February 21, 2013

anniversaries, memories and the heart

"Sometimes I feel like there is a hole inside of me,
an emptiness that at times seems to burn.
I think if you lifted my heart to your ear, you could probably hear the ocean.
I have this dream of being whole.
Of not going to sleep each night, wanting.
But still sometimes, when the wind is warm or the crickets sing...
I dream of a love that even time will lie down and be still for.
I just want someone to love me.
I want to be seen."
-- Practical Magic ---

Today my thoughts have been consumed with my mother, Nancy. Today marks the day she died, 27 years ago. I've been without my mother for much longer than I had her.

My memories come as isolated snapshots now. A kaleidoscope of colorful fragments that somehow add up to a woman I once called "Mom". She's a foggy image I can't quite bring into focus and a gentle spirit that infuses all my days. She exists in the background of my life, hovering, suspended, shapeless, like familiar air. I can no longer hear her voice, and the few examples I have of her handwriting have begun to look foreign to me. I am losing her a little more each day. How is it then, I've wondered, that she still has such a hold on me.    How can a woman in her early 40's .... me .... still truly be so lost?

Well....sometimes it happens like this: I have an 11am business meeting and I am trying to decide what to wear.  One one side of my closet is a stack of ripped jeans and a row of men's work shirts; on the other is a line of monochromatic sweaters and dark wool suits.  I try on skirts and sweaters, but in the mirror every combination appears drab.  Nothing sparkling.  I don't know how to make this fit.  Shouldn't a woman know this?

And sometime it happens like this: I'm invited to a dinner party hosted by an older woman.  Because I remember, from some distant conversation with my mother, never to arrive at someone's home empty-handed, I pick up a bouquet of flowers on the way. Days later, another guest who attended the party mentions the thank you note she mailed in a manner that reveals the hostess commented on the absence of mine.  A thank you note?, I ask.  A thank you note, this woman repeats.  I'm confused. And, immediately, ashamed.  I want to rush to a phone to call the hostess and explain.  I'm terribly sorry, I would say, but I don't know about these things.  And though it feels like a pathetic excuse and a dramatic response to such a small oversight, I have the impulse to tell her, "You see, I never learned about this. My mother died when I was fourteen".

And, sometimes, it happens like this:  I am spending an evening with a friend and his sister's two young children.  The little girls eye me from a cautious distance, wary of this stranger who kisses their uncle hello.  Slowly, they approach me, displaying their toys, and by the time we finish dinner and sit down to play a game, they both insist on being on my team.  They tug at my skirt, they want to hold my hands, they want to brush my hair.  I see in their eyes what I once I once felt thirty-five years ago, that fascination with an older female who's young enough to be accessible yet distant enough to represent some future self.  She is, you think, the woman you will one day become.  I look at the girls looking and me and feel a brief surge of responsibility, but I also feel slightly absurd.  Like an imposter who didn't plan to fool this town.  Because really, I'm not sure what it means to be a woman, at all.

My mother died on the eve of her 48th birthday. So young. It had been thirteen months since she returned from the doctors office with news of malignancy in her breast, thirteen months of chemotherapy and CAT scans and desperate attempts to hang onto the little rituals that amounted to normalcy in our day. We still took our orange juice and vitamins together in the morning, but then she swallowed the small white oval pills that were supposed to help prevent the cancer's spread. After school I would go with her to her oncology appointments and on the way home in the car she promised me she would live. Because I wanted so badly to believe her I did, even as I watched her lose her hair, and then her mobility, and finally her hope.

When my mother died, I knew no woman my age who had experienced mother loss. Also, too, I was an only child. I felt utterly and irrevocably alone.  In my early twenties I searched local bookstores for writings about mother loss. In each book I found about mother-daughter relationships, I quickly flipped ahead to the chapter about a mother's death, but discovered they all assumed the reader would be in her forties or fifties when her mother dies. I was fourteen.  With a maternal void in my life for most of it, it's a wonder I'm not more screwed up than I am. :) When your window to mimicry closes - how do you learn?

Sometimes....sometimes...I am honest with my spirit.  I admit how hard things are without her.  I missed my mother, terribly, when I graduated from college and no one was there.  I missed her when I got my first job promotion and wanted to share the news with someone who'd be proud. I miss her when the Holiday season rolls around again and have my annual frozen pizza dinner, alone.  I miss her when I'm sick and when I'm lonely and when I can't remember what works best on insect bites, and when nobody else cares how rude the clerk in the store was to me.  Whether she actually would have fed me homemade chicken soup or mailed me cotton balls with calamine lotion if she were alive isn't really the issue.  To be honest, my mother never cooked me soup that didn't come from the Lipton's box.  It's the fact that I have no mother to ask for these things that makes me miss her all over again.  Every time.

I am fooling only myself when I say that my mother exists now only in a photograph or in the outline of my hand or in the armful of memories I still hold tight. She lives on beneath everything I do.  Her presence influenced who I was and her absence influences who I am. From the fourteen years with her I learned to be fun loving, enthusiastic and devoted. Since her death I've learned to be independent, self sufficient and strong.

I often ask myself: Am I as I am - who I am, what I am - because my mother lived or because my mother died?

The answer, I decide, is both.

Love you and miss you, Mom - forever my hero.
See you in Heaven.


Nina said...

Beautifully written and thank you for sharing this with all of us. You honor your mom daily in how you live your own life, with honesty, courage, strength and humor. Much love to you.

TriMOEngr said...

Tears. This is a beautiful ode to her. I struggled with a mother that was mentally unstable and then a stepmother that wasn't a lot better and died basically hating me. I was terrified of becoming a mother at one point because I wondered (and asked my therapist) how I could possibly be a good one with not having learned it from my own. He told me to find my role models in all the women I love in my life and if all else failed to just do what I would have wanted my mother to do for me. I'd like to think that I am a pretty good mom to my kids (8 and 11). But I know at least some of the pain you reflect here because in many ways I grew up feeling much the same way (with a sister that did ease some of the pain and loneliness for some of the year).

Colleen said...

Without knowing your mother, I can tell that you got her loving nature, her caring soul and her carefree spirit. She lives on in your actions day in and day out. And I know that she's watching over you, proud of the woman you've become, the obstacles that you've overcome and impact that you've had on so many people's lives.

Love you!

Pamela McGowan said...

I'm sure your mother would be proud of what an awesome person you turned out to be MB!

Theia said...

This is heartbreaking and beautiful. What a wonderful tribute to her.

Anonymous said...

This is absolutely beautiful Carole!! You are such an amazing writer. I am very proud of you, your mom is too.

Joel said...

Carole...what a great post, and one that could not have been easy to write. As Colleen said, I suspect that you are who you are because of your mother. It totally sucks that she hasn't been by your side all these years...but she HAS been there too. Like you, I long for time to spend with my mother, but she too passed long before I was ready. I suppose that one day we will be reunited...some days that just seems too far off.