Four years ago today, my mom passed away. She fought an incredible battle against terminal lung cancer for two full years. Usually on the anniversary of her death, I shy away from saying anything. It feels like such a private event, a time when I really bask in all that she was to me and all that I miss about her not being around. My brain goes through the timeline and I find myself transported to 2010-2012 and all the various events around her sickness. The feeling of going home, of seeing her change, of seeing myself and my family wrestle with this news. Then I think of all the wonderful things about her and all the ways she made me better. It’s a day of mixed emotions to say the least.
I make up lots of reasons not to willingly share that my mom has passed away. Most of it is because having to admit that she’s gone makes me uncomfortable and wears on me overtime. I hate the conversation that is going well and suddenly I have to drop this truth bomb. It makes me squirm to see people go quiet, grappling for something to say, trying to fit this news into their perception of me. They usually say “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” I say it’s fine because I don’t always talk about it, how could they know? Admitting her death and absence feels like I’m exposing myself. However, that exposure is the same amount of uncomfortableness as a white lie that implies she is still alive.
I told a white lie once with a co-worker and I still get angry with myself that I couldn’t just say, “No my mom isn’t alive.” As this person continued to say things with phrases that started with “your parents…” I felt I had dug a hole I couldn’t escape from. I am always afraid that when people find out, and especially find out the circumstances (that I learned of her cancer a week into my freshman year of college), their perception of me will change. The dead mom will be the defining feature of me. I never want people to see me as motherless as my “true” identity. I want people to see all the other things I do and am good at and see that my mom is only a part of the bigger picture.
Her passing isn’t the defining feature of me, but it is an integral part of who I am today. Her illness and dealing with that as an 18 year old, made me stronger, resilient, and more empathetic. September 2nd is part of my story and every year I’ll grapple with those memories. I will never stop grieving for her, preferring to think of grief like an ocean, ebbing and flowing as the tides comes in and goes out. Sometimes it touches your toes as you stand in the sand and other times your feet stay dry. But it’s always there, moving and flowing, perpetually headed towards you.
While my mom’s circumstances were unique, my story of losing a parent to terminal cancer is not. After her death, I put my thoughts, my angry, my sadness, and everything else I was feeling into a memoir. It sits on my bookshelf right now but I hope some day to drag it out, to put together some essays I could publish. My research and inspiration to write what’s on my bookshelf came from other memoirs about death. About loss. About grieving and moving on. I read a whole book about motherless daughters. We are not alone. While I sometimes feel my pain is special and one-of-a-kind, I have to remind myself that this pain is felt by others. I don’t have to hide my grief or this story. This doesn’t mean I will share all the gripping details in the first five minutes of meeting someone new, but perhaps this reframing of her death helps me be more willing to share, to expose part of me that I usually protect. Watching my mom and family deal with her terminal cancer altered me; I am not the same girl who went off to college six years ago. I use to say that while I hated that my mom was sick, I was happy with who I had become. I still feel that way. Her parting gift to me was that transformation.
Four years ago, a new version of my life began. One without her. I won’t say it’s been easy, but I will say that I found so many amazing, inspirational, loving women who helped fill the space she left behind. When I look up at my display shelves in my new office, out of the nine pictures/awards on those shelves, only one was taken while my mom was alive. It’s the last family picture I have of the infamous “Fargo Five.” We’re at my parent’s 25th wedding anniversary celebration, weeks before she would pass away. We’re all dressed up and you can see how the cancer physically changed my mom. But we are together and look happy and young. Even though there is only that one picture, I feel like she’s there, in me, in all the other photographs. In many ways, those pictures represent the past four years. The people who I treasure and the ones who kept me moving after September 2nd, 2012. The ones who never met my mom, but the ones I feel she would like the most.
In Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss, author Hope Edelman says something that continues to stick with me. Of a mother — “She lives beneath everything I do. Her presence influenced who I was and her absence influences who I am…loss is our legacy. Insight is our gift. Memory is our guide.” While I might have lost her, who she was to me will never go away. And it’s time for her story to be more widely shared so people can begin to see a fuller picture of who I am and how I got here.