What Changed For Me The Year I Lost My Mother

An essay.

In honor of Mother's Day, A Plus will feature personal essays by the editorial team. These essays will reflect on both the beautiful and the tragic aspects of the women who gave us life and the love and loss that comes with it. In doing so, we hope moms, past, present and future, will know how much they're appreciated.

Nothing will convince you more of an impossibility than seeing the impossible happen in front of you. In my case, the impossibility was my mother's death from cancer at 65. I did not really become convinced that her death was possible until I spent some time with her lifeless body.

Before she died, I had an intellectual understanding of death. I had been to plenty of funerals. I had lost close friends. I knew that people are born and that they die. But for some childish reason — perhaps a trick of faith in the impossible that protects us from the primal fear of being left alone when we are young — I never pictured a world without my mother. While she shuffled around the house before my stepfather and I took her to the hospital where she would be treated, I tried to imagine life without her. It is difficult to look at someone, to be in the same room as them talking to them, and realize that what you are experiencing is about to be no longer possible.

It is even more difficult when that person is your mother, who despite having cancer, is trying to make sure that you get something to eat. 

On September 15, 2004, my mother died. A few days later, I walked into a room where her body lay on a steel table, covered by a sheet up to her shoulders. I sat next to it, searching for signs of the woman that raised me, but aside from a passing resemblance, the corpse was just that: a gray thing whose deathly modesty was protected by a sheet. Nothing familiar about my mother was there. Her hair had thinned from chemotherapy. Her face had grown thin. Her eyes were closed. I could not see her hands, nor hear her voice in the stillness of the room. I say "her," but none of those things seemed to belong to anyone, least of all my mother. They seemed anonymous to me. The corpse seemed to me a stranger.

But just eight weeks earlier, I had eaten pound cake with this body and its occupant. Just eight weeks earlier, that body was capable of answering the phone and saying "hi sweetie" when it heard my voice. Just eight weeks earlier, that body had been a maker of spaghetti, comforter of the distressed, Agatha Christie lover, writer of books, and baker of cakes. 

Just eight weeks earlier, that body was my mother. Mom.

A lot can happen in eight weeks. Unsuccessful surgery. Metastasis. Intubation. Sepsis. Hard, ugly words that taste like rust and hospital coffee and helplessness. Eight weeks leaves no time to grieve or process. Eight weeks from my mother telling me that there was coffee ice cream in the freezer to that moment of feeling completely alone in a still room.

But eight weeks can also free a beautiful woman from suffering. It can mean no more tubes and no more indignities. It can mean no more nausea and no more chewing on ice chips. It can mean no more bedsores and no more morphine. It can mean all of those things, but sometimes the price of that is leaving your body. Sometimes the price of that is no longer being able to bake a cake or hug your grieving sons and husband. The price of that is paid in pain and grief. It is paid in the empty foreverness that is death and the receipt is a body on a table. All sales are final. 

I've gone 11 years now without so much as a phone call or a card, without an email or a letter. Those are the things I miss the most. Even now, there are nights where I wish that I could call her, wish that I could ask her advice, wish that I could tell her what's going on in my life, wish that I could let her know that I did something with myself; that I managed to find a way to be happy. It seems that phone calls and notes and advice are all things that we require a body for. And while I am still fortunate enough to be living in mine, my mother has long since left hers. Eleven years later and I am still learning to live with my mother's death. There will be no more notes. There will never be another phone call from her.

And eventually, someone will say the same thing about me. And you. Cherish the living while they are living. Take no moment for granted.

As for me, I have no interest in Heaven or in life after death. Despite the desperate grasping to fairy tales or cheap theological promises, the dead cannot comfort the living, except, perhaps, in memory. I am interested in what is here and now — what is alive. Clichés about my mother living on in my heart do not interest me except in the stillness of the nights when I lie awake wondering when my own heart will stop beating and where she might live then. 


"Death is nothing at all. 
I have only slipped away to the next room. 
I am I and you are you. 
Whatever we were to each other, 
That, we still are."

- Henry Scott Holland