I wrote this essay last October, either on or around October 29, the day my mother died in 2002. I tend to write in wild spurts every October, when she is on my mind more than ever. At the time, I didn't feel like sharing it here, but today, rereading it, I changed my mind. Because maybe, if you're reading this, and you're missing your mom too, it will give you some comfort. I hope.
In the weeks leading up to my mother’s death, I thought incessantly about how I would react in the event of her death. Probably because of my complete denial that she would, in fact, actually die, the scenarios in my brain were mostly ridiculous, and highly unlikely. In one, I would dye my hair jet black and get incredibly skinny. I envisioned myself sitting in the middle of my dorm’s quad, dressed all in black, smoking clove cigarettes and writing poetry while wearing oversized sunglasses. I would talk to no one. When I would go to class, if a professor called on me, I would answer in short, brilliant retorts that would somehow hint at my inner sorrow and turmoil. But I would never, ever speak directly about it.
Other scenarios involved such wild schemes as dropping out of school, driving out to California, and getting lots of tattoos. Whatever it would be, it would have to be dramatic. I could finally do something unexpected, something against what was expected of me! If my mother died, I thought, there was absolutely no way I could not react with extreme behaviors.
Of course, none of these scenarios actually took place. Instead, I kept going to class. I ate dinner every night at the dorm food court with my roommate Diana. I watched movies with my boyfriend. Every weekend, I would drink until I couldn’t feel anything anymore. And every night, I dreamed that my mother was still alive. When I woke up in the morning, I had to remind myself that she was not. My mother was dead. So I would slide off of my top bunk each morning, grab my shower caddy, and sob in the shower stall.
I did not get any tattoos. I didn’t dye my hair black. I lost eight pounds, then gained about 20. I waited until the last possible minute to tell new friends that my mother was dead, talking only about my father when the subject of “parents” was approached. I frequently wanted to speak up in my English classes, but as soon as I started to raise my hand, my cheeks would flush, and my heart would pound so rapidly, I felt like I might throw up. So I said nothing, and left class each week hating myself.
Every time I’d walk past a girl on campus talking on her cell phone, and hear—“Hi, Mom,”—my heart actually hurt inside of my chest. I blinked back tears and remembered. Only a month earlier, I had walked across campus, yapping on my cell phone to my mother, telling her everything—the books we were reading in African American lit, how I hated my 8 a.m. calculus class, how my roommate Diana and I were quickly becoming friends. In return, my mom kept asking me if I was eating vegetables. (I wasn’t.)
I was so young then! Just a month earlier, I had been a teenager, 18-years-old, starting her first year at school. Now, my mother was gone, and I was old. I had never felt so alone. I gripped my phone in my hand as I walked across campus, and wished someone knew how much courage it took. Just to walk across campus. Because if I called home, she would not be there.
I considered acting on some of my crazy schemes from before—should I dye my hair black? No, she wouldn’t like that. Should I get a big tattoo with her name on it? It seems like people do that sort of thing, when a family member dies. But, no, she would hate that.
There was nothing to do but what I was doing. So I kept going to class and not saying anything, I kept not eating my vegetables at the food court with D, and I kept sobbing in the shower each morning.
That was eight years ago. Eight! I can’t believe it. Today, I think back on my 18-year-old self, this teenager who had just lost her mother, and I feel sorry for her. I want to give her a hug, and say, “It’ll be okay.” How unfair, to be so young, and feel so goddamn old and alone. I realized the other day that my mom never got to know me as an adult. I realized this as I was in the shower, for some reason. I wondered how different of an adult I would be, had she not died when she did. I wondered about everything. But, because I am no longer 18 and my mother has not just died, I did not sob in the shower.
None of the wild scenarios I envisioned eight years ago ever happened. I finished college. I did finally get a tattoo, but it was with a huge twinge of guilt, knowing exactly the look she would have given me if she saw it. I did not dye my hair black and stop talking to everyone. (I did dye my hair red, however. But that was nothing new.) Some bad things have happened, but many good things too. When I went to London my junior year, I was finally able to speak up in my English classes. And she was there with me, I know it. She was everywhere, suddenly, like she hadn’t been back home. I walked to the tube stop one day and felt, just as if we were talking on the phone, that she told me I could be a writer. And I knew. I whispered to myself, I whispered to her: “I’ll do it, Mom. I promise.”
When I got dressed today, I put my mother’s wedding ring on my finger. I look at it on my finger now, a little too small for me, but not too small. When I look at it, I can remember my mother’s hands exactly. I remember one day at the golf course when I was a kid, she wanted to take it off to play, but it was stuck. I went to the bathroom with her and watched as she tried to pull it off her finger. Finally, she gave up. My memory tells me she said something like: “I guess it’s here to stay.”
Yes, I think that’s what she said. I hope she knows this: That today, I am sitting at her old kitchen table and looking out at the beautiful Chicago sky. I am drinking a La Croix just like she used to, and I am wearing her ring. And I am writing. I will keep writing.
You are here to stay, Mom.