“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”
I buried my mother one year ago today. The weather didn’t work for a graveside service, so we gathered in the mausoleum instead. But the doors were open, and when the bagpiper played “Amazing Grace,” she walked slowly outside, taking the music and my mother’s spirit with her. My only regret from that bittersweet day was that we didn’t get to greet the friends who had gathered to see her off. We were whisked back into the funeral home limo and transported to an intimate farewell luncheon. It felt somehow incomplete not to hug and thank every dear soul who sat with us. So, thank you for being there with me that day, a year ago. The power of your presence sustained me through that surreal morning.
Mom died after Dad’s birthday and my brother’s birthday but before my son’s birthday. All the March men in my life. She timed it perfectly, so as not to disrupt or create a memory of sadness amidst the happiness of these celebrations. And yet, this first birthday season without her is all about her absence.
I survived the First Mother’s Day. Then the First Thanksgiving. For the First Christmas, we took a well-documented Geezer Family Vacation to my brother’s house in Jax. The change of scenery was a nice distraction from the usual traditions that have been forever changed by my mother’s death. I have her stocking, but I didn’t get it out. Didn’t put up a tree. Didn’t even try to make the candied grapefruit peel she made every year, like her mother before her. A special treat for me.
My first birthday without my mother was low key. Sushi with my son. My dad forgot entirely, and my sweet boy slipped away and called him, reminding him to call me and wish me well. That was in January. Then came Mom’s birthday on February 9, which brought back aching waves of horror and helplessness as I relived how we discovered and then grappled with my mother’s cancer this time last year, not knowing how quickly it would progress and how soon she would be gone. The hindsight unhinges me, makes my legs buckle, and I collapse with grief at her abject suffering and how I couldn’t save her.
DooDaddy called the other night – March 29 – to ask why my sweet cousin Rebecca, a favorite of my mother’s, had sent him yellow roses out of the blue. He was stumped.
“Don’t you remember, Daddy?” I reminded him gently. “Mom died a year ago today.”
And then he was crying uncontrollably, overwhelmed by his own grief at her loss and at the loss of his memory, lamenting his increasing forgetfulness and various infirmities.
A friend told me recently that he and his siblings eventually switched to commemorating their mother’s birthday rather than the day she died, which seems right. A celebration rather than a somber remembrance.
My old friend Cindy, another member of the Motherless Club, explained the concept of “Yahrzeit” to me. It’s a day conditioned by the need to honor one’s parent in death as in life, in accordance with the Hebrew calendar. I’ve done that now. But I want to transition from memorials to parties.
I notice now I refer to her again as “Mom” rather than “Gmamma,” as she was known in her last decades, a white fluffy grandmotherly person, soft and round, then frail and weak, clad in cardigan sweaters, flowing skirts and random scarfs. Instead, I picture her young and glamorous as she was when I was a child. And I freeze-frame her there. I wonder if that’s a universal thing to do when you lose your parent or just my idiosyncratic approach. But it takes us both back to at time before sickness, loss and sadness – hers and mine. Because these last twenty-two years of my life – since I became a mother – have been marked by poignant moments of exquisite happiness but also periods of profound sorrow at dreams dashed, loves lost and marriages imploded.
And starting over. Again and again. And again.
Another friend recently told me I didn’t seem like my “old self,” and she was worried about me. But I’ve shed that skin. I’m not my old self and never can be again. It’s nothing to worry about. Just the new normal. We evolve. We grow. And we are indelibly marked by life’s journey, affecting us in unforeseen ways.
So as I mark this Last First, I close a chapter of my life. I officially end this season of mourning for my mother in the first year after her death. And I look ahead, hopeful and grateful, to see what’s next. And I take her with me, like an angel on my shoulder and a grounding presence in my broken heart. I find that I’ve let go of the hurts and slights and annoyances of our complicated relationship and remember more her strength and loyalty and devotion to me and mine.
Because family was everything to my mother. And as her world got smaller and smaller, she kept us close. It’s all that mattered to her at the end. That’s her legacy.