My mother died 25 years ago yesterday, when she was 62. I realized this fact sometime last night, and it astounded me.
First I was astounded because I remembered how, at the time, I thought that she was appropriately old enough when she died after a lengthy illness. (Whatever that means—another thing I now realize is how insolent it sounds to suggest anyone is ever “old enough.”)
I thought her life had been long and full, when in fact it ended unfairly soon. At the time (and I cringe to write this now), I thought I was the only one who was young and without parents. And there’s that insolence again.
Which leads me to the second astounding thing: My mother has missed most of my life, much more of it than she saw.
When I think about my mother I still think like a child. In other words, I think of her in terms of me. I’m guessing most people are this way when they think of their mothers, but I don’t know.
I thought of how my children are her only three grandchildren she never met.
I thought how she wouldn’t recognize me. (Although maybe she would recognize my legs. Because my legs weirdly have become her legs—the very same ones she had when I was a child. One day I woke up and my legs were gone. And in their place — what the what? — were hers.)
She wouldn’t recognize any of the life I’m now living, or most of the people I love.
It’s sad to miss someone you love.
Our family misses my nephew, who died unexpectedly this spring. My sister-in-law misses her brother, who died 8 years ago (I was surprised to realize) on the same day my mother had passed away 17 years earlier.
The Worst Part
The worst part isn’t the looking backward at the life you had and lost.
The worst part is the present, when the missing comes with wonder: Wonder what we’d be doing now? Wonder whether he’d laugh at that as much as I did? Where would he be sitting at the table? Where would she stand in this photo?
I like to think—when I wonder about that present with my mother—that she and I would have it good. That my daughter and I would take her to lunch. That she’d come along to pick up my son at the train station when he rolls in from college for the summer, and that he’d bend to hug his grandmother and lift her feet off the ground and dangle her there for a few thrilling seconds, like he does me.
I like to think that she’d knit us all something matching and goofy for Christmas, and she’d sleep over the night before. But of course that’s only because I get to choose, in my thoughts, what I’m missing.
The truth is that what I’m more likely missing is the stuff that my friends whose mothers are still around tell me about: How their mothers often drive them nuts.
How quickly an extended visit gets annoying.
How they are embarrassingly clueless on Facebook.
How some of them judge when they comment how they wouldn’t live their lives that way, but if that’s the way you kids do it now, then I guess you make your own choices.
Most of them don’t complain to be mean—they love their mothers. But that’s the way complex relationships over decades can go. You’d think that time would grind the rough edges smooth. But, oddly enough, it often leaves behind shards that are surprisingly prickly.
I suppose some children can truly be friends with their parents. But even when that’s mostly true, there’s something about one half that perpetually confounds the other. At some point, one or the other are nincompoops.
Waiting for the Caboose
I am the youngest of four, born when my mom was almost 40, and my three older siblings were well into the swing of growing up.
I sometimes used to feel—playing in the backyard (my mother at the sink in the house), or riding alone in the back of a car headed god knows where—that she was already missing a lot of my life.
Always I felt loved. There were times I felt adored.
But there were also times I thought I rooted my parents in a chapter of their lives they were ready to close before they could.
I sometimes felt that being the caboose in the family wasn’t as darling as it sounds.
Some days, we were in the waiting car at a railroad crossing, my mom tapping the dash in anticipation of the end of an improbably long train. The caboose passes with some relief – thank god that’s over! – so you can go about your day.
Possibly she didn’t feel that way at all.
Possibly she would read this with some measure of dismay: Oh no, sweetie! I never felt that way!
Possibly I’m being a little self-indulgent here.
But that’s the thing about wondering: I can’t ever ask. So there’s that part about missing the present more than anything.
Love Rolls Downhill
People tell me I will see her again—the devout like to think that we’ll all see the beings we’ve loved and lost.
I hear this and picture them, the whole flock of them, my nephew, your brother, my son, my mom—all beaming at me in a ragged half-circle on the other side of something. Waiting.
But I don’t know if I believe that. And when I really think about it, I start to worry about logistics: Will the group include close family only? Or friends, too?
What if other people who died that day need greeting committees, too? Will they need to make a choice in some sort of afterlife lottery?
And I worry about the meeting itself: If I hate surprise parties in this life, how will I possibly compose the necessary thrill of meeting this whole group at once, all over again?
