“All hope abandon, ye who enter here,” because you are proceeding through the gates of shameless, narcissistic navel gazing. My mommy has died, leaving me motherless, which seems like good justification for ruminating, even if there’s little reward in it for you, my hapless reader.
I spent the long weekend in Connecticut for Mom’s Memorial Service, which was lovely. I wish she could have been there to enjoy it! Friends and family gathered from as near as the choir loft to as far as the Philippines to celebrate her life. Her childhood friend Jean Kirkham and three of her grandsons offered reflections, coalescing into a harmonious eulogy in four parts. Jean embodied the Canadian-bred elocution, warmth, and grace in public speaking that Mom tried to pass along to all her children, grandchildren, and pupils. Her grandsons spoke with confidence, love, and humor, each exuding his distinctive personality and reflecting different facets of hers. They began by introducing themselves: Alex, as “her second grandson”; Luke, a twin, as “one of her grandsons”; and Ben, the oldest and agent provocateur, as “her favorite grandson.” Despite Ben’s bravado, it was clear from their remarks that Nana had made each grandson feel like he was her favorite—like he had an especially close relationship to her that no one else could match and a place in her heart that no one else could occupy. Although she was always obsessed with being fair and equal, she somehow made each one feel like they were getting the lion’s share of her love.
A couple of times during the four-day stay at my sister’s house, I lost my temper, snapping at my nephews and brother-in-law, when I felt like their teasing provocations were unjustified, insensitive, and, well, unbearable under the circumstances. Soon after, when the heat of the minor crisis had dissipated, I made my apologies, admitting that no one would ever accuse me of grace under pressure. No one came to my defense. Nobody took my side or quietly reassured me that I had been justified in my outburst.
That’s when I missed Mom most, of course. Because just as she did with her grandsons, Mom always made me feel like she understood and sympathized with me ABOVE ALL OTHERS. She verified MY feelings and took MY side. Or seemed to. No doubt she was making my siblings feel like she was on their side, too. But no matter. She made me feel like I was her favorite. Now, motherless, I feel bereft. I’m no longer anybody’s favorite.
This feeling is maudlin and self-indulgent, fueled by false consolations and nostalgic distortions. But my Mom just died, okay? So permit me a few indulgences. I’ll get over it eventually.
Already, even as I feel sorry for myself and miss that kind of love that probably only a mother can provide, I also am starting to think: hey, wait, maybe I don’t need to be anyone’s favorite! Maybe I can grow up just a little bit and stop needing to have all my feelings and outbursts justified! Maybe I can start to think, act, and behave based on my own sense of right and wrong, which you’d think would be sufficiently developed after almost a half century!
Ok, probably not a profound realization to you, but a giddily liberating one for me. Which leads me to my hairdresser Chip (a font of wit, wisdom, and fashion advice), who told me that, after the trauma of losing your parents, you may find it’s actually liberating. People don’t want to admit it because it seems so heartless. But you no longer have these authority figures in your life, reminding you of a heritage you must uphold and a set of expectations you must fulfill. You’re free to be whoever you want to be.
This was not actually true for my Mom, who loved her parents with such devotion that she never, ever stopped trying to live up to their standards. They are the main protagonists of the memoir she wrote at age 70, and their deaths still ravaged her, sixteen years later:
The most sad and traumatic times in my life came with the deaths of my parents – my father on his 78th birthday, June 14, 1989, and my mother at the age of 81 on March 22nd, 1992. Nothing that happened before could have prepared me for the pain and emptiness I felt with their loss. It hovered around me for months, the shock and despair attacking suddenly and fiercely at unexpected times and in unexpected places. It sometimes still does that, especially in church where singing their favorite hymns is guaranteed to bring tears.
Mom kept singing her parents’ favorite hymns, carrying on their traditions, even sitting in the furniture they passed on to her, right up until the end.
There’s a lot of my Mom that I want to carry on—her fierce love of her family, her empathy and curiosity about what makes people tick, her love of reading and dachshunds, her ready laughter. But there are things I want to let go of too—an anxious need for approval, a desperate compulsion to be good, and crises of panicked indecision. “We are always changing” is a truth I’ve tried to embrace in the course of Mom’s Alzheimer’s, more than once. Alzheimer’s changed her, and it changed me, too. Her death has also changed me, in ways I don’t yet fully understand. I’m still learning how to let her go. Maybe the next thing to let go is the need to be justified.