I was not prepared for all of the people in my life—close friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers—who rest a hand on my shoulder or pull me into a sometimes awkward embrace and ask, “So how are you doing?”
“Good,” I say in public. “Sad but good.” I smile. Like everyone, I have public and private faces.
To those closest to me I say, “I am exhausted.” My grief wears me down. I sleep twelve hours on Friday night, and I could still take a nap on Saturday afternoon. I learned from my parents to “buck up” in any situation and do whatever needs to be done. Some days I come home from work and lay under a blanket on my couch. My husband makes me dinner. I eat a bowl of Special K and go to bed. My grief is ineffable. I ache. I don’t want to talk about it. What else is there but, “My mom died.”
Sometimes I say to acquaintances, “Her death was expected but still sad.” It’s not an invitation to hug me. Still, I am hugged in the women’s restroom, in the classroom, in a University Senate meeting, on the campus mall.
Anyone who has lost a parent realizes the melancholy that comes from feeling “lost.” I get good advice: “For every sad thought replace it with a happy one. It doesn’t hurt to cry, either.” Sounds like something that might be found on a gift shop refrigerator magnet, but it truly comforts me.
I crave time to sit and look out the window. Time to lay on the couch with a book. I buck up. I put one foot in front of the other. A friend warns me that grief is like walking through a swamp. I might add with cement shoes. Everything is heavy, as if I’m carrying another body on my back.
Some days, all I can think about are the times I was mean to my mom. This is irrational, I know. I realize I had to separate from my mother in order to build my own identity. The more she disapproved of me, the more I avoided her.
When I was a little girl, Mom called me her “reporter” because I told her everything about anything I witnessed, from play-by-play details of my long days at school to evenings with my brothers and sisters when my parents were away. I feel terrible now about the years —twenty?!—that I said so little to her. I know, intellectually, that we had a fabulous third act: I took care of her these past seven years. But when I consider my teens till I was about thirty-five, I see that I did not value her. Did she notice? I was one of eight children, so there’s a chance that my lack of interest in her didn’t show in such a crowd. Or perhaps she knew I would eventually come around.
A month after her death, I awaken early in the morning and contemplate how Mom and I fell in love with each other twice: once when I was born and again after she got sick. Alzheimer’s took away her memory, but even when she didn’t recognize me she looked into my face and I was sure she knew what we meant to each other. Her groggy last days, I believe she felt my presence.
I wasn’t always the daughter I could have been; my mother was often critical. This is an ancient and intricate story. Perhaps it was a defense mechanism on my part that for all of those years she was sick, I didn’t allow myself to think about what my mom used to be like. For nine years, I simply embraced who she became with Alzheimer’s: like a frightened then goofy then helpless child in need of constant care. I never mourned who she was before her illness. Through her death I have been released to contemplate her huge, huge heart and her sharp, sharp tongue.
Now I am a daughter without a mother and therefore without an anchor. I feel lost, but I also realize that for the first time in my life I am free to float wherever I choose.