I am just about the age my mom was when she knew she was going to die. She knew she wouldn’t see any of her kids turn 30 or help them raise grandchildren. I have no appropriate words for how that must have felt. She was diagnosed five years earlier and told she had just months to live. She lasted much longer, but at my age, she knew . . . and said she would let me know when it was time to come and be with her.
My 25-year-old self didn’t fully process what that pending invitation meant. I had never been close to anyone who had died and I just didn’t understand.
For two summers now I’ve not noticed the anniversary of her death. It’s gone past me and I realized a week or so later that I hadn’t noticed. Not that I ever marked the date on a calendar or made an appointment with myself to think about it. It just occurred to me on or near the anniversary every year that it had happened.
Both summers when I realized the date had gone by I thought it indicated I’d finally . . . Recovered? Healed? Gotten over it? What word or words define this progress? At least it was progress. It only took 19 years.
* * *
We were two hours in to our 12-hour drive home. Leif says, “We’re coming up to Newcastle. Do you want to stop?” He always gives me several miles to think about it.
Despite the growth of the trees, making the place look markedly different to me each time, Leif pulls up to the right row. We get out of the car and he reaches up to pop a clumpy, purple blossom off a tree. It looks like a lilac. We walk up the slope; I take slow, deep breaths, avoid focusing on the ground, and then stop. I look down without reading what I already have memorized, crouch down to brush the dirt and mowed grass off the marble with my hands and comment that someday I will come here with flowers, prepared to clean a grave marker. Instead, Leif tosses the water out of the built-in vase (what is that called?) onto the marker and scrubs red clay dirt out of the word Loretta and off the side of the marker. It looks nice now and he puts the blossom into the vase. I feel better. He always makes it better. We wander around a little, but just a little. We know what’s here. Something that defined my mom was that she worked with and had a great connection to young people. At the cemetery, she was the oldest person (47) among a bunch of children. Definitely a ‘young’ part of the cemetery.
I hadn’t been to her grave in about three years and had never been there when I didn’t cry a little or didn’t get an enormous lump in my throat. Every time I wondered if I would ever visit and not react.
I didn’t escape throat-lump free that time either. Not even close.
Was I the biggest wimp in the world? It’s likely. Did my mom really make such an impact on me? Apparently. I was left the oldest female on that side of my family at 25. No grandma, no mom, no aunts, the oldest female cousin. I was a little awed and irked by that. Who was I supposed to model or pattern after? What about all the things I didn’t know yet. Who would be my guide?
Was I selfish? Yes. After she died I started reading the obituaries in the newspaper. It was reassuring to know that others had lost their people and probably hurt like I did. But I was also relieved that so many of the people in the obituaries–most of them, at least–were old. I always said, What a good run!
There will be a point, very shortly, when I will be older than my mom ever was. She will be frozen in time.
When my mom died, I knew she was young. I knew. But I didn’t understand how young until I got older. For years the life marker I needed to hit to be old was 48–the age she didn’t reach. If I could just get to 48, all would be well because I would have lived longer than she did.
Then I hit 42 and realized I’d already hit my marker. I might die by 48 but I didn’t get a terminal diagnosis at 42. I had possibly been given a pass and maybe I should enjoy my life. Huh. Was I morbid? Not usually. Was I a slow learner? Well, sometimes these things take time.
- It is what it is.
- You are damn lucky if you have somebody special and good in your life.
- Some things will always be a mystery if you lose a parent. Like getting older. What is hereditary and what is just your dumb luck?
- When a parent dies, you get to make your own path—become your own person. You’re on your own and that’s kind of awesome.
- Even if your kids didn’t know your parents, they might channel them. DNA is cool. There’s a lot to that one–trust me.
- You will be able to truly empathize with people who lose a loved one.
- You can tell people who bitch about their moms to chill their shit.
- Life goes on and we are very, very lucky for that.