By Abby Mims
Four months after my mother died at 66, I was closing in on 41 and pregnant. Her dying had been long—four years—but my pregnancy had happened fast, only a few months of trying with no fertility drugs, narrowed down to one hectic shot in the right 24-48 hour window, and we had what could be classified as a minor miracle on our hands. I thought I was ready. I thought I was ready because my ovaries were ticking so loudly I could practically hear them in the quiet of certain mornings. I thought I was ready because I had learned to take such good care of my mother in the last years of her life. The cancerous brain tumor took her mobility and her speech and eventually, everything else, and because I had been the daughter least likely, but the only one left standing, I knew I could take care of a child. I thought I was ready because I believed that having a baby would cure my grief, that there would be a way to trade her death for his or her birth so that I would come out even. Whole again. But then the hormones hit, the reality, the heartbeat, the perfect spine lit up on the ultrasound at 13 weeks, and my loss was only magnified by this gain. Her absence, which was already taking up 90% of me, went for 100% and then some.
When I was in my early 20s, my mother gave me the book “How To Survive The Loss Of A Love” to help me get over whatever wrong boy had most recently dumped me. It had a cheery red cover that I thought didn’t quite match up with its outline of the stages of grief. It included a tidy graph of said stages—denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, acceptance—and I studied its ups and downs for the answers as to how and when I would feel better. Those jagged lines and plot points were comforting, because it indicated there was, somewhere in time, an end to my pain. Post-breakup(s), I would check in with myself: What stage was I in? Was I angry or bargaining? Anger was good, as that usually meant things were progressing; bargaining was bad, it meant I wasn’t anywhere near acceptance. Sadness was mind-numbingly boring and full of drama at the same time, with hours spent on the floor sobbing, promising myself I wouldn’t call him and calling him anyway, along with myriad lost afternoons (read: days, weeks and months, sometimes years) devoted to extensive forensic analysis of the situation with my girlfriends and my mother. And on it went, until I met the next wrong boy, who would conveniently stand in for the acceptance stage if I hadn’t quite gotten there yet. I believed the pain of losing those boys was the worst kind I would ever experience. I also believed that this roadmap out of mourning and grief was reliable, maybe even foolproof.
There was a short time in the beginning of my son’s life where the excitement and immersion of all things baby pushed the loss of my mother aside. However, this respite was fleeting, in part because his first weeks mirrored her last ones in such a way that spiraled me back in time, closer and closer to her death as I watched him live. The parallels of dying and new life surfaced in the boredom, the scorching level of need and helplessness, the bodily functions narrowed down to the most basic, the impossibility of escape. In both situations, no matter the support and love I had from those around me, I felt entirely alone. Each moment was so intense, ceaseless and without relief, that there was no room for anyone else to break through.
Then the past and present started to overlap: I was back with her in in those final days and with my son in the now, and she left me again as I was nearly torn in two by the fact that she was already so very dead. These sensations left me waiting in those dark hours—especially during the relentless, sleepless cluster feeding nights—for her to come back to me. I don’t mean I thought I would feel her presence. I mean I thought she would appear, flesh and blood, warm hand on mine, to guide me. This demand wasn’t reasonable, but neither were the demands of my son. He was a howling ball of need, as all babies are, one I was helpless in the face of more often than not. As I waited for my mother to materialize, I also waited for my son to make me feel the loss of her less, for my love for him to materialize and neatly replace the one that she and I had so fiercely shared.
Three years before my son was born, I moved from Portland to the Silicon Valley to be with my then boyfriend and now husband. My mother was still dying when I got here, so between trying to fly back and see her once a month, finding work, her death itself and then getting pregnant, by the time I had my son, I hadn’t had time to make close friends. What I had were the mothers I made eye contact with at the YMCA or the park, those I sensed might be as adrift as me. When I asked them, when, please God, does it get better, they would shrug and squint their eyes as if trying to see into the past.
“Three months? Maybe six months? I can’t remember, but it does get better.”
