I’ve been crying a lot this week, completely out of the blue and right on schedule. Friday marks the 25th anniversary of my mother’s death, which is a milestone for more than the obvious quarter-century reason. You see grief gives you typical milestones – anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, big round-number years like 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 – but grief also gives you weirdly special milestones that I think you understand only if you’ve been there.
My personal grief milestones have included turning 48 – that was a really important one — and knowing that I had outlived my mother, who died at age 47, and this year’s unusual milestone — reaching a point where I have now lived as long without my mother as I lived with her. Every year after this tips the balance farther and farther away from her, an especially sorrowful thought, I think.
After 25 years, I’m not surprised at the way grief resurfaces and throws me back to that April week when my young adult life began to unravel, although I will admit that my grief came on with a vengeance yesterday, not long after the Mad Men season premier ended, the one where we saw Roger mourning the loss of his mother – and his shoeshine man – and Don reminding us that something terrible has to happen in order for us to reach heaven. So that’s a new and sort of hip twist in the annual show of grief here.
Mostly I am in awe of this now all-too-familiar grief, the way my body and heart recognize this time of year even before my mind does, although I think my mind is always keeping its little countdown toward this date without me wanting to let it in too very much. And suddenly, as we close in on those last few days before the April 12 anniversary, it hits me full force, and I begin to remember the last time my mother went somewhere with me (to the oncologist to end a particularly vicious round of full-time chemo via port and pump), the last time my mother ate something (coffee and eggs, not very successfully), the last time my mother talked to me alone (a hug and a whisper and a promise as I begged her not the go), the last time my mother was cognizant of what was going on (about two days before her death in our family room), the last time she looked into my eyes (after being in a coma-like state broken abruptly by struggled breathing and tears running down her face as she silently said goodbye with a look that has never left me), the last time she took a breath (the most powerful thing I have ever witnessed in my life).
It doesn’t matter how many years have passed, when this week rolls around each year, it is as if it happened yesterday, which may sound morbid but is, in fact, a gift, a gift because every year – just when I think that maybe I don’t really feel that connection to her anymore – it is there, as powerful as ever, reminding me that no one can break the bond between a mother and child.
Over the years, people have tried to fill her shoes. They have offered to help me through rough times when I needed some mothering. And I’ve offered the same thing to my younger brother and sister. And we all mean it – they mean it, I mean it. But the truth is that no one can ever be that person because no one can love like a mother loves. Other people have lives of their own, children of their own, worries of their own, grief of their own, and, let’s face it, unless they’ve given birth to you or have raised you since you were too little to remember, you are not their own and so they cannot fill that space no matter how much they want to give you what you crave.
Only a mother can do that. And I am motherless. After 25 years, I’m still really learning what it means to be motherless because every year brings new reasons to wish for my mother’s presence. Like now, as I head toward menopause, something she didn’t live long enough to experience, or as I look down and see my mother’s hands and realize that from here on out these hands will look older than my mother’s because she is eternally young in my mind’s eye, or as my children prepare for Confirmation and First Communion, and I think – once again – about how lousy it is that she never got to see any of this, and that we never got to see her see it, or as I make an everyday meal she once made so well and feel cheated that I don’t have a mother to come up for a visit, hang out in my kitchen, and share a cup of coffee.
And so I’m crying a lot this week. Because in order to get to heaven something terrible has to happen.