I’m kidding, of course, in a way. But you can see how pretty soon the whole thing begins to feel improbable. And I decide to consider it as I might, say, scratching a winning lottery ticket: If it happens, great. But I’m not counting on it.
And so I do what we all do.
I live my life—the one she wouldn’t recognize, the one she’ll never know.
I’m astounded at the time, as it goes by.
I think of how love rolls downhill more easily than it rolls up.
Every day I roll the love she gave me further down, and I wonder about questions—unasked, unanswered, but still good questions.
Gini Dietrich (@ginidietrich) says
How do you do this?! You make me cry every time I read you! GRRRRR!!!
I’m so sorry your mom knew you less time than she’s been gone. My mom is my very best friend and I try not to think about how devastated I will be when she’s done.
It makes me sad that you can’t tell her she’s driving you crazy or that you’re surprised you have her legs or that your son can’t pick her up, like he does you. It makes me sad you can’t have discussions about women’s roles in this life (one I have with my mom) or that she can’t give you advice or tell you to suck it up when you sorely need to hear it.
I’m sorry you miss your mom. I miss her for you.
Drew McLellan says
I’ve missed your writing. I know, you’re still doing the MP writing and the book writing…but I’ve missed this. Thanks for being willing to share what many would tuck away.
I’m choosing to think your mom is in heaven, walking around with your book tucked under her arm…a photo of your kids as a bookmark. And she slyly brings it up to everyone she bumps into. Or maybe she’s kind of hip and has it on her iPad. (If there are no iPads in heaven, not sure I want to go!)
Seriously — thanks for writing things that stick to our ribs and invite us in.
Dr. Rae says
Thank you Ann for putting such eloguent words to what I am [always] thinking of my daughter who left this earth 54 months ago at the age of 52 as I am [always] thinking of her two dsughters, and what she/we are missing.
Your post touched me deeply today…
Jeremy Victor says
I lost my mother when she was just 56, four days before my wedding day. She had a rather short battle (a couple months) with lung cancer. It’s been almost 11 years now.
Just the other day, I was having lunch alone in Lancer’s diner eating my usual (Tuna club with egg on wheat toast and a side of coleslaw). I was thinking and pondering some of these very same thoughts about my mother. And when I thought to myself, “it has been almost 11 years since my last conversation with my mom.”
I was overcome with the weight of that thought and tears began running down my checks. The elderly African American couple in the booth next to me with their coffee and tomato soup politely pretended not to notice. In that moment (and now) I would’ve done anything to hear her (tears again now, thanks Ann!) say, “Hi Chop, how was your day?”
I grew up the youngest of three in a single parent household. My mom did absolutely everything to give us the best possible life she could. The gift that she could often most afford was her presence. She was the parent that stayed and raised me. She taught me the values I now pass on to the three grandchildren she’s never met. I long for that presence again, though like you am uncertain if that will ever be.
Bless you for sharing your story and giving me the space I needed to share mine.
C.C. Chapman says
Powerful writing from the heart. One of the things you do better than most of us.
Thank you for always sharing. *big hugs*
Suddenly Jamie says
You are such an elegant and yet down-to-earth writer. I so admire the way you take a small thought and craft a story that not only draws us into your experience, but helps us look at our own with new perspective and insight.
This post is a poignant reminder to appreciate the people in our lives while they are here with us. There’s no guarantee of any reunion on the “other side.” Today is the time to move past being beloved strangers. Right now is the time to ask the questions and say the things that live in our hearts behind the small talk and day-to-day communications that keep our lives running along on their well-worn tracks.
I’ve been thinking about this with my grandmother. She turned 91 this spring. She’s still doing so well, but time eventually catches up with each of us. The clock is always ticking. I love my grandmother and see her (not as often as I should) for quick visits and hellos. But I don’t really know her. We talk about the book she’s listening to or the weather or my daughter’s progress in school, but I don’t know what she thinks about when I’m not there. I don’t know her as an individual so much as I know her as “grandmother.”
And that’s what we do with so many people – even those we love. We label them and, over time, think of them more in terms of the label than their unique personalities: mother, father, sister, boss, teacher, and so on. As you said, we think of them in terms of their relationship to us, not as people who exist apart from us – living their own lives, dreaming their own dreams, making their own discoveries about life and love and everything else.
