As another Mother’s Day approaches, I (like so many women reading this) will spend the day remembering the woman who brought me into the world, but because of an early demise, has left mine. Today, February 10, 2013, would have been my mom’s 86th birthday.
I was only 5 years old, and she 38, when lung cancer stole her life. The once stunning 6-foot-tall, Southern beauty with black hair and hazel eyes was ravished by the horrible disease that left her frail, weak, and physically aged way beyond her young years.
Her death has haunted me to the core of my being and left that little 5-year-old child to grow up without the experiences and traditions that only a mother and daughter are supposed to share. I was the only one of my friends without a mom, which always left me feeling so different and somewhat disjointed from my friends (and actually, from life..). Reading Hope Edelman’s book Motherless Daughters has been, and continues to be, a great comfort to me, and has been since I discovered it while in my 20s. For several years now it’s become a tradition for me to give a copy of that book to women I know who lose their Mom. I guess it’s my way of saying, “I’m so sorry you are now a member of the club that none of want to belong to.”
It’s horrible to experience the death as an adult, but when you lose the most important person in your life while still a child, it throws you into a whole different realm. SHE is supposed to be the one to teach you so much about life, and about becoming a woman. I can remember reading that Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell said they instantly became friends and how they both shared the experience of losing their Moms while they were children. When you meet another woman who has gone through what you have, it’s true — instant connection. You look at each other, and your gut tells you, “Yeah, she knows. She gets it”.
I wish I could remember the sound of my mom's voice, what her touch felt like, what she smelled like. I’m told I look just like her and that I carry myself like she did. Knowing this does give me joy. I wear her amethyst ring every day, and I find myself unconsciously twirling it between my fingers just thinking about her. I am blessed to have photos of her, and a few of just the two of us together. My favorite is where I’m about 4 years old, and the two of us are standing in front of our 1963 white Mercury convertible. She, in her black-and-white shirt, black pointy toed high heels, long white gloves, sunglasses, and a scarf tied fashionably around her head. And I stand in front of her in a light-blue, matching shorts ensemble, holding onto her glove, also wearing sunglasses and a little white tie in my hair. We look like we’re headed off for an adventure to take on the world. It has indeed been an adventure, but one I’ve had to travel alone.
My father, who worked in heavy construction, was left with thousands of dollars in debt due to her medical bills. He left seven months later to go oversees to earn the money to pay them off. So, now it’s the feeling of being abandoned by both parents. At the age of 5, you can’t process all of this. All you know is that you are not like everyone else.
I went to live with my grandmother, who, at 72 years old, took on the task of raising a 5-year-old. The year was 1965, and I was the only one around who lived in such an arrangement. She was a strong, very witty Irish woman. We survived on her social security and what money my Dad would send. She always helped me with my homework, and when she bought me my first pair of ice skates, she let me walk around on the kitchen linoleum. I remember it left marks, but she didn’t care. One Mother’s Day, when I was about 10, I remember she made chicken. I told her I wasn’t hungry and that I missed my mom. She looked me dead in the eyes and in a way I had never seen before. As her eyes began to fill with tears, their clear, green color looked almost exaggerated. Then her voice cracked: “I have a hole in MY heart too!” What I didn’t know was that she had lost her mother when she was only 12. And there it was — validation that it doesn’t matter if you are 5 when you lose her, or 77 when you still ache for her, it’s a primal loss that festers at the core of your soul.
Even as a child, I was always very affectionate and vocal about my feelings. I would smile, look up at her, and say, “I love you Gram.” And she’d say, “It’s reciprocal.” Did she love me? Yes. Was she demonstrative about it? No. But I adored her. She lived to be 89, and it turned out SHE was the one who showed me how to become a strong, independent woman.
So, now at age 53, I consider myself to be blessed to have an amazing group of lifelong female friends whom I turn to when I stlll have the need to be mothered and nurtured. As they now each are slowly beginning to experience the death of their own moms, I’ve been able to be the one they turn to, and it's a role I’m happy to be in. I recently saw a photo and quote by Madeleine Albright that said: “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.” I’m with you sister!
I discovered my passion in working in the field of special education. I taught for several years, and for the last 20 years, I have supervised 30 amazing special-education teachers and school psychologists. I was never able to have children of my own, but in a way, I get to “mother” these 30 terrific people.
Having photos of my mom throughout my house and office brings me comfort. It’s a visual and emotional reminder that she was the most important connection I’d ever have. The beautiful thing about photos is that it freezes a moment in time that will never be recreated. I recently placed her high-school senior photo next to mine, and was amazed at the similarity of not only our features, but the expression on our faces. Here we were, two women at the same age on film, but destined to live out completely different life journeys.
I miss her every day, and days like today are harder than others. There are times when I see a little girl about 5 with her mom, and I still feel a tug in my heart. I’d like to think she can see me and all that I have accomplished in my life and the woman I’ve become. I believe you should always let the people you love know how you feel since living in the moment is all we truly have. Having traveled the long road of loss, and sharing my story with others, it warms my heart when I’ll say to my friends, “ I love you," and they reply, “It's reciprocal!”