Mystery and Poetry in Remembering My Mom on Her Birthday

Grief is such a small word for such a big feeling.

Posted May 21, 2020

Courtesy of the author
Vintage Photo of My Mother
Source: Courtesy of the author

“Morning! Hey! Do you wanna grab a… Oh.”

I was crying at my desk.

“It’s fine. I’m fine. Nothing bad happened. Everything’s fine!” I blurted out, wiping my eyes, chirping out the words sweetly, apologetically. “My best friend is having a baby girl,” I said, the image of the ultrasound still open on my cell phone. “I just found out.”

“That’s great,” my co-worker said, a note of relief in his tone.

What I said was true, but it wasn’t why I was crying.

“I know, it is great,” I replied, calming myself down. She’d been worried for years about infertility and warned by doctors that, due to health issues, conception might not be possible. To me, this baby was a miracle, a lifelong dream to someone I’ve known since we were 12 and love like family. “And… it’s also my mother’s birthday today,” I added hesitantly.

“I see,” he said, nodding and understanding. Having written and spoken very publicly about my mother’s suicide in late 2015, no further explanation was needed. “Is this always a hard day for you?”

I nodded my head, more a gesture of appreciation than affirmation. I wasn’t crying about my mother’s birthday, either.

Not exactly. In this state, I couldn’t yet articulate the why behind my crying to myself, let alone to a co-worker over coffee. Regaining my composure about as quickly as I’d lost it left little time for self-reflection. The nod would have to suffice. Then we did what any two civilized people do when caught in an awkward moment: pretended it never happened and went back to work like it was any other Wednesday, which for me it most obviously wasn’t.

For the rest of the day, I held myself together, which I’m proud of, considering it was my dead mother’s birthday all day long. It was fine. I spoke to friends and family who called to check-in on me. I was fine. After work, I paid a visit to my favorite bookstore, which is called The Last Bookstore, and also happens to be the last bookstore I visited before my mom died. Nothing bad happened there. My boyfriend and I ate tacos for dinner. Everything was fine.

Regardless of my determination the whole day to maintain a general sense of “fine-ness,” I couldn’t shake the words I’d heard earlier: Is this always a hard day for you?

What was the answer? I could speculate based on some universally acknowledged trends about human responses to loss and mourning, but that would only be a prediction. This was a question where, as Rainer Maria Rilke so famously penned, you must “live your way into the answer.”

In the wake of her death, my mother’s birthday is still foreign territory, but in 30 years, when I’m older than she ever came to be, this day will make up a significant part of my emotional landscape, a place that doesn’t always make logical sense.

Speaking of things that don’t make sense… I did eventually determine, or more accurately admit to myself, why I was crying at my desk when I learned one of my BFFs was having a baby girl on my dead mom’s birthday.

I was crying because my mother would never get to meet the child my dearest friend was carrying. It was my mother who always said she knew my best friend—her “surrogate daughter” as she liked to say—would have a girl of her own one day, despite those doctors’ predictions. I was crying, because I had a palpable sensation that my mother somehow orchestrated this entire moment from the great beyond, contradicting my understanding of basic metaphysics and the limits of the known universe. I was crying because when I saw the image of this tiny, unborn child on my cell phone screen, I felt the vastness of my mother’s spirit inhabiting the room, as real as the ground beneath me.

My mom was very good at getting her way, but this was really pushing it.

Was that hard? Sad? Happy? Yes.

It was all of those and more. It was, as will come as a surprise to absolutely no one who’s lost someone to suicide, the mysterious poetry of grief.

Grief is such a small word for such a big feeling. Like light, it is right on top of you one minute and halfway across the world in the next; half matter and half motion, it is an unexpected particle that represents the whole of someone’s absence and a sudden wave of memory that crashes down and washes itself away.

The etymology of the word “grief” can be traced back to the Latin word gravis. In Latin, the word means “heavy, important, and fateful.” The word also means “pregnant.”

I think about the day this baby girl will be born. I expect there will be tears. I’ll be crying in the waiting room. The baby will probably cry as she enters the world outside the womb, to her a foreign land. And giving birth, my best friend will cry too, as mothers cry experiencing one of life’s greatest physical pains and one of its deepest wells of joy. It’s just a prediction, but I think this is the exact location, inside this emotion, where my mother’s memory has taken up permanent residence.

As I make my way, I’ll be grateful for my grief, for the time I had with my mother in life, as well as the time I have with her in death. In grief, there’s no need for answers.

There’s no need to explain why I found myself in The Last Bookstore two days before my mother’s death, not knowing I would never see her again, and of the thousands of books for sale there, I bought a rare first edition of poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay called Fatal Interview. And days later, when my mother was gone to wherever she is now, I opened the book to its dedication page and read these words:

“When I think of you,

I die, too.

In my throat, bereft

Like yours, of air,

No sound is left,

Nothing is there

To make a word of grief.”

This article was originally published on The Mighty.