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Thirteen Motherless Mother’s Days

I imagine, probably foolheartedly, that at some point in the future, that I will be able to recognize Mother’s Day for what it actually is — a call for women to act politically, instead of a day of flowers and resentment.

For me, the holiday brings up memories of my mother, her death — and its aftermath, in which I’m finally beginning to realize what it means to raise myself.

On a Friday morning during my sophomore year of college, I checked my voicemail from the library at my university. On the machine, there was a nurse’s voice. Her name was Robin. “You should get here as soon as possible,” she said. I had spent the entire previous night and that morning thinking that, in spite of what was clear, my mother was not going to die this week.

But my mother died at 2:30 a.m. the following morning. I still remember waking up in the bed in my friend’s parent’s guest room to the phone call, forever solidifying my fear of the sound of a ringing telephone. I listened to my aunt’s voice deliver the news, and hung up. I thought, my mother is dead; and then, somehow, I went back to sleep. Now, it’s 13 years later.

For the last nine or so months, I’ve been shuffling my life like cards, rearranging some things, taking others out, pushing some off until later. I know my mother did the same thing. On the loveseat in her bedroom were piles of new clothes, still in their store wrappers, with the tags on, waiting to be worn on a yet-to-be-determined occasion. Those clothes are all gone now, but, of all the things we went through together, that pile remains outstanding in my memory.

My mother did what everyone does eventually: She ran out of time. By the time she died, she had been sick on and off for more than a decade, longer than that if you count the first time she had cancer in her teens. Her life was stained by struggle — divorce, financial stress, mental illness, a daughter who turned out to be nothing like what she had imagined. For her, there was no space, no break from the terrifying reality of illness and fear. It occupied her, it literally lived inside her, and it seemed, from my vantage point, that every moment was full of the distraction brought on by anxiety and panic and punishment.

So on the Mother’s Day of the bar mitzvah of her death, I’m thinking about my own joy — how I have deprived myself of it, assuming that there will be time to feel it later. I forget that every second of the day, in spite of how scared I am, is still a second that I’m alive, and a moment closer to a time when I won’t be. It feels like a cliché — learning from my dead mother to let joy in. But when it’s easy for me to forget what I have taught myself about happiness and self-preservation, there it is, at the center of everything.


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