Many nights as I am drifting off to sleep, I see my mother's face flash before my half-closed eyes. It's the healthy mother -- the one with the bright blue eyes, patchy freckles and large, toothy smile. I used to think that I would never be able to envision that face again after the gaunt, jaundiced one that I watched grow weaker every day in the last few months of her life as she valiantly tried to fight her cancer.
As I see her on so many of these nights, a pit enters my stomach, and I am jolted awake for a moment with the thought that I will never actually see that face again, hear her voice or hold her hand. How could that be? How could I have lived nearly a decade of my life without her? Before her death, the longest we had ever gone without seeing each other was that three-month stretch in between visits when I studied in London as a college student. We never made it through a day without talking on the phone -- at least once.
The other night, something out of the ordinary happened. As I drifted off to sleep, I saw her face, but did not feel the pit. Instead, there was a warm feeling of calm that washed over me. I briefly flashed back to the past day that I spent with my husband, children and the dinner with my father. It was a great day -- a normal day, or at least a new normal. What was that?
In the immediate days after her death, I stood on my parent's driveway alone as others sat inside. How could all of those people be in my childhood home, eating, drinking, and visiting while my mother was nowhere to be found? I remember thinking that life would never be normal again.
At that point, I didn't really know what normal was. After losing my 57-year-old mother to a rare form of cancer, I kept thinking of a phrase that someone once shared with me, "People plan, God Laughs," and I know more than ever that this is true.
I remember taking my baby son to a music class a few months after she died and wishing she was there with me. I comforted myself back then by thinking that by the time he started Kindergarten, I would not be as sad.
I would soon learn that grief is not linear. Her absence hits me when I least expect it. When I visited my now-10-year-old at sleepaway camp last summer, I felt a huge sense of loss all day as I imagined how much my mother would have loved to see him at camp, a place where she felt most at home. The most recent anniversary of my mother's death, however, passed without incident. It felt like just another day.
It sounds like a cliché, but since she died, I have had good days and bad days. The good ones are filled with new experiences, good friends, challenging work and of course my family. The bad ones often start off good, but then end late at night with that pit in my stomach -- the sense that time is marching on, but my mother is missing out, and there will always be a huge hole in my life.
That is why the new sense of normalcy and calmness that washed over me the other night took me by surprise. My mother is dead, and I am still happy. I think about my friend who lost her mother when she was 15. I used to wonder how she could function so well when she was motherless. I told myself that I'd be a basket case in her shoes. Maybe people think that about me now?
There are obvious reasons for my happiness: my health, my husband, children, family and friends. The life that I have created after my mother died is filled with rewarding work, including reaching out to cancer patients, their families and writing about these experiences. My mother would be surprised by this work, as she did not want to talk about the disease when she had it, much less attend cancer support groups as I do.
I have developed my own relationships with my mother's friends and new ones with various family members. None of these new relationships would have existed had she had lived. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I fill a void in people's lives that my mother once permeated, and I am comforted in knowing that.
Just the other day, I met a friend of hers for coffee who told me that she misses my mother so often, but is grateful for the gift that my mother gave her in me. I smiled, and I could see through my mother's friend's eyes that she sees much of my mother through the daughter -- especially my smile, which is practically a carbon copy of hers.
I know that if she had lived, there is a pretty good chance I would be a more shallow person, less thoughtful and certainly not as strong. I wish she was alive, and that I was all of those things -- a much less self-actualized person. Those thoughts do me no good.
Feeling guilty about my happiness -- about my new life -- is exactly what my mother would not have wanted. When we first learned that the tumor in her eye metastasized to her liver, I was living 600 miles away while pursuing my graduate degree.
"I'll come home," I said to my mother while fighting back tears on the phone.
"Oh no," she replied in her typical upbeat voice. "You are not to be my nurse. Don't ever use me as a crutch." She never used the cancer as I crutch, and so I can never use losing her as one either.
And so I don't.