I wrote about this a little bit recently, after having seen the movie, “Brave,” which – surprisingly – brought me to tears a couple of times. There is so much we miss when we neglect to look past our assumptions, when we gloss over the realities.
I’m so sorry for how much you miss your mom, but all moms deserve to be missed. Wherever she is, I’m sure your mom appreciates that and is, perhaps, smiling at what you’ve shared here.
Thanks for that … for sharing. You always touch my heart.
Dr. Rae says
Looking for an edit link to correct this typo dsughters to *daughters — Sorry for the typo .( ~Rae♥
Erika Napoletano (@RedheadWriting) says
It’s not often I’m at a loss for words, but I am. I knew you could write, but damn, Ann. You’ve gone and messed-up my mascara.
Thank you. Just thank you. This is beautiful, and as a now-woman who has been grieving over the loss of my own mother-daughter relationship to a woman still living, I hope to one day achieve the level of peace you have.
Suzan St Maur says
On July 1st it will be 8 years since my mom died here at home. I was with her and watched helplessly as she slipped away. It only seems like ten minutes ago.
Every sympathy Ann; I guess we just have to make the most of the happy memories.
You’ve expressed many things I’ve often thought about my own mother. She died when she was 48 and I was 22. Though at the time, I knew she was too young, she still seemed so much older than me. Now that I’m 44, that number is looming awfully close, and I’m realizing just how young she was. And I also just realized that I’ve lived half my life without her.
I also have wondered about the logistics of how the “greeting party” might work, but am hoping that somehow I will eventually see her again.
Thanks for your beautiful writing.
I lost my father in February and my mother in 1998. You’ve so beautifully captured many of the feelings I’ve had about their passing. You’ve brought me to tears, too!
Beautifully written, Ann. You’ve made art of out words, and I feel enlightened after beholding it. Thank you.
Courtney ORourke says
Beautiful, and deeply touching- thank you for sharing.
KC Lincoln says
Amazing…but not suprising considering the source.
Ann Handley says
Here’s where I wish I had threaded comments on this site… but since I don’t, I’ll do my best…! Thank you so much, all, for your support, kind words, and the rest of it. Thank you for sharing your stories, too.
As I said on Facebook, I almost didn’t publish this here, because it started to feel a little indulgent. But then I thought… well, so what? So I did. (Thanks, Vahe.)
We all have people we have loved and miss and wonder about. I’m in a strange way honored to offer the platform to air even a tiny bit of those feelings.
Thank you, all.
Eileen Powers says
This came to me from “Fans of Being a Mom.” I thought very appropriate on a couple of different levels. Thank you for posting this. You are such a gifted writer and I am always inspired when you share your inner life with us.
BTW – Mimi arrives next week. 🙂
As you know I always do a little happy dance when you show up in my RSS Feed. Beautiful post as always- capturing the “what “if’s” and moments so perfectly. I just wrote a Father’s Day post about how Cole was struggling with “afterlife questions”, regarding his dad. He wonders if we only make up an afterlife to make us feel better. I told him that I don’t know what happens after we die or what it will look like but I do know that he and his dad will always and forever be connected
Nick Westergaard says
Great post, Ann. A good, thoughtful kind of thing to read on a rainy Friday afternoon. Thinking of you. I know your Mom would be proud. ~ Nick
Amy G Koss says
Wonderful and generous piece. Thank you for that.
Shelley Ryan says
Ann, I’ve been thinking (and dreaming) a LOT about souls, life and death for some reason. Now I want to write my thoughts down. For you. And for me.
Love you! Thanks for the skirt-blowing inspiration. 🙂
Wow this really resonated with me. My mom is still here but over 3,000 miles away, actually my entire family is. I have been trying so hard to stay close with everyone over the miles. When I read something like this I wonder if I made a mistake moving so far away? Then I wonder is the point of life only to stay by family and enjoy them? Or should we move away and experience life which can make you appreciate them even more. I have friends that never moved away and hardly see their parents.
Leigh Durst says
Vahe’s right. You must NEVER keep this stuff to yourself.
In the words of my son, being prompted to take a bath
Happy to see this post and always enthralled with your incredibly poignant writing.
B.L. Ochman says
Wow Ann! I was so glad to see your name in my email because your writing is always so strong and clear. You are able to express emotions in a way hardly anyone can, and you’ve never written anything I couldn’t relate to on some level.
