Momento Mori, or Motherless Me


“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.


8 Responses to “Momento Mori, or Motherless Me”

  1. jean kirkham says:

    Dearest Suzie–So as the long time friend of your Mother–here is my loving advice for what is is worth. When Kelly pulled her “Flit” as the English say–I got great help from a therapist at a place called Shalom—Peace!!! (run by the modern Mennonites)–and here is what I learned—-To STOP being good. Boy what a relief that was..—- and to swear—My kids think it is great!!!!! HOLY SHIT!!!!! To be what you need to be. Yell at whomever you want–Who wants to be perfect anyway. On my tombstone it will say—SHE TALKED TOO MUCH!!!!!–and in the long run who really cares. Be yourself –You are a great soul and you will grieve your mother’s death,—- gradually grief lessens and someday you will know it was a blessing for her to die. Live this period of time –one day at a time letting waves of grief wash over you.
    Hey if you know of any perfect people I need to know–Have not found any yet–and if they tell you they are perfect –they are lying!!
    Jen loved being with you and so did we–Your strength is your honesty and a wisdom–You go girl –with my blessing–love jean xxoo

  2. Amy Diamond says:

    Oh Suzanne- that was lovely.
    I remember years ago talking with my mother (with whom I fought near constantly for many reasons) and saying something along the lines of “well you don’t still think of your mother do you?” Her mother had died years before, before I was born. She looked at me and said “I think of her every day of my life”. I thought that so odd. My mother died when I was 20. Long before I met Robert or had children or had gotten my shit together. And, as she before me, I think of her every day of my life. Not as a burden or a standard to strive toward and not even as someone who loved me without question (because I did not feel she did) but because she was my mother. The feelings change and there really isn’t active pain or sadness but, not gone.

  3. KM says:

    Just between you and me, Suz, you’re my favorite partner in our (very minimal) crime, dinner preparation, and center-piece creating. But don’t tell anyone, OK?

    Seriously, your honest grieving is an art in and of itself, not to mention your beautiful way with words. Go ahead and indulge and swear (didn’t Valerie herself swear in church after a wedding?) and cry and laugh. If you need a partner in any or all, count me in.

    Much love to you, my dear friend!

  4. Debbie Curtiss says:


    As one who has recently lost their mother (and I still say recently even though it will be four year this June) , I recognize and sympathize with everything that you’re going through. Losing one’ s mother is like no other loss in the world. There is a reason that when sick or in trouble the first person many people want is their mother. A book that I found helpful and very comforting after my mother died was “Tear Soup” by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen. Please know that you and your family are very much in my thoughts.

  5. Peggy Campbell says:

    This is beautifully expressed Suzie and I am so glad that writing is helping you through your many emotions at his time (none of which can ever be “wrong”).

    We spoke of poetry as consolation; this reminded me of Aunt Val somehow:

    The Wild Iris
    by Louise Gluck

    At the end of my suffering
    there was a door.

    Hear me out: that which you call death
    I remember.

    Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
    Then nothing. The weak sun
    flickered over the dry surface.

    It is terrible to survive
    as consciousness
    buried in the dark earth.

    Then it was over: that which you fear, being
    a soul and unable
    to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
    bending a little. And what I took to be
    birds darting in low shrubs.

    You who do not remember
    passage from the other world
    I tell you I could speak again: whatever
    returns from oblivion returns
    to find a voice:

    from the center of my life came
    a great fountain, deep blue
    shadows on azure seawater.

  6. Terilynne Knox says:

    You are my favorite soccer carpool mom ever!

  7. isabel huggan says:

    Dear Suzie

    I’ve just read your very moving blog, after having earlier read Jean Kirkham’s remarkably PERFECT eulogy for your Mom, perfect because it so clearly came from the heart and wasn’t just someone “trying to be good”…Jean has also sent me a wonderful email account of the entire weekend, the service itself right down to the hymns that were chosen, so I have been able to imagine how perfect the tribute to Valerie turned out to be. There’s that word again. Perfect. Yes, your Mom so strove to be perfect in the eyes not only of her parents but for everyone in the world around her, and it was a terrible burden. She and I did talk about this over the years, in the letters we wrote, and I gave her the same advice as Jean is giving you… Give it up! Cuss and curse and scribble over the edges…but although she understood well what I was saying, I don’t think Val ever took up loose imperfection as a way of life! As for you, my dear only-once-met friend, what you have written here is enormously profound and your candor, in openly admitting your mixed emotions surrounding this huge loss, is useful not only to you (honesty is always useful) but to those who read your blog. Someday soon I will write you a longer letter with some of my corresponding feelings and thoughts about grief — after losing my mother many years ago when I was only 30, and losing my husband 4 years ago. In both cases, I admit to a shocking sense of “moving forward on my own” that was pleasurable as well as frightening…Now you too are in the process of becoming YOUR OWN PERSON without the ties-to-your-Mom, and at the same time as missing that loving support you’ve had, you’ll find you’v already learned how to give it to yourself. That was your Mom’s best gift to you… you felt so loved, now you can be your OWN favorite. love, Isabel

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