Mother's Day this year brought the usual mixed bag of emotions for me. Deep gratitude for my own amazing children, as well as profound sadness that I cannot celebrate with my own mother. She used to tilt her head and smile at me with a look of pride and wonder as she listened to my adventures, my accomplishments and my failures. She was my biggest fan. I have now spent a quarter of my life without her (though as anyone who has lost someone dear knows, that person does stay with us in some deep way). Maria Hjelm writes an honest account of how she is learning to live with her loss. Molly
The death of my mother defines for me a chunk of time. It’s now been 24 months since she became ill,15 months since she died, and I still reside in the era of Mom’s death.
This era began on my 39th birthday, spent at the doctor’s office where he told us that her suffering was terminal. Over the next nine months, I came to expect her death at any moment and even to wish for it at times, both for her sake and my own. And so I ushered in my 40th birthday with the most adult of experiences – saying goodbye.
The actual goodbye went something like this. The last few hours I had with my mother were spent watching one of the many Jane Austen film adaptations I’ve seen numerous times. I was secretly disappointed that she’d already viewed the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice, so I ran out to the closest book and video store and bought Mansfield Park, an artsy film that strays pretty far from Austen’s book. You see, the novels of Jane Austen and their film adaptations are the most delicious candy for me. I am in awe of Austen’s snappy dialogue, her brilliant characters, and her flawless story construction. And while I wouldn’t bother with these books were it not for her impeccable writing, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I keep going back for totally different reasons. There’s safety and happy endings in these books.
My mother appreciated this genre almost as much as I do. The movies and stories must have transported her. She probably read her first Austen novel when she was in high school in Sweden, and I treasure dearly her copy of Jane Eyre (I know, Brontë, not Austen), bound in red cloth, that she passed along to me.
On this particular day, I don’t know if my Mom was transported at all. She dozed in and out of sleep, she stared at the TV screen, and she took sips of ginger ale. She was in the last weeks of life, and had been like this for many months. I was home to help and later that afternoon was to fly home to my family.
When I said goodbye to her that afternoon, I lay my face in her lap and wept. I don’t think she shed a tear, as there was no liquid left in her to flow and the medication had deadened her emotions. Still, she performed her last motherly act of protection and said to me with a dismissive wave of her hand, “Forget about all this. This is just a blip.”
As a parent, I too am quick to lie if I think it can prevent pain. But I knew better than to believe that this was just a blip. I still wonder, though, did she mean to protect me or reassure me? Was she already in touch with the ever-expanding universe and the eternity that was to be hers so soon? Or did she know with some certainty that we’d be together in the hereafter? Or was she referring to the fact that every child loses a parent and the circle of life elegantly negates tragedy? The ultimate entry into adulthood for me was not knowing what she meant and struggling in my own faith for guarantees that I’d see her again.
This goodbye stood in stark contrast to another one we shared while I was in college. Oddly, she was leaving me then and was moving abroad. It was not a move that thrilled her, probably because she felt deeply that it was wrong to leave her children behind, even if they were all adults. We separated from each other at an escalator. I moved to the top while she stayed at the bottom, and there was no end to the tears that flowed. In that moment, she would never have claimed that this goodbye was “just a blip.”
A few weeks after our final goodbye and just a few hours before I got back to her, my Mom died. I haven’t yet let go of the pain of not being with her in those last moments. I wish she had shared more with me about her feelings towards death. I watched her experience moments when she’d speak to her dead father, her dead brother – I’ve hoped until my heart might burst that they were there to meet her. The wondering about what she felt and how scared she was, and my worry that I’ll never be with her again are now part of who I am. These traits are not invisible to my kids. They sometimes look into my eyes to assess how sad I am. And I find myself doing the same in front of the mirror, “How sad am I today?” Sometimes while driving, I do a quick assessment, “Would I prefer to stay in bed today? Wouldn’t a cigarette be good right about now?”
So, here’s my quarrel, my bone to pick, my beef with being 40 – it’s all too adult, and I prefer to pretend that I’m still 28. You’d think that three kids, a mortgage, and a marriage that needs constant tending would have turned me into an adult, but it’s the learning to live without the protection of my mother that has finally done it. Despite the chaos, the love and the joy that surround me, I feel more “on my own” than I’ve ever felt in my entire life.
I miss the short but reassuring phone calls that I had with her a couple of times each week.
Mom: What are you up to?
Maria: Same ol’, same ol’.
Mom: Well, the weather here is beautiful, and the azaleas are in full bloom.
Maria: Hmm...my garden’s a mess.
Mom: Well, I’m ordering for you a beautiful dahlia. You’ll love it.
Maria: Sounds nice.
Mom: You know you’re working too hard. Take it easy.
Maria: I don’t know about that, Mom. I do what I gotta do.
Mom: If I were there, I’d take the kids so you could go out. Anyway, I need to go.
Maria: I love you, Mom.
Mom: I love you too.
My Dad now calls me often to tell me how much he loves me and to declare I’m doing a super job of things. But because he never stood in these mother-shoes, I’ve unfairly deemed him as lacking any credibility. Likewise, my husband does his best to tell me that the things I do are done well, but I just roll my eyes. More accurate and meaningful are the compliments paid to me by my kids, probably because they are so rare and never prompted.
Without the protection and approval of my Mother, I struggle to feel good about things. I’ve been told that 40 is often a time for women to panic about career, finances, marriage, religion. I believe that this artificial crossing of a line can throw you into a tailspin. I crossed the line, I let go of my Mom’s hand, and suddenly things are different. I’m now one of those people who suffer from insomnia. I fret over the difficulties my children have, and I realize, matter-of-factly, that some of their problems may be my fault. Going back to work has sapped me of my confidence. I’m sorry for the many mistakes I’ve made in my marriage but grateful for the fact that my husband wants to keep me around.
On my 40th birthday, I dressed up in my most fabulous dress ever, shared a meal with friends that none of us had to cook, danced to my own mix of songs, and was even heard saying that “40 is the new 30.” A month or two later, I had stopped making that claim, and now, because I hate to rain on any parade, I stop myself before saying out loud that 40 is in fact the new 50. I cling to the hope that this feeling won’t persist. In my clearer moments, I know that I’m just an adult woman in the midst of a big change, and I refuse to believe that life stinks on this side of 40.
What I know is that grief and aging are processes; they take time. The blueness of one era dissolves slowly into the color of another. I will learn to live without my Mother, just as my children will learn to live without me. I will adjust to this feeling of being an adult, of being someone who has earned her crow’s feet.
And so, on my 41st birthday, I comment to my husband that I don’t actually mind getting older except for the fact that it also seems to be getting harder. In an unusual and sexy fit of wisdom, he speaks my language by quoting Carl Sandburg:
It is because I love you I give you for a birthday present the aurora borealis...
When you want another aurora borealis you tell me and I will go where the aurora
borealises grow and I will struggle and go on struggling till I lay on your doorstep, on
your front porch, one more aurora borealis, to show I love you...
You can see I am a struggler ready any day to struggle on to show you I love you.
Have you lost your mother? How have you learned to cope with your loss?
Maria Hjelm (41) has turned her professional attention towards public education after many years in the book publishing industry. She is a fund raiser for the Physics Department at a major university where she encounters topics such as neutrinos, quarks and polymers on a daily basis and delights in “dumbing them down” for the general public. Her passions are her three children and books, although the former really interfere with the latter. Maria conducts a very successful monthly author program in her hometown library and favors authors who love Jane Austen too. She’d give it all up, however, to travel with the Dave Matthews Band. Her supportive husband, Ted, has no issue with that and would happily come along.