When my mother died two weeks ago, I turned to writing to make sense of it all. I was asking myself, "Does this mean that I don't have a Mommy anymore?" I wasn't expecting to find my answer so quickly, and I'm hoping I can give solace to others who have a similar situation with an aging mother or father who for most of their life has been their only parent.
Following the death of my father when I was 8 years old, the rest of my life has been filled with dread about the retraumatization of losing another parent. I didn't want to imagine how painful it would be to go through all of that again -- the lack of knowing how to mourn, the fear of what would happen to me and my family now, and the intense longing to still have that parent in my life.
Given the feelings of loss and confusion I experienced when my father died -- how emotionally shattering that experience was -- I could only imagine that I would feel the same when I lost my mother, and these feelings persisted into my adult life. What I didn't realize, despite my background as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, is that the trauma of the loss of my father and that of my mother are completely different.
I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. However, what I had to actually experience from the death of my mother was the realization that throughout my lifetime, I was blessed to have had a long, loving, fruitful relationship with her. She has known me forever, and with her, I didn't have to miss much.
The death of my father left a gigantic hole in my heart, because -- unlike my mother -- I never knew him when I was a teenager or an adult, and he didn't know me. We were robbed of a mature, adult father/daughter bond. I will forever look at him through the lens of an 8-year-old who worshipped him, but didn't get to really know him. I never had the opportunity to challenge him as an obnoxious teenager, as I did with my mother. Nor did I get the chance for him to see me floundering and making mistakes when I struggled toward finding my path in life.
I thought about this the whole time during my flight back to North Carolina, but as I approached my mother's apartment in her retirement community (which she loved), I was overwhelmed by a feeling that I was not expecting -- relief for her. I had said the words, "I will feel relief for her," but I didn't really mean it. What I had been trying to do was comfort myself.
For the past five years, when my mother suddenly developed the dreaded "wet" form of macular degeneration and could barely see, her independent and feisty spirit was more and more tested as she slowly lost the ability to do things for herself. She couldn't imagine why she was still alive, and she would ask me, "Do you think God has forgotten me?"
My mother was a person who was almost always in motion, busy accomplishing tasks from morning until night. Famous in the family and in town for her "lead foot" when she drove, my grandmother called her "Miss Quick." To lose the ability to drive, followed by many small losses of independence day after day, was painful for my mother. I could feel it. I always felt she had a need to stay one step ahead of the many worries and burdens she shouldered without complaint -- raising three children on her own, as well as taking care of her own mother until she herself died at the age of 94.
My mother bravely assumed leadership roles in which she had to challenge some of the assumptions about what women were supposed to do. She'd be embarrassed if I told you the awards she received, so I'll honor her memory by not listing them here. Her greatest joy in life was to give a helping hand to others in any way that she could, and to bring a smile to their faces. In fact, one of her caregivers told us a wonderful story. She'd asked my mother, in her final days, what she hoped heaven would be. My mother's reply was, "It's a place where I can help people."
But still, my mother and I were very different. She couldn't figure out why I have such a passion to understand others and myself at a deep level. She would always ask, "But what do you talk to people about?" Her way was to roll up her sleeves and do whatever was needed to help people out, while my way has always been to say, "Tell me how you feel." However, although so different, together we made a dynamite team.
When my mother was younger, she would spend several months with me in Los Angeles during the winter. I would come home after work, and find that she had spent the day doing chores for me that only "mommies" would do. You know how there is always leftover "stuff" in purses -- a stray aspirin, paper clips, cough drops, a safety-pin, etc., here and there? Not if my mother got ahold of them. All of my purses would be scrubbed clean, inside and out. She would painstakingly copy my address book -- a hated task for me -- every year. So many little gestures of love, and it was never lost on me.
Even in my mother's incapacitated state, especially in the last two years, her mother's heart remained undaunted. She could barely see or hear, and was losing her ability to speak, but as soon as she would receive a new Huffington Post blog from me, there she was with her straw hat (with feathers) placed jauntily on her head, zooming around in her wheelchair through the corridors of her retirement community with the help of her loving caregivers, distributing my blogs to one and all. As a result, there are many residents at Carolina Village in Hendersonville, North Carolina, who know more about the Pan Am story that I often write about than almost anybody in the world.
And so it took my going back to my mother's apartment -- a place of a thousand little losses, pain, and endless boredom where she could no longer move around or see or hear. Now I know for sure that my mother is always going to live inside me. And all of the sudden, seeing the vacant place that she called home for 20 years, I am no longer picturing her as my frail, tiny mother as she's been for the last years. She has escaped the body that imprisoned her, and no longer allowed her to move quickly through her life. My internal picture is shifting, and my smiling, sunshiny, energetic mother is emerging once again. I can hear her young voice again, and picture her young eyes looking lovingly at me, as she often did.
Moreover, the moment that I dreaded the most at my mother's funeral, turned into one of profound comfort. As we all walked across the grass to the place where my father is buried, I was afraid of being overwhelmed with memories of that painful grey day in September of 1951, when we sat, stunned, watching my father's coffin being lowered into the ground. Instead, there was my mother's urn, right beside my father, just where she wanted to be. I looked around at my brother and sister, so grateful that I still have them, and noticed, finally, what a beautiful sunny day it was.