My mother died on March 1, 1981. I turned five years old just four days before. I will never forget what happened that night.
I woke up in the middle of the night. The light in my grandmother’s bathroom was on. My grandmother leaned into my face and said, “I have to go. Your mommy’s sick.” The next morning, my father and grandmother floated through the front door. My dad sat on the living room sofa. He said, “Your mommy’s in heaven now. She’s with the angels.” My grandmother said, “You can call me mommy now.” I said, “No, you’re not my mommy.” I walked in circles over and over and stomped my feet.
My memory of this night is stronger than any memory I have of my mother in life. Yet this memory does not capture what happened that night to her, why she was suddenly gone. My lived experience that fateful night was in my grandmother’s apartment, as I waited for everyone to get home from wherever they were. I sat awake most of the night mulling over the image of my mother in a sick bed, a thermometer hanging off her lips, because all I knew was what I had been told: “I have to go. Your mommy’s sick.” When my dad delivered the devastating news that my mother was “with the angels,” he sat alone and stared at the floor. My grandmother offered to replace my mom in name, to normalize things. But no one told me why my mother was dead. Everyone assumed that the truth would be too hard for me to handle.
The memories of my earliest years are hazy and disjointed, like a dream I am desperately trying to remember. In one memory, my mother saves me from a swimming pool where I sunk to the bottom after plummeting off a water slide. She was dressed in long jeans. She was angry at my father for putting me on the water slide alone. In another memory, my mother and I stand next to a pond overrun with thick algae while my father saves our dog Shadie, who had jumped in and started to sink because the algae was strangling his legs. In another, I was climbing all over my mother’s body in a booth in a restaurant while she giddily laughed and talked to someone – a friend, my father? She accidentally burned my arm with her cigarette, and she held me and apologized and called me her baby. In another, I sat in my mother’s lap in the front seat of our car while she and my father argued. We pulled up to our house on Arthur Drive, and my mother and I went inside. She slammed the door. I sat by the front window while she walked to the back of the house and I watched my father pull away.
I once read that the way a mother shows her own children affection is directly linked to the experience she had as a child. What she felt as an infant in her mother’s arms, what rocking, all-consuming cuddles she knew to expect (or not) in the nighttime when she cried out, she gives her own. If the theory about a mother’s affection is right, I have all the evidence I need of the realness of the love my mother once had for me. It was a physical love. When my oldest daughter, who is almost twelve-years-old, was a newborn and I sat with her alone, I discovered what it must have felt like to be held by my mother. My daughters — in their most intimate and earliest moments with me — helped me to find/shape/create (who knows?) a most profound memory of being a daughter, one who was taken care of, caressed, and gazed upon.
Some memories tell what really happened. Others paint a hazy picture, an impression of people and places and experiences, an interpretation of the life we lived. Still others are created because we are desperate to hold onto something, to fill in the gaps.
My story of loss is a public story now, which I have shared both in the debut episode of “Memory Motel” and in a TEDx Talk – my search for the truth is a public search. My memories are only part of the story. I’ve seen only a sliver of the truth through my own eyes.