My own mom is here bodily, but because of Alzheimer’s she doesn’t remember our lives, or, often, who her children are. I often wish I’d found out more about her as a person, but that chance is gone.
The lesson seems to be to hold our loved ones close for as long as we can.
Thank you again for your always poignant writing.
Sharon Mostyn says
Ann, your beautiful post brought memories of my grandmother who essentially raised me and passed away 5 years ago this summer. I was with her at the end as she began waving her arm as if she saw all those people in the greeting committee. So although I’m not as devout as I could be, I do believe you’ll see her again and be able to ask all those unanswered questions and she’ll be able to tell you how proud you’ve made her.
Karen Talavera says
Glad you published this – and condolences as well. I never miss a new post of yours when it shows up in my inbox because all are so intimate and they inspire me to keep up with my own blog (which is sorely lacking this year)
ANYWAY . . this resonated because today is MY mom’s 70th birthday and (despite her prickly shards I thought would be smooth edges by now) I’m glad she’s still around. Opposite to you, I’m the oldest of four, so I’ve had her the longest, and often wonder how the youngest of us (my brother Adam) thinks and feels about her. This was certainly insightful.
Right now I’m equidistant (age-wise) between my teenage daughter and my mother. I’m doing my best to, as Suddenly Jamie said, “know them both not only in terms of their relationship to me but as individuals living their own lives, dreaming their own dreams, making their own discoveries about life and love and everything else.”
It’s a privilege to be at this unique vantage point of seeing both the previous and next generations of women in my lineage evolving, and witnessing their relationship to each other. I try not to think about the passage of time; with my daughter a few years from college this phase might not last long . . . so I treasure, savor, treasure.
There’s still so much I wish for my mother . . . wish she would want for herself . . . but I’ve come to accept “to each his own”. I simply trust that while she’s alive she won’t miss anything that’s really important to her. I hope.
Hiro Boga says
Oh, Ann, I’ve missed your voice — your true, inimitable, wonderful voice. Thank you so much for sharing this.
I left home and moved clear across the world when I was 21, so I wasn’t around when first my mother, and then my father, died. There’s something missing, indeed. I’m sad that I didn’t get to know them, nor they me.
Wishing you the gift of the relationship that wasn’t, as it might have been. And wishing you love in all its forms.
A visit with my cranky, frustrating, annoying, loving, beautiful, mother is long over due. Thank you for the nudge and thank you for sharing.
Jason Konopinski says
Allen Mireles says
Ann, this was lovely. I’m typing this comment with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. I lost my Dad in November and am still processing. The going forward without him feels so empty and I find myself wondering what he would think about my life today, his grandsons’ activities, the world, etc.
I’ve also wondered about the welcoming committee and how that works and I smiled to read your questions.
Thank you for a thoughtful, sensitive, poignant post. *pause to wipe tears from cheeks* xoxox
Suzanne Doughty says
Thank you, Ann, for this amazing piece. On July 10, it’ll be 15 years since my own mother passed away. I plan to reread your post that day as a sort of earthy prayer to her. Many thanks.
Awesome post. Touching and dead on.
Damn you Handley!! Made me cry again!
Let me assure you, she would be bursting with pride at your life (as would your dad, as a matter of fact we all are).
Damn you Handley!
We all love you!
p.s. just a FYI, tears make a good desk cleaner
DJ Waldow says
Very brave. Thank you
I feel the same way about losing my father. He was the same age as your mother but died a few years earlier. I was just getting to know him as a human being, not just good ol’ Dad. He never knew my son, but I know the two of them would have been big buddies.
I was lucky enough to have my mother for many more years until her death 6 years ago – had she lived, she would be 100 this year (another late-in-life child here; that’s why we’re so special).
On one hand I wish she were still here, but the reality is that even if she were, she probably would not have been able to enjoy all of my son’s accomplishments the way she would have liked. He has happy memories of her, although they’re fading.
Thank you for another wonderful column and so very NOT indulgent!
Annie Too says
I’d like to think that I would see my brother again (8 years passed on 6/24/12, mentioned in the post), but I am like you… not counting on it. I think of him everyday… might be something I see or hear that makes me think of him. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I cry and sometimes I just get angry! I do feel some sense of calm when I think about the things he taught me…. I am the baby in the family, my two brothers are (were) 7 and 8 years older than I am. I am now older than my brother when he passed, wow….life IS too short!