I didn’t believe them. That first year of my son’s life was so terrifying and exhausting that only fragments of my memory remain, despite being certain I wouldn’t forget one minute. I was a writer, after all, I would catalogue and analyze and transform what was happening. But when he was five weeks old, out of necessity, I went back to work from home during the day, and in the office evenings and weekends. We thought we could do it without any childcare, without any village, without any relatives within a thousand mile radius, which was, quite frankly, insane. Going back to work so soon only built on my initial terror and the general sense that I might be losing my mind—it gave me little to transform. Much of this was the sheer volume of what I didn’t know how to do for my son and not having a mother to call for advice, coupled with what I could no longer do, for example, anything from my previous. There was no time to read or rest or workout or go to the movies or brush my fucking teeth, in part because I was breastfeeding nearly eight hours a day. I thought this was some kind of urban myth, but it’s simple math: newborns feed every two hours, and sometimes a feed takes 45 minutes a breast and breast milk digests in 90 minutes, so the time space continuum ceased to exist. When I wasn’t feeding him, I was pumping for him or doing endless loads of laundry for him. Then there were the hallucinatory effects of extreme sleep deprivation. I cursed my soon-to-be husband for simply not possessing a uterus, I considered the fact that we had made a choice that couldn’t be unmade, and I sat in work meetings so woozy from it all that I felt as if I might puke or pass out. I had no strength to type anything I wasn’t getting paid for at the end of the day, and what writing I have from that period amounts to a jumble of confused notes.
What I remember most clearly about any of it are the Euro-moms. I saw them everywhere, roaming the streets adjacent to the Google and Apple and Yahoo and Facebook campuses, with their tidy $500 Maclaren strollers and leather jackets and skinny jeans and Aviator sunglasses, all of them bare-faced beauties with babies that never seemed to cry, and husbands in tech, which meant they never had to work again. I desperately wanted to be one of them. I wanted to want to change out of my spit-up covered yoga pants, to care about the coffee splatters on my shirt or the layer of crushed Cheerios in the seat of my second hand stroller or the endless stream of snot coming out of my son’s nose. I also wanted to stop squeezing in several glasses of Chardonnay between evening feedings and pumpings. It didn’t matter that I knew I would be up most of the night; I drank because I was pointlessly rebelling against a helpless, miniature human. I wanted to go back. I wanted my mother to be alive, and I wanted to be free.
Along with the little red book on grief, my mother imparted her own wisdom to me about getting over all those wrong boys. She said it took me so long to let go of them because I had to mourn the possibilities.
“You have to grieve what might have been, but isn’t,” she said.
I knew what she meant: the weddings I’d mentally planned, the house in the suburbs, ditto the trips to Australia and Hawaii. All those fantasies, hopes and dreams, they had died too.
When I try and apply the little red book theory to mourning her and all the possibilities of what we could have shared had she lived another 20 years, it doesn’t work. Tidy graphs and neat stages are worthless. Instead, I grieve her along some kind of twisted Benjamin Button timeline. I age and my son ages, but my mother remains as she was those last few years of her life: made prematurely old by steroids and immobility, paralyzed on her right side, struggling to produce the words that used to flow like nothing from her lips. I fight to remember her before, vivacious and healthy, in many ways as beautiful in her 60s as she was in her 20s. I want to peel back the layers of her illness and my memory and mourn who she was before brain cancer, and see that mother whispering in my ear and squeezing my hand just before the courthouse wedding I had last fall. I want to know the face of that grandmother as she swings my son to the place on her hip where I always am in photos at his age.
I should be better at letting her go, as it’s not like the only tool my mother left me to cope with her death was one slim volume of pop psychology. The opposite is true. My mother specialized in death, dying and grief—she was a geriatric and hospice social worker for almost three decades. As a kid, when I visited her at the nursing homes where she worked, I would hold my breath to stave off the smell of ammonia and canned peaches and cottage cheese, nodding politely at any residents she introduced me to, while praying I wouldn’t have to touch them. Not much changed as I got older.
But, in the years leading up to her diagnosis, I had told her numerous times that I was almost ready to start coming to grips with my own spiritualty and with it, my mortality. I was so close, I said, I just needed a little more time. Let me find a boyfriend, let me figure out what I’m doing with my career.
Post-diagnosis, in the depths of gallows humor, we would reflect on how the universe had made sure I’d had no choice. Usually, this would happen when I was getting her to the commode or excitedly telling her I had found the perfect Poise pad for her growing incontinence.
She would shake her head and say, “I can’t believe this is you.”
“Me neither,” I would say, and sometimes we would laugh until tears came.
The humor kept us going, and it was balanced with honesty. How will I possibly watch you die? What will my life look like afterward? I asked. I’m not ready, I said.
