Reaching for my Mother

I was 36 years old when my mom died. That’s twice the number of years that some people I know had with their own moms. But half that of others. It’s the kind of metric, though, that you can’t look at in that way. You can’t say, Well, I had 36 years, it’s better than 18! No matter how big-hearted and generous of spirit you are. Thirty-six years is simply not enough.

I think it is especially not enough when you have dragged your feet on childbearing. Had I had children at 24 — the age my own mother was when she had me — I would have had 12 years to rely on her guidance. More importantly, perhaps, I would have had 12 years to learn the questions I wanted to ask her about her own journey in motherhood, and in the life of being a woman with children, a partner, obligations to work, to love, and to others.

When my mom died, I felt that I knew her very well. We spent time together nearly every day. We had a free and open relationship, never shying away from stories or questions. At least, that’s how it seemed.

As I’ve aged I’ve realized that I’m plagued by questions, uncertainties, confusion, insecurities and griefs — all of which I’ve at times believed my mother held the key to unlock. I’ve come to attribute so many things to her — childhood hurts, conflicts in relationships, tendencies with my child, and old, impenetrable wounds. It’s quite likely that she merits only a fraction of the responsibility I attribute to her. But without her here to query and learn from, she becomes the easy foil for my doubts and uncertainties.

Mom on the way to Þingvellir in the week of her 60th birthday, just 9 months before her death. 

My constant seeking has, in many ways, distanced me from her. I feel farther from her now than I ever did when she was alive. I don’t think this distancing was warranted. Save for one extremely fleeting period in my life, my mother never withheld anything from me. Not love, not presence from me, not attention. We dined together, relaxed together, took solace in one another, and learned from one another. She was entirely there.

It seems unfair and unwarranted, then, that I attribute so much heartache to her. But in the simplest examination, allowing the particular complaints to fall to the side, it probably does make sense that I attribute so much heartache to her. It’s the overwhelming heartache of her absence, transmuted into the bogeyman of a score of insecurities or uncertainties or fears.

I only had to visit the emergency room twice in my life — once in my mid-twenties and once in my mid-thirties. At both times, my mom lived just one-quarter of a mile down the road from me. I was able to phone her in the middle of my crisis, and she was able to accompany me to the hospital. She was there, as nearly any mother would be, through all of it. Loving me, anchoring me, defending me, tending to me. This is just to say that I had utter, un-flapping confidence in her presence. She was there.

And then, now, she is not. And as I walk the path, seeking to understand and unravel the things in my life that have confounded me, confused me, and limited me, her absence is a giant, inescapable fact. But she doesn’t warrant the meanings I would sometimes place on her. The truth is that she was there, ever-present, ever-loving, and self-sacrificing, throughout all the years of my life. The paradoxical existence of her love and my hurt cannot diminish her.