My mom died 20 years ago on the 28th of September. That’s in two days.
Enough time has passed now that I can talk about her without my knees knocking, my pulse pounding, and my face flushing as I fight back tears. It’s not a nice spot, really, when you feel like your body is operating in survival mode. I can hear her favorite song – the one they played at her funeral (Have I Told You Lately by Rod Stewart) – without running out of a crowded restaurant. I can celebrate Mother’s Day (sometimes) and even find joy when I do. I can (and this is a big one) imagine myself growing up to be older than the age she was when she died, at 33. That probably sounds bizarre and macabre, but I’ve read that it’s quite common to be unable to visualize yourself as being older than a deceased parent (author Hope Edelman calls it “mortality math“). I’m 32 now with a baby on the way, so that milestone feels especially good and timely.
None of this was the case when I was barely 15 and a freshman in high school. It had only been two years since her death and, as a family, we were still hellbent on pretending nothing terrible had ever happened. Just (poof!) and she’s gone, you know? I was taking a journalism class that year, and was one of maybe a handful of underclassmen in it. There were, like, seniors in there. Cute ones. We were assigned to write a 2-page paper on the “Most Emotional Thing that had Ever Happened to Us in Our Lives.” We were told that it would all be confidential and that we should really feel compelled to be honest. Ralph’s “What I Want for Christmas” theme in A Christmas Story sounds like much more fun, doesn’t it? A compass and a stock and this thing which tells time, anyone?
And so I was honest. Here’s what I wrote (remember that I’m 15 and try not to judge too harshly):
I was asked to write about my most emotional moment for Journalism. I knew right away what that was. I remember walking in a grocery store with my mother and my little step-brother. I think we were in the pop and chip aisle when all of the sudden my mother collapsed. We took her to the hospital even though she insisted she didn’t need to go. We found out that she had a golf ball-sized tumor in the center of her brain that was growing. She started taking chemotherapy and right away we could see the results. Her hair had completely fallen out. Her face was really pale, like snow. She developed black and blue marks on her skin very easily because her body weakened. But most of all she started losing her memory. I remember on the day of my 12th birthday, instead of singing happy birthday to me she sang it to my sister. And she would start to forget what words were. She would want something but she couldn’t remember what it was. About five months later she was put in the hospital permanently. My little brothers and sister and I weren’t allowed to see her because we weren’t old enough.
I never once thought she would die. No one ever explained to us what cancer was. Everyone was so positive about it all. That’s why I was so shocked when I found out the day after she died. I overheard my family talking about it, trying to decide how to tell us. I was shocked and then became very sad. Not only because I didn’t get to tell her goodbye, but because I didn’t get to tell her I loved her. I don’t know that she knew. I can’t remember spending much time with her before she got sick, because I always felt like there would be time. But there wasn’t. More and more it’s getting harder to remember her voice and the little things like how she smelled.
My roly poly, loopy handwriting.
And guess what happened? My teacher decided he would collect the papers and randomly read a few aloud. I’m sure he figured this was okay since he didn’t divulge the name of the person who wrote it. I’m also sure that you know where this is heading.
Yep, he drew mine first. And just as soon as I realized that it was, in fact, mine, my body went into full-bore panic attack mode (not that I knew what a panic attack was at that time). I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve never, in all my life, felt more physically awful than I did in those 5-10 minutes. And you know what happened next? My classmates started frantically looking around the room, trying to figure out who had written it. The girl sitting next to me (who to this day I despise when I see her name show up on a friend’s feed on Facebook) saw me trying to hide my face and straight up said “That was yours! Wasn’t it!?!?!” I nodded shallowly. The jig was up. Perhaps to rid himself of any residual feelings of guilt, the teacher took great pains to choose two other stories that were about things like cheerleading camp and dogs named “Scruffy.”
I didn’t die and I didn’t run out of the room, but I was mortified. People clapped when the teacher finished reading my paper, but that didn’t matter. I felt kind of violated. That was my story to share when I wanted to and with whom. I’m deciding to share it here on my own terms, and that makes all the difference.
20 years brings other things, of course, but that gut-wrenching physical response is long gone. Thankfully.
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