Sharon Dobkin says
I know that my son, DJ (WaldowSocial) is a big fan of yours, so I read the article. Also, I read everything he sends me…. but now I am a fan too. I miss both of my parents more than I ever imagined and in ways that surprise me sometimes. I can’t tell you how often I still want to call my mother and tell her something funny or something that annoyed me that I KNOW she would appreciate. I look more like her and often sound a lot like her. “Mirror mirror, on the wall…. I am my mother after all.” I don’t think that always makes me “popular” but I mostly like it. I liked her and I wish I had been more patient at times and appreciated every minute I had her in my life; because, life sure does go fast! I especially liked what you said about “one camp perpetually confounding the other” and maybe that is because when we truly love someone, we want, almost need, to love and understand EVERYTHING about them…. and isn’t that just impossible and really quite silly?
Thanks for making me think about this. Looking forward to hearing more of what you think. xxx sharon
Jeanine Delay says
As others have said, it’s so good to read another post from you on this site. Can’t you do one every week? Well?
Great topic and yes, I have similar thoughts about my dad and my mother-in-law who both died unexpectedly. Wonder if they’d like the way we did this, wonder if they’d enjoy this particular event, book, or what they might want to be doing at this stage.
I love your lines about love rolling down hill easier and about how you get to choose what it might be like now. Please keep writing about topics like this, real thoughts and feelings that do make us wonder.
And by the way, you are certainly no caboose, my dear!
Jim Parrish says
I recently realized how little I know about my deceased Grandfathers. I missed the opportunity to learn their skills and philosophies. The modern tendency to move away from our roots can effect the qauality of our lives.
Harry Beckwith says
When I spoke at my father’ memorial, I celebrated the fact “that he lived so long and so well.” He was barely 64. So I know the feeling you express here: The embarrasment of looking back at one’s own insolence.
Thank you, Ann.
Stephanie Tilton says
I’m still blessed to have my mother here on earth and in my life. But that didn’t stop the tears from falling…I can only imagine (and not very well) what it’s like for you, Ann, to miss your mother. But I know you’ve beautifully captured the musings and longings I can expect to follow me once that dreaded day finally arrives. XOX
Julie Fitzpatrick says
My dad died on my mothers birthday, February 19th this year. My mom passed two days before Christmas this past year (which she loved and there were not two crafts that she would not marry together). I’m having dreams of her and she is pissed that I gave away all her books. I miss her, no one will ever be as happy to see my face as my mother was, I know that sounds maudlin but that’s how mothers feel I suppose. Your mom would have been filled with joy at how your life turned out.
Chris Bellezza says
Beautiful thoughts, as always, Ann and thanks for putting into words the feelings so many of us feel. I knew, from the first sentence, that I would end up in tears and hear I am, hoping no one will notice. My Mom died when she was 49 and I was 22, before I met my husband and long before I had my own children. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for her, when she realized she was dying, to know that she would never see how her own children turned out, what they did, who they married and most of all, to know that she would never meet the grandchildren she longed for. I am sorry that I didn’t have more time with her, since I know I would have appreciated her more as I became an adult and a mother. As I approached 49, and passed that milestone, I became increasingly grateful for each and every day that I get to spend with my children, and to share with them some of the things that make me me and that I learned from my Mom. Hugs to you, Ann, and Happy Mothers Day. I know you are an awesome Mom!
Skip Bensley says
Heartfelt words indeed. I lost my mother a few years ago and it never gets easier, especially on mothers day. Yesterday I rode from Natick to the hatch shell and back just to be free of sitting home. I didn’t want to be home wondering about things and conversations we could of, but never had.
So many good questions and no answers.
I often wonder what my dad would be doing, would he visit, would he have retired to Alaska (or Germany) like he planned, or would we have chosen to live elsewhere to be closer to him? I also see his smile in the girls and wonder if he would have seen it too – though I know he would have also loved them dearly.
And no, he wouldn’t recognize my current life, family or friends either. He lost his life in 1987- at just 55. Before my husband, before the kids, before most of our friends entered our life and before cavaliers. Rather startling to think about the present from that perspective.
Thanks for sharing and posting this. Hugs to you.. . .