Each year I struggle with it. What shape will it take? How will I make a box around it? The pain, the loss, the love, the joy, the regret, the disappointment… It’s impossible since nothing is more amorphous than the flood of feelings that envelope me this night each year. They are so big, still. This year they feel even bigger.. A friend of mine lost her mom and it disturbed the scab I wear over this wound. It made it even rawer. I would have thought that was impossible but nope. Here I am.
Since I believe the only way through the fire is through it, I am deep in it right now. Its all over me, like an itchy sweater I can’t get out of. But I am committed to giving it some demarcation. It helps to read it later, to know I let it out somehow. The catharsis has a rhythm now, after all this practice. So tonight is my night to let the ballast fail, to take on water and drown a little bit in the crushing loss of something so defining, so fundamental. You had that jedi-level skill only the very best mothers have. You let me think I was the commodore. I believed in my own mandate, knew I could handle anything life threw my way. Except, of course, you dying.
Tonight your ghost is all around. And I feel as desperate as I did 24 years ago. I went to bed on December 13, 1996 believing in the rightness of the world. That good things happened to good people and the unthinkable was just that. And then…
I am listening to hear where you are mom. I am listening so hard, and I hear you. I feel it in my bones. I know it. I have finally integrated it, taken the pain and the sadness and converted it by some magical alchemy into a woman I know you would be proud of. Are proud of.
Most people around me now only know of you. They are the ones I tell the good stuff to, those mental photographs of your fabulousness. They know you through me, I make sure of it. It’s all the other stuff, the intangibles, the vibes. There are no words for energy, which is why it is my most trusted instinct. You just feel it, and with you it was a force field of moonlight and laughter. Rarified, unequalled by anyone.
You know how they say you become your parents? That would sort of be my wildest dream come true. To be as intelligent and innovative as Gerald Frank Tucci? As humble and as genius as he is? What a destiny. And to be a vision of you? My glamorous, warm, funny, kind, brilliant stunner of a mother. Who could want more? Lovely and well meaning people will say things like “you look just like her!” or “you are your father’s daughter through and through!” But those are platitudes. I am a mere shadow of either of you. I got some tremendous gifts don’t get me wrong. I am not ungrateful in the least, rather awestruck by the depth of your character, your shininess. I never met two more sparkly people than you and dad. And you were nothing like him, and he is nothing like you. Two complementary mavericks who found one another despite the odds and then proceeded to absolutely crush parenting.
Thing is I am becoming like you in a way I wish I wasn’t.
I tried so hard. It chokes me each year, on this night. I mustered the strength to bake the pepparkakor tonight, knowing it would get me emotional but willing it to be not about that but about joy. I ferociously maintain our tradition of baking on this day, and talking about you. Like 12 year olds with a ouija board we conjured you tonight. You were here in the cardamom and clove scented atmosphere with us. I felt you. I feel you.
And it made me cry.
One of my most vivid memories as a little girl was our visits to Raus Kyrka, the church in Råå Sweden where my family has been parishioners for something like a thousand years. Actually. I remember my smocked dresses (you made them), my hair bows, my hand painted wooden shoes. And I remember my job. I was the water pumper. In those days Raus had a foot operated spigot which looked like an old pump coming out of the ground. Next to it stood one or two empty watering cans. I always raced ahead to start the filling. I pumped dutifully, as hard as I could, to fill the vessel before you caught up to me. You always had an armful of flowers to plant and it was a day I always looked forward to. Each time however, it caught me by surprise. That moment when I would look up to your beautiful face so proud of my efficiency and I would invariably see them. Your tears.
Its hard at seven to make sense of that. I never knew my Mormor Greta. I only knew she must have been incredible and that I couldn’t fix this for you. I never knew what to do except hug you and tell you it was ok. Just like Oscar did tonight. Fuck I don’t want to give them this legacy. But I can’t help it. And every summer they race each other to the water spigot. They fight over who actually got there first (they are boys afterall), get caught up in the minutia of the tasks at hand, argue a bit about who should do what. Then they look at me. And I am them. And I am you.
I thought by now, 24 years later, the sting would have subsided. I thought that I would be expert at sharing how much joy you brought into every single room you entered. I was sure I would be regaling my own children with all the wonderful times you surprised me at school mid morning and feigned a doctor’s appointment only to whisk me to the city for tea at the Plaza and shopping and dinner and everything amazing a little girl could want to do. I do that too, but not tonight.
Tonight it swells, bursts through the seams of me and runs down my cheeks. And I can’t hide it from my sweet babes, the ones I don’t ever want to feel the fear and confusion I did when I saw you cry over your lost mother.
I’m doing it though mom. I did the brave thing, the hard thing. I hold my head high, no matter what, just like you taught me. Even when, like tonight, it weighs a thousand pounds. There is something about doing it alone that feels even more powerful, and more true. I always say to myself that I will live for you, I will carry your heart with me as I stride bravely into the unknown. I will take all those smarts from you and Dad, all the preparation of years of study and hard work and great leadership, remember to sprinkle just enough of that naughty fun and glamour you patented and then go split the sun.
This life now is pure, in perfect alignment. That ballast that tips me over tonight is actually rock solid 364 days out of the year. It feels clear and I have to believe it is your voice whispering in my ear. You’re still calling the plays, so subtly and with all your innate grace, but it’s you. You are my heart and my spine, still. I remember writing something once, in those pitch black days of the early motherless years, about how I was nothing but a beating heart and a bloody spine (I wrote a lot of dramatic shit in those days). I wrote that everything else was gone, had burned with you, ashes to ashes. It holds true though. You live there, in my heart and my spine. Equal parts kind and firm. Soft but strong.
I will cry for you tonight mom, how could I not? Who would I be if I didn’t? And tomorrow I will live another day as if it isn’t owed to me. I will let your beauty shine out from deep within me, and I will share it. Like you taught me to.
“I never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life,” she’d wept to me once, in the days after she learned she was going to die. “I always did what someone else wanted me to do. I’ve always been someone’s daughter or mother or wife. I’ve never just been me.” “Oh, Mom,” was all I could say as I stroked her hand. I was too young to say anything else.” – Cheryl Strayed
I’m being me mom, for both of us.