My mother died 26 years ago today. I was 26 years old.
Starting tomorrow, I will have lived more of my life without her than I did with her.
My brother and I play a game sometimes, imagining what our lives would be like if she were still alive. We wonder what she would be like. In our imaginations, she’s still fun and funny, and spoils her grandchildren. John, the oldest, who is now 17 years old, might not have walked until pre-school because she would never have put him down.
She certainly would have moved in with them, helping raise the kids. Although I’m not sure if she would have been that helpful, since she would have probably handed them anything they wanted.
Maybe she wouldn’t have moved in with them. Maybe she would be too busy traveling the world with her younger, rich husband. I don’t know which she would have preferred, although maybe there’s a world out there where she got to do both and split her time between the grandchildren and the back of El Tigre’s motorcycle.
Here’s the inside to that inside joke: My mom and her best friend, Linda, had this narrative where their new boyfriends were bikers named “Lobo” and “El Tigre.” When they spotted a motorcycle club on the road, one of them would inevitably comment, “Oh good, our boyfriends have found us.” Although come to think of it I’m not sure if it was mom who had El Tigre and Linda who had Lobo, or vice versa. I guess it doesn’t matter. Linda is gone now too, and hopefully they have met the Heavenly versions of those two burly but sweet bikers and are living a happily ever after life.
My mom and I also had vivid imaginations. We would see an old lady, probably in her 70s, with her mother who has in her 90s, and say “That’s going to be us.” I knew she’d be puttering around getting into trouble and hard of hearing and I’d be the nag yelling “MOTHER!!! PUT THAT DOWN!!!” in random stores. Then we would laugh thinking about that.
She’ll never get to be in her nineties. Hopefully I’ll get to be in my seventies, at least, but I won’t have an elderly mother to look after.
The truth is there’s no way to know what life would be like now, had she lived. Last night I was thinking about how life has been since she died and trying desperately to find the good in it.
My first thought was the condo I bought with the insurance money she so thoughtfully left my brother and me. At 27, I was the only one of my friends who owned their own home, so it was the place we all gathered. I have lost count of how many birthday parties we had there. It was the place we met before we went out. It was the place we went after we went out. For the five years I owned it, it was our gang’s headquarters. My friend Christy lived there with me for two years, which set her firmly on the road to being part of my chosen family, the sister I never had or knew I needed.
Owning that condo allowed me to get a puppy, which I had so desperately wanted. I brought home Jake to that house, where he encouraged redecorating by ripping up all the carpet and eating the carpet pad in both the dining room and my bedroom. Jake was one of the Great Loves of my life, a soul mate in dog form, and I had 16 wonderful years with him, all because I could own my own home. I had never loved another being so fiercely as I loved that dog.
My brother lived there with me for a bit, while he and Emily were in the process of moving to Atlanta. He brought his golden retriever Callie, and for months Callie and Jake got to live together as well. They adored each other and wrestled in the living room almost every night. I really treasure that time with Brian, getting to know him as an adult, and having Callie there too.
I bought a horse, too, with some of that insurance money. Probably not the best investment from a strictly financial standpoint, in that the original $4500 investment of a chestnut Thoroughbred named Chosen Wish would eventually cost me well over $200,000 in his 20 years with me, when if I’d invested that wisely I might have made $200,000 in 20 years.
That money could not have bought me more happiness than that horse did in his lifetime. He was a refuge from the world, a best friend, and a teacher who taught me patience and what it really means to put the welfare of an animal above your own interests. He taught me to listen more than I spoke, and to pay attention to the little details in body language. He made lifelong friends for me from the four barns he lived at various times in his life, one of them twice. Falconwood was his first home with me, and his last, and he’s buried there now.
He also put me in the ER on more than one occasion, but let’s not dwell on that and assume it falls under the $200,000. I don’t really know how much he cost because the very first rule of owning a horse is never add up the grand totals. It might make you vomit.
Losing my mother changed me to my core. I don’t love to think about it or admit it, but I was not a great human being before she died. I was short tempered and really a disaster to be around. I didn’t really care how my actions impacted others. I was in it for myself. That was my trauma response to my parents’ divorce – I needed no one. I could do it on my own.
After she died, I became more empathetic. I knew what it was like to be a broken human being, truly heartbroken. I tried to soldier through, and it didn’t work anymore. So for the first time in maybe my whole life, I went to real therapy with a real therapist and did real work.
Not a lot or for a long time, but it did get the ball rolling and got me thinking outside myself, for once.
Being broken like that gives you a new perspective on life and what really matters. I don’t leave anything left unsaid. I didn’t know the last time I spoke to my mother would be the last time. I don’t even remember it. But I do know there’s nothing I could have said in that moment that she didn’t already know.
Another gift I got from her death was time with my grandfather. I didn’t know it, but she spoke to him once a week, on Sundays usually, and after she died, he started calling me. The conversations were never long or involved, or deep philosophical discussions, but they were there. I spoke to him weekly from summer 1996 to fall of 2003, when he had what would be a fatal heart attack. We had just spoken two days earlier, when he complained about his golf game and not being able to get the ball off the G-damn tee (his words, not mine). I said, “Well, Granddaddy, what did you shoot?”
He was 79 years old. I knew at least a dozen guys my age at the time that would have celebrated an 83.
All those years with my Granddaddy, because we both lost her. I had lost a mother, but he had buried his baby girl.
Have I done everything right since she died? Nope. Not even close. Would I give it all up to have her back?
I don’t think she would want me to. I think those things – time with friends, with Brian, Jake, Wish, Granddaddy, and me – are all gifts she would want me to have. All she ever wanted for us was to be happy. She may have pushed and some of her methods might have been questionable and possibly the subject of recent therapy sessions, but every single thing she did in her life was born from a place of love for her children.
Even in her death, I think she was thinking of us. She didn’t tell us how sick she was, so as not to worry us. And the way she died, by pulmonary embolism quickly and without pain (or so I like to think so don’t you dare tell me otherwise), may have been for us as well. Had she lived through the scheduled surgery the following day, she would have had a very long, hard road battling ovarian cancer that had already spread, and probably would have died anyway. It would have been grueling and painful for all of us, her physically and us emotionally, watching her go through that for the end result to be the same.
I hate that she never held John, Sarah Jane, or Matt. I hate that I had to take her place at Brian’s wedding, doing all the mother of the groom stuff instead of her. I hate that I won’t have someone to nag when I get older. I hate that she wasn’t there to help us through Daddy’s dementia. I hate that she’s not calling us with her joke of the day anymore or singing Happy Birthday off key.
Since I can’t have any of those things back, I’ll just look at the list of things I do have because of her and be thankful that it’s her face I see when I look in the mirror, and sometimes when I look at Sarah Jane. At least I can see her then
and remember how much we were loved.
I may now live more of my life without her than with her, but she did love us hard enough to make it last well past her lifetime.