Hi, I’m Mary, and this is my column no one asked for about things I like!
Every 10 years I have a bad summer. This summer began with a devastating breakup and ended with my bike getting stolen from a crowded area early in the evening. Between those events, I went on a heartbreaking family vacation and dealt with a bedbug infestation which left me feeling uncomfortable in my own home.
20 years ago, my mother was diagnosed with cancer a week after my birthday and spent the summer going through treatment. There was a week in the middle of that summer when the treatment made her so sick that I was only allowed to go into her bedroom, where she lay feverish and delirious, once a day.
10 years ago, I spent the summer working overnights in Atlanta while my mother was battling cancer 1,000 miles away.
10 years ago today, she died.
Over the course the past three months, I’ve found myself wondering which was worse: this summer or the summer of 2008. The obvious answer is that the summer my mother died was the worst of my life. One thought I can’t get out of my head, however, is that for most of that summer, she was still alive. She was wasting away, the inevitability of her death becoming more inescapable with each passing day, but until late in the evening on September 19, she was still here. This summer, I’ve felt her absence so acutely it’s been at times unbearable. I’ve found myself thinking more than once that if it were 10 years ago, she’d be sick but at least I’d be able to talk to her.
That if it were 10 years ago, she’d be dying but at least she wouldn’t be dead.
When your mother dies, there are things everyone tells you and there are things no one tells you. In the weeks after her death, many older women — aunts, family friends — who’d lost their mothers told me I would pick up the phone to call my mom a million times, only to remember that she was dead. These women, however, had all lost their mothers when they were grandmothers themselves. I was 23.
In the 10 years she’s been gone, I’ve thought to call my mother exactly once, on a July morning two summers after she died. I was still living in Atlanta and the power had gone out in my building in the middle of the night. It was so hot that with no air conditioning and no fan, I couldn’t sleep. The next morning, I had to fly to Boston for my college friend’s wedding. It was the first time I was going to return to Boston, a place I so closely associate with my mother, since she died. I remember, as I walked to my car that morning groggy and exhausted, having the fleeting thought that I should call my mom when I got to the airport. I stopped in my tracks in the middle of the street. It had finally happened. I hadn’t picked up my phone but I had, for a fraction of a second, forgotten she was dead.
It hasn’t happened since.
There were several moments this summer when all I wanted was to talk to my mother, but I didn’t pick up the phone to call her. In fact, I didn’t pick up the phone at all. Instead I stared it, untouched, knowing not only that I couldn’t call my mom, but that I had no one else to call.
“Not a day goes by,” people say, when you won’t think of the one you lost. That is, of course, true — but it’s not the whole truth. Since she died, there hasn’t been a moment when my mother hasn’t been somewhere in my mind, either at the front or lingering in the back somewhere, a half-formed memory of something she said to me, a look she gave me once, the high pitch of her laugh ringing in some barely conscious corner of my brain.
Another thing people say is that the person you lost will always be with you. Again, this is only part of the truth. What’s left unmentioned is that the loss of them will remain with you as well. A ghost, after all, is both there and not there. I feel my mother’s presence and her absence. To feel one is to feel the other.
I move through the world as my mother’s daughter, now motherless.
Motherlessness, I’ve learned, is a way of existence. It is, I now recognize, how my own mother functioned in the world. In the past 10 years but maybe especially this summer, there’ve been so many things I’ve wanted to talk to my mom about, but motherlessness is perhaps the thing I want to discuss with her most. Her mother died when she was so young she never had any memories of her, and I saw how much that loss affected her even 50 years later, but I never understood those effects until I was motherless myself. Now, I want to ask how she managed with no maternal guidance, how she was able to keep going when it felt like she had nowhere to turn.
This is one of the many conversations we never got to have.
Recently, I’ve found myself thinking of something my father said once. It was maybe a year or two after my mother died. We were sitting on the porch with a few other people, having a rare conversation about her last days. When someone mentioned the day my mother died, my father said quietly, as if to himself, “That wasn’t the worst day.”
He didn’t elaborate, but I knew exactly what he meant. The day she died there were people around, family friends, aunts and uncles. My uncle John, my mom’s older brother and lifelong protector, was there. He died two years ago. My mom’s friend Mary made dinner. We all ate around the dining room table, which had been a gift to my parents from my great-aunt Claire. She has since passed away.
Later, someone told me I was funny that night. I have no idea what I said. All I remember of that dinner is looking around the table and realizing how much I already missed my mother, that this was only the very beginning of my life without her.
