An essay about raising a daughter without your mom.
I roamed the streets of Dublin in a haze that shifted from confused to mad to heartbroken with every step. When I saw a small bookstore with signs in the window advertising a going-out-of-business sale, everything only 5 euros, I went inside, leaving my emotions on the street. They didn’t belong in such a sacred space.
I found a book smeared in shades of lavender, a color my mom painted our downstairs bathroom. It was called “Love’s Last Gift” and was written by an Irish writer named Bebhinn Ramsay who lost her husband while visiting America. In it she writes, “But grief is not linear; it comes in waves. The scripted stages – from denial, anger, bargaining, depression to acceptance – co-exist in time. They are not played out in some linear perfection. Some days the grief is lighter and I feel a sense of distance and progress. On other days, I am swallowed whole by the monster of grief and stand weeping, my emotions naked to two uncomprehending children.”
Bebhinn’s words settled into me, like a mantra I didn’t know existed until now. I would not overcome this beast in a day, a year, or maybe even a lifetime. It would shape who I am as a mother, sister, partner, and human. I could stand in front of the sour cream at the grocery store, ready to put a carton into my buggy to make my mother’s German lasagna one minute, and be crippled by anxiety the next, gripping the dark green cart handle until my fingers turned white. But my hands would always gain their color back; my breathing would steady. Until the next time – a perfect wave of grief coming and going, pulling itself away from me, much like the ocean, until it was time to hold my breath once again.
I didn’t get to ask her all the questions. By the time I realized my mom was leaving us, she had lost most of her voice and strained to talk; her handwriting was practically non-existent. Her skin sagged against her, like wax melting off of a candle stick. She was hollow, a shell, lost between the present and the afterlife. I couldn’t ask her the questions because she wasn’t my mom anymore, not really. She was already lost, giving in to the next chapter of her own life, one where I and my family would be left behind.
Motherless daughters hold something that not all grief gives you. We hold resentment, not for us, but for our children. I resent the fact that my children will not know the woman who breathed life into me, not only by being the physical reason for my existence, but also the reason I have any shred of self-confidence. She boosted my spirits in my lowest times, and brought my ego down in my highest.
It was 2016 and I was newly engaged when she passed, studying abroad for my graduate program. My son from a previous marriage would be my only child to hold her face in the palm of his hands as he told her an important secret. He would be the only one to see and hear the joy in her laughs, to feel the tenderness of her kiss on a boo-boo. I feel the heaviness of that realization when I look into the big blue of my baby daughter’s eyes. She won’t know any of this and she won’t know me pre-death. She won’t understand that her mommy isn’t quite the same mommy she once was.
But motherless daughters learn to change from daughter to mother. We have to become a different dynamic. After accepting our mothers are gone, we become them. We are now the go-to person, the boo-boo kisser, the wealth of household knowledge, the spirit-riser, and the captain of organization. A motherless mother learns to handle the role in an instant. We held our own mother on a pedestal and now know our own daughters will eventually do the same. The bond is sacred, important, and impenetrable. We must guard it with everything we have because we know how quickly it can be taken away – in a gut-wrenching instant. And when the waves hit, because we know they will again and again, when we find ourselves tasting nothing but salt water and gasping for air, we focus on the sapphire diamonds in our daughter’s eyes to feel steady once again.