I write about horrible things that happened to me that I couldn’t help because it’s easier to write that than the horrible things that happened to me that I could.
There are two facts that have irrevocably shaped my life.
My mother died when I was 8 years old.
I have never been mothered.
One of the few memories I have of my mother is of the moment when she told me she had cancer. She told me that the doctors were wrong. It wasn’t MS like we thought. It was brain cancer. I remember hugging her – one of the only times I remember her hugging me back and crying that I didn’t want her to die. Even at six years old, I understood that cancer meant someone could die.
Memories from the time my mother was sick are patchwork. I remember sights and clips, like little movies, but no large swaths. My memories of before her illness are even more vague. I’m sure she loved me, but I don’t remember her showing it. I don’t remember hugs. The only time I remember her touching me was when she slapped me across the face for getting out of bed at the wrong time. It was the middle of the summer and I had been put to bed at my usual time. However, it was still light out. I woke up maybe an hour later, and thought it was morning. I went down stairs and my mother was talking on the phone. I tugged on her hand to get her attention, announcing that I wanted breakfast. She told me to go back to bed. I was confused, and asked if I could have some cereal for breakfast, tugging on her hand. I remember what her hands felt like. They were always cool to the touch, and smooth, and I could always feel the curve of her long nails.
My questions were interrupted by her hand pulling itself out of my grip and slapping me across the face. I remember being hurt and bewildered and hid under the covers in my bedroom. It didn’t take long for it to start getting dark and I realized it wasn’t morning. I don’t remember her checking on me after that.
My mother meticulously planned everything. According to relatives, she had my future mapped out. I was going to learn French, study physics at the Sorbonne in Paris and become some sort of academic. I have a strong suspicion it’s something she wanted to do herself. She planned our household down to the minute – her agenda and phone book were always full of neat timetables and to-do lists, all with tidy check marks. You could lick any surface in our home and not taste dust. She even meticulously planned her own burial and funeral. I remember walking into her room before her final decline (I know this, because my parent’s king size bed was still in the middle of the room – later, it would be pushed to the side to make way for her hospital bed) and finding her looking at mausoleums advertised in the nearby cemetery. The one she circled was the one she was buried in a year and a half later.
It made for a bitter realization several years later when it occurred to me that while she could be bothered to plan her own burial, she never bothered to leave anything for her daughters. No letters, nothing. No words of love, or advice. It’s hard to feel like someone loved you when you realize that.
It’s hard to explain what changes when you loose a parent, because most people don’t loose one until much later in life. I lost one so early that I haven’t know anything different. The biggest difference is the knowledge that the worst can happen. This paralyzed me for years. Friends thought me overbearing and clingy, because I would call them to ask if they had gotten home safely, or I gave them “safety” instructions while crossing a road.
“I know how to look both ways!” I remember my friend B snapping irritably, pausing in the middle of the crosswalk to put her hands on her hips and glare at me. My anxiety shot upwards as I looked frantically around for oncoming cars. There was a few that had stopped to let us cross, but it was otherwise a quiet street. I don’t remember what I said to her. I don’t know how I could explain that I could literally imagine a car hitting B’s body and the sound a skull makes when it hits the ground.
I couldn’t find the words to explain the terror I lived with of loosing all my friends to death.
I still live with this terror. I just hide it better.
The day my mother died was a quiet one. Looking back, I realize now that it was an inevitable decline. To me then, it was just another visit to mom in hospital.
I remember her bed being the locus of the dim room. The lights from the bar above her bed highlighted the pale fuzz of her patchy shaved head and there were deep shadows under the austere bones in her face. She didn’t move when I squished past the bed railing to give her a kiss on the cheek and no lashes remained on her closed eyes. Her skin felt papery and cool.
We were coloring in the waiting room when my father came to tell me she had died.
I remember looking at him and saying “You’re joking” in a disbelieving tone.
My brother began to wail, and not knowing what else to do, I did as well.
Two weeks ago, I was sorting through old pictures. My dad was so disorganized when we were younger that I had taken boxes of family pictures and heirlooms with me when I first moved out, because I was scared of them getting lost in his periodic manic declutterings or to the whims of any of his new girlfriends – we already had one ex-stepmother who had tried to wipe out our family history. I even took my sibling’s passports, birth certificates and SIN cards with me, and kept them with mine, because I didn’t trust my father not to loose them either. As my siblings got older, I handed back the passports and other documents, but kept the pictures, intending to eventually digitize them.
Initially, I started looking for a funny childhood picture of my brother – one that precisely echoed a photo that my sister in law had posted of my niece, smeared with spaghetti and grinning madly at the camera.
I quickly got side-tracked, sorting pictures of family from shots that my mother had taken of lions in Africa and strange Scottish landscapes. I figured I should focus on digitizing the photos that actually showed us – our family. Fuck all those out of focus rhinos and shots of crowds at Madurodam.
In the bottom of the box, I found a plain white envelope. From its weight and shape, I could tell in had maybe a dozen pictures in it. Puzzled, I opened it and slid the stack out into my hand.
Only to let out a sob that caught my throat harder than a fist to the jugular.
I don’t know who thought photographing my mom’s funeral was a good idea.
I remembered the cedar coloured casket clearly enough without photos.
I remember the day clearly enough. Blue skies, barely a cloud in the sky. I had argued with my aunts because I hated the black dress they had picked for me. I remember the cemetery workers sealing up the mausoleum with white glue. There was
In the picture, we stand in front of the casket, as its being prepped for burial. It’s a candid shot. My dad holds my sister’s shoulders, drawn, pale and much thinner than I remember. I am staring at my feet and my brother faces the camera, but with a distant, bewildered look. We look greyer than I remember.
I sob until I can’t sob anymore.
When you loose a parent so young, grief doesn’t operate the same way as it does when you loose someone as an adult.
Someone on Reddit had a beautiful way of describing grief as an adult.
As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.
In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything…and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.
Somewhere down the line, and it’s different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O’Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.
Processing grief as a child is somewhat different.
At the moment of reckoning, you feel nothing. Someone has died, but you don’t really feel it. You don’t know enough to know what it means. You know, abstractly, that they’re gone. That you’ll never see them again.
But your brain doesn’t process it. It continues to do what it did before. You haven’t experienced enough to know what it’s like to loose someone. You’ve barely know what having a mother is like. My brain stayed concerned with the long-winded dramas of my barbies, the books I read and whether I got more cookies than my brother for a long time after that.
The first wave hits the moment you realized you need your mother and she’s no longer there. So you cope, even as you’re foundering, treading water desperately against the current, because there’s no alternatives. No one is going to magically mother you because you need a mother. No one cares enough about you do to that. (a harsh, bitter truth to swallow as a preteen) You have to gather the internal reserves. brush away the tears, square your shoulders and keep going as you always do.
I’m not even sure what those first moments were, for my mind has buried them thoroughly. I don’t think I’ve told anyone about them. I see them coming, the waves. They’re towering over every milestone in my life, like a malevolent shadow, ready to crash down the moment I confront a comment that someone makes about how their mothers helped them, or how I should consider asking my mother… blank. I stare at them. I don’t mince words anymore, because if I’m hurting, then I don’t really care about pussyfooting around other people’s feelings.
My mother died when I was eight, I say. Hard, unyielding fact.
Oh. I’m sorry. They respond. I didn’t realize.
No one ever considers the worst case scenario.
So now I always do.