I found my mother lying unresponsive in the living room of our home. She was slumped in her favorite chair with a peaceful expression on her face, her eyes closed as if she were dreaming about some glorious, faraway land. Within minutes, the paramedics came and pronounced her dead. She passed away peacefully in her sleep from natural causes on Friday, October 10th, 2014. That night, I remember telling my best friend, between sobs on the phone, these exact words: "She won't see me turn 30."
I was 27.
Throughout most of my 20s, I believed that I had experienced many of the joys and tribulations of a young adult. I graduated from college, moved to New York and then back to Philly (twice), started a job and got laid off, started a blog, became an entrepreneur, made and squandered money, dated a**holes, discovered love, traveled to many countries, developed a newfound relationship with my parents, experienced the death of a grandparent, dealt with an unhealthy shopping addiction, graduated from grad school, created and grew out of friendships, and so much more. I fancied it a breeze turning 30, having garnered a wealth of knowledge and wisdom through the trials of my 20s. Little did I know I was about to face the most difficult challenges of my life.
I never thought my mother would die. In fact, I dreamt that my parents would grow old together. I pictured them still nimble and happy well into their 100s. They'd watch me advance in my career and start a family, and they'd become sprightly grandparents. I could picture them spending weekends with my future kids, recounting stories of when I was young and loved to make movies with my action figures. I always dreamt that when the time came for them to leave this world, I would send them out to sea on an ice floe -- much like Elijah Wood's character, "North," did for his adoptive grandparent in the 1994 film. There, they would pass away with peace and dignity in the calm of a tranquil sea.
If only real life were as benevolent as a '90s children's movie.
There's no instructional guide on how to deal with the death of a parent -- especially when it's unexpected and in your 20s. As millennials, we've spent much of this decade coming of age alongside technology while dealing with the rigors of a terrible recession. We're also staying single longer, too. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, a whopping 64 percent of us are unmarried and single. With no immediate rush to walk down the aisle or raise children, many of us are still trying to break into a career. A lot of us are still semi-dependent on our parents for financial, if not emotional, support. Our generation as a whole is far more connected to our parents than they were to theirs.
Many of us still think of our parents as the pillars of our family unit. This was especially true for me. Since I am my mother's only child with my dad (he has an older daughter from a previous relationship), I felt the brunt of dealing with not only my own grief, but his as well. It was always the three of us. We spent countless birthdays, holidays, family outings and vacations together. We shared such an innate camaraderie that my friends often referred to us as the modern-day Huxtable family with just one kid. When my mother died, all of that ended. One of the pillars of my family unit had tumbled down. My world collapsed.
In the year since her death, I've learned a great deal about grief. I've learned that it's far more complex than I thought, and not a step-by-step process. Contrary to the philosophy of the five stages of grief, its progress is not linear. There's no gradual way to grieve. It's far more sporadic and intricate than that. Some days I'm happy and/or content or euphoric, believing that my mother is in a far better place. Other days, I'm angry, depressed and catatonic, wishing I could talk to her just one more time. It comes in waves -- some like a tsunami, others like a gentle tide.
I've also learned that many of your friends won't understand the loss of a parent unless it has happened to them. Although many of my friends are supportive, either lending an ear or offering a hug or advice when I need it, a few are dismissive. Literally a week after my mom died, a friend stopped me on the street to say: "Oh, I heard your mom died. I'm sorry. Hey, did you get an invite to my party this weekend?" Some have grown distant -- either not returning phone calls or acting like nothing happened when I talk to them. As bewildering and upsetting as this has been, I've learned that everyone deals with death differently. Some embrace it, and others mask it. There are two sides to every coin, and I've witnessed both.
You understand that your memories with your parents are sacred. There is a saying that I have scribbled in my tattered red mini moleskin notebook: "Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure" -- a quote from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Every so often, I open the notebook and leaf to this page and read it over and over. I am instantly taken back to the pleasant times I shared with my mom. I recall our many giggle sessions -- like the time a squirrel got into our home through the roof and my mother walked in to find it frantically running circles around our living room, leaving sh*t everywhere (apparently when squirrels get nervous, they poop a lot). She panicked and locked herself in her bedroom until my dad came home, in true #GailWendyStorm fashion. Or our many intimate conversations -- like the time I came out to her. Also, I recall our many screaming matches. All of these memories keep my mother alive in my heart and mind. It's odd -- with her gone, there's no one to reminisce about these special times with. There's no one to help corroborate my memories (or correct them) in the way she did. Sometimes, I feel like I'm the sole inheritor of a million stories, jokes, fibs and associations that only she and I shared. It feels very bittersweet. On one hand, I am glad I had all of the experiences; on the other, I am now the only keeper of them in the known universe.
As I approach 30, it will no doubt be difficult reaching a milestone age without my mom physically by my side. I feel her spirit everywhere I go, but I'm not sure that it is the same. Her sage words guided and steered me for 27 years. She imparted lessons during and at the surprise conclusions of all my harebrained adventures. I still feel her laugh and imagine her frowning whenever I do something dumb. But then, I think of all the possibilities and the challenges she went through at my age -- graduating high school, starting a job, meeting and marrying my father. Tracing her steps as she learned to become an adult makes me smile. She left me a courageous legacy to follow.
Life gets better. I know if my mother could attest, she would. It's an amazing and f*cked-up world, riddled with challenges and opportunities. I'm happy to live in a world like this, and I think she was, too. I'll cherish the memory of her, and how we affected each other's worlds, forever.