This is the third post in my new series The Things We Hide. Last week I started talking about some harder topics with my eating disorder. Today is going to be about a tough topic as well. I’ve talked about my mom before in a post about An Artistic Lady.
My mom passed away when I was eleven years old. She had been sick for over a year before that. She had breast cancer. As a child, it’s hard to register what it means to have a terminal illness. Yeah, my mom felt sick a lot of the time and puked more than anyone I knew. But, that was just how life was at that point. I never knew that an illness like that could take her away. So, when she had surgery in November of 2003, I thought that everything would be okay. The doctors told us that the cancer was gone and we had a beautiful Christmas together as a family. It wasn’t until two months later that we even knew anything was wrong. Mom started coughing a lot and felt ill like she used to. That’s when we found out that all of the cancer wasn’t gone. In fact, it had spread so much that there wasn’t anything the doctors could do. She died the following month.
I don’t think that having a sick mother really affected my childhood that much, because she tried so hard to not let it. In fact, one of my favorite objects was something that she gave me during that time. It was bring your parent to school day at my elementary school, only my parents couldn’t make it. My dad had to drive my mom to another chemotherapy treatment. My mom felt so bad about missing it, that she made something that would make it seem like she was there anyway. It’s a picture of her and I in our yard. She made a little picture stand out of cardboard and glued it together. She also added a couple of flower stickers to the corners. I brought that picture to school and set it on my desk in every class just like she wanted me to. I love that photo for what it represents. It’s a way to bring her everywhere and I really have. I brought it to all of my vacations that lasted more than a couple of days. I brought it with me when I studied abroad in Japan. I even brought it to my wedding. That photo has traveled with me everywhere just as I feel she has.
I’ve spent a long time denying that my mother is gone and even lying about it to others. It’s surprising how often the subject of parents come up in common conversation. I could never truthfully talk about my parents in the present tense, because I only have one living. And yet, I did. I wouldn’t make up stories or anything. I would just change the verb tense to avoid that awkward conversation. It can be difficult to tell someone about a dead loved one. They feel obligated to extend sympathy and it always makes things uncomfortable. So, for over a decade now I’ve been avoiding it.
It wasn’t always easy to ignore my mom’s death. When I was a child and even well into adulthood my grandma was a frequent reminder. Whenever she introduced me to someone she would immediately follow up with “her mother died when she was 11.” I can’t even count how many times this happened. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t like going to meet people with my grandma. I can understand why she felt the need to tell people. Her youngest daughter had died and she didn’t want anyone to forget the tragedy. But, I still had my whole life ahead of me and felt as if I was stuck in the shadow of my mother’s death. I don’t know how to express the awkward feelings of those brief meetings, especially when I was older. It’s hard to put into words. All I know was that I want to avoid them as much as possible. Which is why when people ask about my parents, I don’t follow up with “my mom died when I was 11.”
This is something that I’ve been hiding for years. In elementary school everyone knew and I felt so alienated. No one else had a dead parent. I was the only one. When I switched to public school, it was easier to blend in and hide. No one knew about my mom, they hadn’t gone to her funeral. So, I tried to assimilate. I avoided the topic. I didn’t want to still be known as “the girl whose mom died.” Even if I never heard my classmates refer to me as that in elementary school, I know that’s what they thought. The Monday in school after my mom died, I was out sick with the flu. The next day I found out that the school had their counselor talk to my entire grade about how they felt about my mother’s death. I don’t know if that’s the normal procedure in those situations. But, it made me feel like a freak. Those people spent the whole day talking and thinking about my own personal tragedy. I felt exposed. I never wanted to feel like that again.
I’ve lost a mother. It’s taken me a long time to come to terms with that and to learn how to grieve. It took me a very long time to grieve. I’m still not “over it.” No one ever recovers from something like that. But, I know how to cope. There are still days that are full of tears and longing. However, MMR helps a lot with that. He never got the chance to meet her. Losing a mother affected me in a lot of ways that I didn’t know it would. Mother’s Days are particularly depressing. For years, even now, I look at mothers and daughters and feel so envious. When I was younger and my friends talked badly about their moms, I would yell at them and be so angry. I’ve gotten my emotions under control since I’ve had so long (nearly 12 years) to do so. But, I still feel those pangs of envy and anger. I still feel longing on Mother’s Day and when I see a happy mother and daughter. She never taught me how to wear makeup. She never dressed me up in pretty dresses as a teenager. She always told me how excited she was to dress me up in floral patterns as I grew older. She never read my poetry or writing. She never taught me how to shave my legs or care for my hair. She didn’t teach me about dating or coach me on how to find a job. She wasn’t there at my first day of high school or when I graduated. She didn’t see me accepted to college or that graduation that happened four years later. She didn’t get the chance to help me move away from home or see me on my first day of work. I didn’t get to tell her how I made the Dean’s list or how nervous I was to study abroad in Japan. She wasn’t there to help me get ready on my wedding day. There are so many things that she missed. But, I won’t hide her anymore. Yes, I’ve lost my mother. This next month I’ll have spent more of my life without her than with her. That’s something that I’m still learning how to accept. It’s an awful feeling.
But, I’m going to remember and honor her by not hiding it anymore. She’s done so many things for me in life and in death. She was there when I learned how to walk and talk. She taught me how beautiful art can be and how it’s everywhere. She taught me that gardens are a sacred place. She taught me to respect my teachers and honor them. She was there on my first day of school and at all of my dance recitals. She was there for my first piano recital and helped me make my sewing project for the county fair the night before. I waited until then to tell her I hadn’t done it. She was at all of my Girl Scouts meetings because she was the troop leader. We made brownies and cookies together. She took care of me when I was sick. When I was 10 and broke my arm, I had a really weird cast that made it so I couldn’t feed myself with my right arm. I’m right handed, so eating soup was a real effort. She was there to feed me every spoonful of soup until I could do it myself. She washed my hair and braided it. She threw me beautiful parties and loved all of my friends. She taught me everything she could about life and art in those 11 short years and I will always treasure them. I’ll never forget all of the times I helped her in the garden by pulling weeds or bringing her water. I wanted so badly to be her little helper. As an adult I can look back and see all of these valuable lessons she taught me. They’re part of what’s shaped who I am today.
So, yes I lost a mother. But, at least I had one. I still have a mother even if she’s no longer here in person. She’s all around me. She’s in the artwork on my walls. She’s in the color of my eyes. She’s in the furniture that she built. She’s in the home movies that I have. And most importantly she’s in me. When I was 18, I got a tattoo on my left shoulder. It’s of her signature. I took the signature from the last Christmas card that she gave my grandma, just two months before she died. I like to think that I’m one of her works of art. After all, she did make me.
What’s your favorite memory of your mother?