I've learned a lot about love by losing it. Most recently, my mother died, midway into her ninety-eighth year. She died with all her marbles and a sharper memory than most 40-year-olds. Fortunately for her, death came swiftly. One day in February she got the flu; the next day her tired little heart gave out. As a mother, she was, as my older brother once said to me and my twin sister, "a big zero." She really wasn't a mother at all. I have no warm fuzzy memories of her; no one does. She was, I came to see as an adult, totally estranged from herself and, quite possibly, chronically depressed. I doubt she ever had a heart-to-heart talk with anyone (even my father). She filled up her mind with trivia, which powered a bottomless, sometimes infuriating, stream of small talk. It was impossible to engage her at any other level. And yet, against even my own best guess, I am bereft. What I miss most of all are our near-daily conversations that were about... nothing, virtually nothing at all.
I Never Cried for My Mother
I long ago gave up wanting a mother. I was about 10—I can remember exactly where I was when I had the epiphany—when it struck me that I was never going to get any real caring from my mother. It was my secret alone; after all, it was heretical to even imagine that the flesh-and-blood woman inhabiting our house in no way resembled that mythical figure called Mother warming every other house I knew. I was undaunted, perhaps because we three kids were very high-spirited, good company, and had many friends, but most of all because I knew I was adored by my best friend's parents, some relatives and family friends. At the same time, I was also learning to trust my own dangerous thoughts.
Becoming the Mother I Never Had
Somewhere in our pre-teens, my sister and I shared the secret of motherlessness. We prayed that our mother would get a job and go to work so we wouldn't have to constantly confront the anomaly of an un-mother. And so for me, becoming a mother was scary—I had absolutely nothing to go on, no idea how to be a mother. And then one difficult day, when my firstborn was barely three months old and very (temporarily) sick, my mother gave me a spectacular gift; she confided what torture children put parents through. She assumed she was commiserating, but her ill-will was so striking it ripped open in me a huge reservoir of love and empathy for my son that became my instruction manual. I became the mother I never had.
A Shrunken World
After my father died, about 18 years ago, I began calling my mother daily. She was scared. She had panic attacks. I felt sorry for her. I sometimes rushed out of the office and up to the suburbs to calm her. My husband and I often took her with us on hiking day trips. After hip replacement surgery at 86, her hiking days were over and her world got a lot smaller. Friends and acquaintances died, and it shrank even more. I endured long tedious summer weekends of conversational minutiae in beautiful settings just to give her a change of scenery.
In the last few years, I took to calling her evenings after I left work, as I was walking to the subway or in a cab going home. Save your applause, please; my little filial act was carefully calculated. I knew the calls would be time-limited by my need to go underground or give a cab driver directions to my house. Sometime in the last year, my mother began ending the calls with "I love you." At first, it sounded tentative, like a question. It took her 97 years to utter those words. I couldn't say them back. I didn't make a big deal about it. I just let the opportunity slip.
Ashes to Ashes...
And then she died. At a Jewish burial, even in snowy February, you pick up dirt with your bare hands and toss it on the lowered coffin. You literally grasp the finality of death. It shreds the hardest heart. The timelessness of this ancient ritual lifts some of the burden of sadness off an individual's shoulders and merges it with all the losses that have ever been, and it connects you deeply with the endless cycle of life and death. But it is still plenty sad. I threw an extra handful of dirt, just to say a final, private good-bye. And then, I thought, that was it. After all, it had really been decades since I'd lost my mother.
But over the past few weeks, as my third book was published and there were tiny triumphs to be marked and little worries to be noted, I felt a sadness creep over me. I leave the office and I reach for my cell phone and then have to correct myself. It isn't just that old habits die hard. The minute fluctuations of experience—the mindless moments of daily life, psychologist John Gottman once called them, noting that how you handled them could make them a powerful kind of relationship glue—those are the things I shared with my mother. They were things too small to warrant dialing my far-flung friends. They were all that connected my mother and me. And now that's gone.
Not the Way We Want It
Love—it doesn't always come the way we want it, or need it. I am grateful I got to take the little there was. It was all my mother could scrape together. I had no idea how much I'd miss it.