This week marks 19 years since my mom died. Nineteen years! A person grows from a newborn to an adult in that time frame.
It’s really difficult to comprehend that that much time has passed. Although I can’t hear her voice even if I concentrate really intently, I can feel her presence. When my dad pulled out our cassette tape recorder with the handheld microphone when we were kids to capture our childhood voices and thoughts, my mom would refuse to speak into it. Although there are plenty of photographs of my sister and I, there are very few of my mom because she was always the one to hold the camera. Our movie camera didn’t have sound so her voice isn’t heard on home movies either.
I am also absent from many family photographs and videos as it is now I who holds the camera. But my voice often narrates the movies so I guess I won’t be the voiceless, faceless mom, unless our computer or YouTube crashes and loses everything. Or maybe they’ll still exist out there in the cloud, wherever that is.
I remember my mom being here as if it were yesterday, although she wasn’t here through my divorce or my single days or wasn’t able to be there for my wedding or the birth of my children. It’s weird to think that my husband will never know his mother-in-law and my children will never know their maternal grandmother.
My mother and I didn’t have the best relationship when I was in high school or college. On one hand, she was very encouraging – she’s the one who encouraged me to join the newspaper staff in high school because she recognized my love of writing – but she could also be very critical. The messages she transmitted are that she would always love us no matter what and that we didn’t need to be perfect, but we should always try our best. (In my teens I translated that to she would always love me, even if I was a big loser and no matter what I did, it wasn’t good enough. I’m not saying that was a rational translation, but that was my teenage rationale.)
It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I stopped responding so defensively to her comments. That’s when I was finally able to internalize the fact that my mom wasn’t just my mom but also an individual with her own struggles and challenges and she was doing the best she could. Now that I was older, my aunts confided to me about their childhood and, as my mom was the oldest of six children, she didn’t have an easy time of it. She recalled her childhood as burdensome, with having to devote much of it having to care for her siblings, in lieu of after-school activities, such as the piano lessons and dance lessons that my sister and I complained about. (And of course now I kick myself for discarding all of those great opportunities once my protests wore her down.)
But unfortunately it was when I was in my late 20s and gained this appreciation for her that she became ill. I remember her visiting my then-husband and I in our home and she didn’t make any snide comments about our home, the meal or our lifestyle. In fact, she was extremely gracious and appreciative. Perhaps even complimentary. After she left, I remember thinking, wow that went really well, maybe she realizes that she’s been really hard on us.
Then a few weeks later, she called to tell me she had kidney stones and was going into surgery. After her surgery, she called me to tell me that although she was under anesthesia, she remembers hearing somebody say something about cancer. Because she had had many medical issues throughout her life and it was always something or other, I was certain that she was being dramatic and that she’d end up being just fine. So when she called back days later to confirm that she actually had cancer, I remember sitting there on my couch as the sun came through the window wishing I could unhear her words and go back in time a few minutes to life before everything changed.
The short story of this is that when she was originally diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the doctors gave her 6 months to a year to live, but she died six weeks later. She left her apartment thinking she had kidney stones and never came home again.
I remember when my dad, my sister and I went to her apartment (my parents had been separated for awhile before this) to clean it out, her calendar was still on February even though it was April. That image still haunts me today – the idea that we never can be sure when we leave our house that we will return. (I wish that realization would cause me to always leave my house spotless, but unfortunately, that’s not the case so when it’s my time, I hope it’s after I go through a decluttering phase.)
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about her a great deal this week. A year after she died, I wrote a song called “A Year Ago Tomorrow,” which I read at a poetry reading literally on the day before the anniversary of her death. At that time, I wasn’t writing music for my songs yet so I didn’t have music for this one. I worked on that last week and recorded it last weekend.
Here it is, “A Year Ago Tomorrow,” which is now 19 years later.