Many times this summer, I’ve wondered if my father was right, if the day she died wasn’t the worst day. If the summer she died wasn’t the worst summer. If there were worse days before, when the reality of her fate was becoming clear. If there’ve been worse times since, days and weeks when her absence far outweighed her presence.
When she died, I measured my mother’s absence first in days, then in weeks, then months, then years. Now in decades.
I remember, several months after she died, when the heaviest grief began to lift, when my deep melancholy began to give way to a dazed numbness. At first I panicked. I longed for the days and weeks immediately after, when the proximity of her death felt almost like proximity to her. I never long for those days anymore. I’ve found comfort in my growing distance from the tragedy of her death.
After she died, my sister and I would talk about how lucky we were to have had our mother for so long, to have gotten to know her so well. We would tell each other and ourselves that we’d always know how she would feel about any situation, what she would say. I now know that’s not true. I often find myself wondering what advice she would give me. I never know.
Shortly after her death, my brother found a voicemail from my mother on his phone. It was from a few weeks before she died, and he said her voice was in bad shape, but that it was still good to hear it. He saved the voicemail and sent it to the rest of us. I’ve never listened to it.
I still have it, and maybe one day I will listen. But I prefer, for now, to remember her voice as it was before her illness wore it down. Because I do remember it. I hear it in my head, clear and cheerful, all the time. In difficult moments, I tell myself that though I don’t know know what she’d say, I know her voice. I remind myself that’s so much more than she ever had.
I’m not foolish enough to delude myself into thinking memories are enough. They aren’t enough. But they are something. There’s no day when I don’t want more, no moment when I don’t feel grateful to have had so much. There’s no second when I’m not aware of how lost I’d be without memories of my mother.
A memory. My mother is making her favorite late-summer lunch. She takes a fresh, ripe tomato purchased at a farm stand and cuts a few big slices, then lays them between two pieces of bread slathered in mayonnaise. She asks repeatedly if I want a sandwich, and I keep reminding her that I hate mayonnaise. She eats it, declaring after each bite that I’m missing out.
For the past six weeks, my sister and I have lamented that all the challenges of this summer — particularly our bedbug infestation, we share an apartment — have gotten in the way of tomato season. Normally, we buy a huge bag at the farmers’ market and eat a mostly tomato-based diet for the few weeks they’re ripe and flavorful. We make tomato salads with peach and burrata, dressed in olive oil and white wine vinegar. We make a fresh tomato pasta with olives and capers, served beneath a mound of freshly grated parmesan. I always make gazpacho, one of my mother’s favorite dishes. She said it was too much work (a valid complaint) so I used to make it for her.
Another memory. In college, I spent a semester in Madrid. My parents visited me for a week and we went to Seville for a day. We had lunch at a restaurant on a little square and sat outside. My mother and I ordered gazpacho. She loved it so much she insisted we go back for dinner so we could eat it one more time. We agreed it was just as good the second time.
This summer, I never got a chance to make gazpacho. Now it’s too late. There’s always next year, I keep telling myself. Next summer, I’ll make so much gazpacho I’ll have to eat it twice a day until I’m sick of it, until it isn’t just as good the second time. Next summer, I tell myself, will be better. That I’m able to have hope even during the most challenging times is a testament to my mother. Though it was ultimately futile, she had hope until the very end.
Hope is what I’m trying to focus on now. The hope that if my motherless mother could navigate her way through life, I most certainly can. The hope that 10 years from now, I’ll be in a better place just as — difficult as things are — I’m in a much better place now than I was 10 years ago. The hope that a decade from now, I’ll have a summer free of heartache. That no one I love will get sick. That, hard as it is to imagine, the summer of 2028 could be the best of my life.
One more memory. This one, as far as I can recall, doesn’t involve tomatoes, though my mother and I are standing in the kitchen, cooking something. I’m on spring break from my freshman year of college and I’m talking to my mom about my recent experience pledging and quickly de-pledging a sorority. My mother tells me she was surprised when I expressed interest in Greek life but didn’t say anything because she knew I’d figure out I wasn’t a sorority girl on my own. She tells me I’ve always been an individual with a strong sense of self, that since I was a child I’ve known who I am and what I want. I don’t yet know these things about myself but when she says them out loud, I know they’re true.
I can still hear her telling me these things I don’t know about myself. I replay this conversation often.