Our Mothers Have a Way of Shifting the Universe
How vividly I remember those early morning phone calls from my father. I ignored the first few, assuming he’d pocket-dialed, and dozed back to sleep. Minutes later, the beep of a text from my brother: You need to call Dad. Annoyed but alarmed, I did.
When Dad greeted me with, “There’s no easy way to put this,” I assumed my mother was in the hospital again. Her mental illness had ebbed and flowed for at least fifteen years. She’d been going through one of her ebbs lately. I’d given up hope that she’d ever be cured; thinking of her struggle as the rise and fall of an ocean tide made it easier for me. But the words that followed did not make sense. Died in her sleep? The idea bounced around my brain, refusing to lodge. We weren’t supposed to be in that phase of life yet. I was 29, she only 59. She was by no means healthy, but she certainly wasn’t deathly.
I cried for the version of myself who’d gone to bed a year ago having no idea what would happen in the pre-dawn morning. I cried for the carefree lightness and cluelessness she’d floated on.
“What do you mean?” I forced myself to ask. As Dad repeated his words, something in my chest clenched and sank, literally pulling me to the ground. This couldn’t be true. Was I dreaming? And then I grasped onto a portion of understanding and lost my breath. I was suddenly so hot I couldn’t bear it. I threw the phone at my husband, ran to the bathroom and dry-heaved.
As I was lying in bed one year later, I cried not for my mother. I cried for the version of myself who’d gone to bed a year ago having no idea what would happen in the pre-dawn morning. I cried for the carefree lightness and cluelessness she’d floated on. I cried for the Becky with bright orange fingernails and a fresh tan from vacation, nervousness pounding in her chest not because her mother had died but because she’d just started a new job. I cried for the Becky whose insides hadn’t been shattered yet, who didn’t feel a rush of anxiety whenever a family member called, who hadn’t broken down in moaning sobs on a sidewalk in front of strangers, who hadn’t yet learned she would never “get over it” but rather would somehow make room for it. I cried over what death did to me, what it does to all of us. I missed that naive version of myself more than I ever had.
I woke up the next morning feeling calm. There was sunshine on my pillow, a cool breeze blowing through the window. My Boxer dog, Bear, wagging her little nub. Out in the living room, my husband with bedhead reading a newspaper. The smell of strong coffee. The other dog, a mutt, curled up beside him. My cat sprawled in the windowsill. Things that seem heavy at night always seem lighter in the morning.
I’d been experiencing some symptoms (my boobs ached, I was ravenous, I needed naps), but there was another feeling I couldn’t explain, some strange, cosmic knowledge that something was growing inside of me.
I settled into the couch. I felt nauseous, but not as bad as other days. The embryo growing inside of me was now as big as a blueberry, my uterus had doubled in size, there was 10% more blood coursing through my body than just two months ago, and the chances of a miscarriage were down to 4.2%. I rested my palm on my abdomen and thought about the joyous experience my husband and I recently shared of seeing our little embryo on a sonogram screen for the first time. Its tail and curved spine resembled a tadpole more than a human, but hey, it was our tadpole. The reality of a baby was no longer just queasy mornings and extreme exhaustion. Here it was, on a screen, its rapid, steady heartbeat pulsing at 130 beats per minute. My husband and I printed the picture and stuck it to our fridge between a photo of us in Mexico picking out engagement rings seven years ago, and a sympathy card a friend sent right after my mother’s death (“In your time of sadness, may the magic of the world be all around you and comfort you”).
I’d taken the first positive pregnancy test while visiting my family in Kentucky. I’d been experiencing some symptoms (my boobs ached, I was ravenous, I needed naps), but there was another feeling I couldn’t explain, some strange, cosmic knowledge that something was growing inside of me. The first five minutes after seeing that plus sign were pure bliss. My husband and I had done it. We’d successfully spawned a creature. I was right about my body, not delusional. This was going to be heavenly. All the wonderful moments we’d share!
And then it smacked me: becoming a mom without a mom. All the wonderful moments I wouldn’t share. I wouldn’t see the joy on my mother’s face when she first heard the news. I wouldn’t be able to call her and complain about heartburn. I wouldn’t learn her tricks for curing headaches, listen to her sing my child to sleep, watch her kiss his toes or hear her say, “He acts just like you!” After all of those strained years between us, clinging to every positive interaction amidst all the difficult ones, getting pregnant was supposed to change things. She’d loved being a mother and fantasized about having “redheaded grandbabies” since I was a teenager; we often spoke about how much fun it would be when her baby had a baby. My embarkation into the world of motherhood was supposed to bring us closer. It was supposed to be a new connection to one another, a special and beautiful event that was separate from our past struggles, separate from her illness. I would never be able to understand her hallucinations, mood swings, or phobias, but I would be able to understand this.
If I’d been at home in Brooklyn, I think I would have cried all day. But there was something serendipitous about receiving the news in her home in Kentucky, surrounded by the Victorian-style knick-knacks she’d collected over the years, the La-Z-Boy recliner she’d bought for Dad’s birthday, the family photographs she’d framed and displayed on the walls. I walked into her closet where some of her clothes still hung on their hangers. I caressed the sleeve of one of her sweaters, gripped the cotton fabric between my fingers. Then I buried my face in it. It still smelled like her, a mix of Joy perfume and her sweet, rosy skin. I’m pregnant, Mom. I made you a grandbaby. I felt her all around me, warm and bright. I told her how much I missed her, how much I would always love her. I promised her that my children would know her, I would tell them enough stories and show them enough pictures that they’d remember her. I thanked her for being such a loving mom, for giving me music, teaching me how to cook, passing along her silliness, her easy laugh. She gave me a great example. I told her I would follow it.
I’ve learned how to better appreciate what I have and to accept that, without notice, it can all change. I may not be as light or carefree as I was before, but my inner peace is deeper.
Soon, a stillness settled inside of me. I realized that even though I wouldn’t be able to talk about pregnancy symptoms or share toddler tantrum stories with her, my own journey into motherhood connected me to her in a new way. Being a mom was her favorite thing in the world. She always spoke about how much she loved our childhood years. Through being pregnant, giving birth and raising children, I’d be able to understand her so much better than I could before. I didn’t need to talk to her about it to be closer to her.
Lying on the couch with my husband and our pets on that morning of the first anniversary, I reflected on how much I’ve grown, how many strides I’ve made with my own personal demons, how much happier and stronger I am now. I’ve let go of many of my worries and am able to focus more on being present, on letting myself feel each little detail. I’ve learned how to better appreciate what I have and to accept that, without notice, it can all change. I may not be as light or carefree as I was before, but my inner peace is deeper.
I am also more realistic. No, the pain won’t ever go away. It does get better, but it won’t disappear. Grief is weird. It’s not linear, but rather circles back to the source and finds something new there. I know there will be moments in my future when the fact that my mother will not meet my child will feel terrible and unfair. I can choose to dwell in that, or I can choose to remind myself that my mother knows my children, and his children, and their children, too. And these children know her. They know me, they know one another, they know my grandmother and my grandmother’s mother. We are all alive inside of each other, being passed down bit by bit to the next generation.