We spend so much of our waking lives avoiding death—in more ways than one. When it comes to talking about the inevitable, it isn’t always easy. So the Orange Dot is aiming to shine a light on these stories, in hopes that it may help others. The After Series features essays from people around the world who’ve experienced loss and want to share what comes after.
It was a glorious fall day when my mother died. She lay on a rented hospital bed in our den—windows open, letting in a warm breeze. My sister and I held her hands, and my father stood at her head as she took a few stuttering last breaths. I could hear birdsong, even as she was dying.
For my most of my life, my mother was in constant motion, one of those people who wakes early and goes to bed late. She made art, socialized, volunteered, studied, taught, and was known for being an eternally gracious host, inviting friends and strangers to our house for meals every weekend. She was out in the world constantly, but she was also ever-present in my life. My mom was not my best friend. I did not tell her everything. But we were close. For the last six months of her life, my sisters and my father and I divvied up the caretaking. Because my schedule was the most flexible, I was able to spend a lot of time with my mother: in the car, in waiting rooms, sitting in the living room with her and emptying the trash can after she vomited into it again, the sickly sweet smell of Ensure made sour by stomach acid that wouldn't abide any more nutrition. I became more hands-on as my mom was less and less herself. Always a talker, she now spoke very rarely, only when she needed me, and often I couldn't understand her. Usually energetic and busy, she spent much of each day resting, or moaning quietly in pain as tumors encroached on her whole body.
After her death, I moved to a new city, started a new job, and tried to make sense of the world. Just a month after the funeral I booked a massage and wept silently while a man I didn't know rubbed my shoulders. "Are you a student?" he asked. "No," I said, trying to figure out how my naked back made him think I might be a student. "Oh, it's just you're so tense. This is usually how people feel around finals." I laughed. "My mom died a month ago. I think that's it." After a few months, I started the arduous process of finding a therapist, eventually settling on a tall thin man who reminded me of Tim Gunn. We were not a good therapeutic fit—at our final appointment I sat for thirty minutes without speaking, for reasons I do not remember—but he said one profound thing that I've come back to over and over again in the years since. "Grieving is about taking someone who was external and making them internal." My mother had been all around me, out in the world, and then so close to me during those months she was sick. After she died, my life felt empty—the weight of everything, crushing. Even memories of my mother were dominated by her sickness when she was a shadow of herself, cheeks hollow and voice soft. I found myself focusing endlessly on the external, where she wasn't, and not the internal, where I wanted her to be. It wasn't an aha moment when he offered that insight, nothing changed instantly. But I found myself repeating those words whenever I began sinking into another grief pit. Over time, I began to incorporate the qualities I had loved most about my mother into my life. I set up a regular Bible study date with a friend, became more involved in volunteering, and committed myself to welcoming strangers (and guests) into my home.
Memories of the bad days were sticky, hard to get past, always rising up just when I didn't want them, but after a year, they faded some. And as life began to take a new shape, qualities I loved about my mother began to loom larger. I often found myself wishing I could talk to my mom, get her feedback, or just her support. On bad days, especially when I was sick or had the blues, I wished for her sunny voice, her updates on everyone in her whole wide network of friends. I realized that if wanted to, I could usually imagine what she might say. I could call her friends and check in, show them I cared and considered them family, just as my mom had. A few years after my mom died I moved in with my partner and became a stepmom. As a parent, I found myself channeling my mom (both the good and the bad) all the time, without even trying. She was in the part of me that decided to make sock puppets one night, spur of the moment; that set up board games and hot cocoa another night and marked the calendar with outings to the library, u-pick farms, and easy nature walks. Nine years have now passed since my mom died, and I still miss her all the time. Although I move farther and farther away from her through time, nearly every day I internalize a piece of who she was. I tell her family stories, sing the lullabies she sang to me, cook her specialties, and help out in my community. I'm not trying to become her, but I am hoping that a lot of the essence of who she was has come through in me. Not genetically, but through intention and habit, memory and nostalgia. My mother's body is underground now. But the essence of who she was to me is a part of me now. When I look at my kids, who never knew her, I am so happy that she's a part of me. Through me, they do know her. I don't believe in reincarnation, and I don't believe that my mom is in heaven looking down on me, or telling me what to do. But I think she is part of the core of who I am.