We celebrated my mother’s sixtieth birthday just three weeks before she died. Her death was completely and totally unexpected. And when she was gone, it was not immediate. Her life ended on one day but was not over for another. The funeral was four days after that.
In subsequent years, I have struggled with the weeks leading up to the day my mother died. From the end of March to the beginning of May, I put myself through the exercise of choosing a day as the day of remembrance. Her birthday in late March marks the passage of years unlived. Is it April 11th, the day of the accident? Or April 12th, the day of her passing after an interminable wait for the transplant team to arrange surgery? Or was it April 15th the day of the funeral? Inevitably, every year since, the date of her yahrzeit, the Jewish anniversary corresponding to the Hebrew month and date of her passing, falls on yet a fourth date of the secular calendar. Mother’s Day caps off the “season of grief” as my sister and I have to come to call it.
This year though, my mother’s yahrzeit is on April 12th and somehow, the date feels firm to me. Like a date, for once, that I don’t have to question. For the first time in eight years, something about remembrances collides.
Eight years feel like yesterday and also like eternity. At her last birthday celebration, my sister and I cooked dinner for our family, we lit candles, and ate lemon cake. We didn’t know how special that meal would feel because we didn’t know it would be our last birthday celebration together. And this year, on her birthday, I struggle with how I honor her and celebrate her even though she is not longer part of everyday life.
I will never stop missing her nor feeling sad that she is not in my everyday life. But eight years later, I cannot miss her in the way I did at first because I don’t know the same version of her anymore. Eight years feel like an impossible length of time. Enough time for so many things to have remained stagnant and for entirely new universes to have opened themselves to me.
And that aching longing, that feeling of missing her has evolved into new chronic grief where I don’t feel sad that she isn’t a part of my life now but that she hasn’t seen me evolve. She does not know me as a parent. She only knows me as a daughter. And I can never know all of her hopes for me as a parent.
And the sadness I feel is not in losing her but in losing the security of being someone’s daughter and not yet someone’s parent. The utter weight of the responsibility of another human life is so much to bear that at times I can hardly believe this responsibility has been entrusted to me. That I have been blessed with the care-taking and safekeeping of these little people as my own parents were for my sister and me.
She can never know how much I understand her. How much I remember her own frustration with us when we were small and how I know that deeply because I am her now. I know so deeply in my bones, even deeper in the marrow how she felt because the grief I will always know for not having her is mixed with the love I feel for my own children. And in understanding her greatest achievement in being our parent, I grieve losing her all over again in never being able to tell her or to thank her.
Because I can’t tell her or thank her, I try to do for my daughters what she did for my sister and me. She praised and challenged us but didn’t coddle us. She treated people she encountered with respect and kindness, thanking them for the littlest of things like making change or pouring tea. She always made conversation with people to signal to them that she saw them. Maybe it was because in her work as a secretary she often did not feel like people saw her, maybe she was just chatty.
I find myself doing these things for my own children, praising them, challenging them, modeling kindness to others, engaging with everyone. Yet in the achingly silent moments of my day, when I creep into my daughters’ bedrooms at night to kiss their little cheeks and smell their hair and thank some higher power for making me their mom, I feel my own mom there with me, not just a presence in the room but a passing breath in my lungs, exhaling any worry I have into the ether.
And if I was being honest, with every year that passes in my life as a mother without my own mother to count them down for me as she always did, aging me by one year as my next birthday closed in, I foster irrational fears that any moment could be my last. And that I could miss the chance to know my daughters at a time in their lives when they felt most proud, most assured of accomplishments, at the height of their stresses and in a time when all of the hopes I have for them might be realized. This is my fear. And it is also my prayer, the same prayer that I will say in remembrance of my mother this week, that my precious daughters will know enough of me to live fearlessly and gracefully with or without me by their side. Because while I hope to be there, I know that I will always live in their sinews as my own mom does, holding things together.