“When my grandmother died at 101 I wasn’t ready,” she said. “You’re never going to be. Here’s what I will tell you: the first two years after a death are the hardest, and the second year is often worse than the first. However, things left unsaid, regrets, and unspoken pain; that is what makes death even harder for the living. We don’t have that. You are going to have some awful days, but you are going to be ok. I promise.”
I’ve carried around a familiar feeling the last few days, part hormones, part stress, part toddler-induced exhaustion, part grief. It’s not familiar because of its components, but for the way it rests at the back of my throat, not quite tears, not quite anger. It’s a feeling I’ve had as long as I can remember, in those times when I know something is wrong, but I can’t quite identify what. Whenever I had this feeling, all it took to was the sound of my mom’s voice for me to burst into tears.
“Every since you were little,” she would say, “you’d hold it in until you just couldn’t anymore. I always knew when you needed to let go and cry.”
With her gone, I no longer have her reflection of who I have been or who I am going to be. I have a husband who loves me, and we have a good life and a beautiful son, and for that I am lucky, but there is nothing like a mother. Or, rather, my mother. She embodied unconditional love, worked hard on herself her entire life through therapy, yoga and meditation, along with near constant self-evaluation and spiritual study. She did this for her own personal growth, and so my sister and I could grow into our true selves. A version of myself disappeared when she died, a deep primal version. It was the one she had made, witnessed and cultivated. That loss was stunning. Stunning enough that I was still shell-shocked when my son was born a year later, yet even that shock was obliterated when he arrived. All my needs, wants and feelings were simply wiped clean, replaced with his. I thought I was ready. What I know now is that there is no way to be. I knew enough from watching her die that preparing for the moment of his birth was hypothetical and largely pointless: you can read and research and plan all you want, but in the end coming into this world and leaving it is all bodies and blood, constricting, releasing, changing—primal reflexes that miraculously allow our souls to come and go. We are not in charge.
Years ago, my mother was visiting me and we watched the documentary “Silverlake: The View from Here.” It’s about a couple, Tom and Mark, who have been together for decades; Tom has AIDS and Mark is HIV-positive. I don’t know where I was living then, it could have been Seattle or Berkeley or LA. My mother came to visit me at least once a year no matter where I was, because she wanted to be able to picture me in a place. She wanted to know the neighborhood, see how I’d decorated my apartment and meet my co-workers and friends.
I’m sure renting this particular movie was her idea, as she had worked with some of the first AIDS patients admitted to hospice in Oregon. Two things have stayed with me from that movie: the fact that my mother and I were both sobbing half an hour into it, and that the little red book makes an appearance. Tom has died the day before, and a grief counselor has given a copy of it to Mark. He flicks through its pages and holds it up to the camera, open to one of its recovery graphs. He says something to the effect of “Fucking bullshit” before flinging it across the room.
My mother has been gone three years, and my son is almost two. It has gotten better, although I couldn’t tell you when exactly it happened—I only know it finally did. Gradually, I fell deeply in love with him, and as that love doubles, triples, quadruples and exponentially expands, my grief shifts, morphs, shrinks and then, sometimes, grows in new directions. I now understand there is no neat swapping of death for life. There is no accurate correlation. Instead, there are strange moments of overlap where a bizarre creation/destruction Venn diagram forms.
This happened the other morning as my son and I were leaving the YMCA. There is a certain route we must take in his little mind, and it is largely futile to try and deviate from it. He was on his usual trajectory to a small hill of grass beyond the outdoor pool. The Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week” started to play, and half a dozen senior citizens in a water aerobics class began bobbing gently up and down. My kid stopped and looked around, then threw his head back and started to dance. His dad had recently taught him how, and he was throwing elbows and kicks in the air, completely lost in his own rhythm. The song made me think about my mother, and I started to cry. This wasn’t because she had liked that song, but because her love had been so present, so big, that there never were enough days in the week to contain it. There still aren’t. Then I watched him, my gorgeous blond boy. He was oblivious in his joy, with no idea of what this kind of love or loss means yet, feeling nothing but the music in his bones and the warm sun on his face.
Abby Mims has had her non-fiction published in Salon, The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown, along with several anthologies, most recently Spent: Women Expose Their Complicated Relationships with Shopping, from Seal Press. She received her MFA at UC Irvine, and her fiction has also been featured in The Normal School, Swink and The Santa Monica Review.