trash bags bound for Goodwill. Then I went into the backyard and cried. I felt scared and certain at the same time, the way I always feel when I make a hard but necessary decision.

As much as I wanted you to exist in your shoes and sweaters and skirts, I knew you lived beyond them. You lived in me, the same way I once lived in you.

On my fifteenth Mother’s Day without you, I started this blog. You don’t know what that is, and I don’t know how to explain, other than to say these words are my heart living outside my body. These words are you living beyond me.

Writing has been the closest I have come to procreating. This is not because I do not want a child, but because my body has been hostile. You know something about that. And I wish we could talk about it, but dead means silent too.

Neither mother nor daughter, I’m feeling a little uncertain as I face my sixteenth Mother’s Day without you. What stake can I claim in this day? What bouquet or card or brunch date could possibly compare with the brilliance of your life? I am a woman who has no biological or adoptive claim to a child. Do I even matter on this day?

I suspect you’d answer “yes” to that last question. Just as I suspect my sixteenth Mother’s Day without you will be like every strange and ordinary day I’ve lived since you died. Exactly 5,513 days without you now. That’s 132,312 hours, or 7,938,720 minutes, or 476,323,200 seconds without you.

I have counted them all, which is how I also know we had exactly 7,720 days together. That’s 185,280 hours, or 11,116,800 minutes, or 667,009,000 seconds of existing in this world at the exact same time.

Seems like plenty. Seems like not enough.

My sixteenth Mother’s Day without you will be my 5,517th day without you. I have chosen to mark that day not on a calendar, but here, right now, on my heart blog, which belongs to you as much as all the construction paper cards I once made, all the burnt breakfast-in-bed toasts, all the poems with simplistic A-B-C-B rhyme schemes once belonged to you.

Today, by the way, is also your birthday. I know: I get the double whammy of your birthday and Mother’s Day in the same week (sometimes the same day!) every single year.

This morning, when you would have turned 64, I have no gift. But I will say what I said on every Mother’s Day of your life as a mother, what I wish I’d said in every moment we shared, all 667,009,00 of them. I will repeat the only words we ever needed, the best ones we could say.

Thank you. I love you. Thank you. I love you.

I will say these words as if you can hear them, as if you can whisper them right back to me.