Remembering my mother on the holiday she hated.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.


My mother never liked Mother's Day. She thought it was a fake holiday dreamed up by Hallmark to commodify deep sentiments that couldn't be
expressed with a card. So we never observed it when I was growing up.
She would much rather have had our company for the first Saturday in
May—she loved horse racing, and Derby Day most of all—than at an
obligatory brunch at an overcrowded restaurant eight days later. When
she was diagnosed with cancer in 2006 things changed a little, for me
at least. Suddenly Mother's Day had some meaning. It became an
inscribed moment to try to hold on to what was slipping away before my
eyes: namely, having a mother.


This Mother's Day is the second since she died, on Christmas Day, 2008 (I wrote about her death and my grief in Slate), but last year I was too dazed to notice much. Now, for the first time, the endless mentions of the holiday everywhere ("Make your Mother's Day
reservations now!") have forced me to take stock, whether I want to or
not. Where will I be on Sunday? Where am I now? I wonder. Mainly, I
feel that while my grief has lessened—dramatically—my sense of being
motherless has intensified. I hadn't anticipated this. The first grips
of grief were so terrible that I couldn't wait to get beyond them, to a
state I hoped might be "better." But as each new day arrives I find
myself, though suffering less acutely, more unmothered. Strange. And: not part of the contract!


People with mothers can't really know what this is like, and I have new empathy for friends who lost their mothers when they were young. I was
32, but even at this age, it hardly feels minor to lose one's model at
a juncture when I still have so many questions: whether and when to
have children, what to do about my mild allergy to the institution of
marriage, what a life's work should truly be. My mother was about my
age when she was promoted from schoolteacher to administrator, becoming
head of the middle school at Saint Ann's, where I was then entering the
seventh grade. I remember how nervous she was speaking in public the
first time, at a meeting the day before school started. She fretted all
that morning, dressing. I agonized with her, because I was deeply shy,
and such a task seemed heart-freezingly terrifying. Afterward I asked
her how it went. She said, "You know, you just have to do it. You don't
have a choice. And then once you've done it, you can do it again, and
it isn't so bad."


Meghan O'Rourke and her mother. Click image to expand.

The Author with her Mother


This was her pragmatic approach to life—not idealized, not perfectionistic, but intensely present. If you could be present, the rest would work itself out. Now, of course, she's not
present, and yet I have to figure out how I can be. One thing
that helps is summoning up her words and her jokes—even her little
rebukes; I might get irritated by something trivial, and then I catch
myself saying (often out loud) the very refrain of hers that used to so
irritate me: "Lighten up, Meg." In fact, as the grief passed, I began
to feel my mother inside me—usually on holidays or in groups.
I'm not much like my mother; that role falls to my brothers, who have
more of her blithe and freewheeling spirit. But lately there are these
moments when it's as if her spirit enters and inhabits me; it's
palpable, like being possessed. The word inspiration comes from the Latin words for "in" and "breath" (spirare, which also gives us our word for "spirit"). Maybe I've breathed my mother in.


On Easter, two of my mother's best friends and their families came over to my father's, and I went too. I found myself making a little joke that I
thought my mother would've made over dinner. I hid Easter Eggs with her
friend Diana for her three young sons. The chaos of life suddenly
seemed more absurd than it ever had—for example, when the dog started
eating the Easter egg I'd thought I'd cunningly placed behind the
barbecue. (A week later, I was having dinner with an old friend who
lost her father almost 10 years ago. I asked her how her life had
changed following his death. She paused and thought. "Mostly, the world
seems funnier," she said.) That weekend both my mother's friends said:
At moments, you remind me of your mother more than ever. It's not my doing, I think; it's hers.


I think about my mother every day. But usually the thoughts are fleeting—she crosses my mind like a spring cardinal that flies past the
edge of your eye: startling, luminous, lovely … gone. Which is to say,
I don't think concertedly about her as much as I used to. Mother's Day
forces me to do that. What comes to me this year—the gift I wish I
could give her—are all the things I never said along the way about how
much her example meant to me, particularly the way she was able to go
with the flow, never letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, and
nearly always making a joke out of the situation, even when, as usual,
our family turned up late to a wedding, covered in dog hair because the
retriever puppy wouldn't stay in the way back of the station wagon, but
leapt onto us where we squirmed in our "good clothes." Or when, in the
hospital two weeks before her death, she misread the "Diabetic Menu" as
the "Deathbed" menu and laughed so hard tears came out of her eyes.


But I think a lot about one moment: Once when I was in college, my parents had a dinner party with some teachers. It was a festive midwinter
affair and everyone got a little lit on red wine. As two young teachers
were talking past us, my mother leaned over to me and said, "I just
wrote my mother a letter about what she meant to me. We're really bad
at saying these things in my family"—my mother came from a traditional
Irish Catholic family, gifted at merriment, teasing, and storytelling,
bad at expressing emotions—"but she's had breast cancer and I wanted
her to know. And it made me think about you, and how there are so many
things I don't say to you, but I want you to know." What she said next
was just that she loved me and was proud of me, but those words,
prefaced by her sharing a piece of her experience of what it was like
for her to be in the world, meant much more than the same words in any
other context. I recall clearly the sensation I had—a squeezing,
falling one, a silly, encompassing flush of love. And also this: In
that moment I could see her as more than my mom; I could see her as a
daughter, a person who'd had to make her own way in the world, who had
to learn to speak in public, to command authority—things she did by now
with such ease you'd never guess that once they struck her nearly mute
with fear.


In Motherless Daughters, journalist Hope Edelman notes that "the motherless child symbolizes a darker, less fortunate self. Her plight is everyone's nightmare, at
once impossible to imagine and impossible to ignore. Yet to openly
acknowledge her loss would mean to acknowledge the same potential for
one's self." Edelman is talking specifically about children who lose
their mothers at a young age—but, in a sense, losing a close mother at
any age is a nightmare. The mother-child bond can be so strong, so
unlike any other, that it is categorically irreplaceable. Unmothered
is not a word in the dictionary, but, I often find myself thinking it
should be. The "real" word most like it—it never escapes me—is unmoored.
The irreplaceability is what becomes stronger—and stranger—as the
months pass: Am I really she who has woken up again without a mother?
Yes, I am.


It's funny what stays with you about a person. My brothers and I talk a lot about my mother's driving. She was a great driver, with an extremely (and uncharacteristically) foul mouth. When
Eamon, my youngest brother, was little, she used to drive him to and
from his baby-sitter in Brooklyn on her own way to school. I was asking
him (now 22) what he remembered most about her, and he said, "The way
she wanted everything to be fun." (My brother Liam said this too:
"Things were just better when she was around.") Eamon reminded me of a
game our mother used to like to play on the way home: the game of not
getting stuck at a red light. This meant that sometimes she'd take a
different route than usual, that sometimes she pressed the gas pedal a
bit harder than she should have, and that at other times she dawdled,
taking her time rolling down a block so she'd reach the light just as
it turned green. Whenever anyone cut her off and acted wishy-washy (she
hated wishy-washy) she'd honk the horn; hitting the brakes, she
inevitably said, "You asshole," slowly and expressively. Once, she had
a meeting, and my dad drove my brother to work. Eamon was then about 2½
, with blond, cherubic curls. Someone cut off my dad. He hit the
brakes. Silence. Then, from the back seat, a lilting voice: "You ath-hole."
A dubious legacy, I suppose you might say, but I told my brother this
story the other day and he didn't remember it. (No harm, no foul.) What
he did remember about our mother was this: "She was very warm to lie
next to, like a blanket."


As much as the talking, the model-providing, the advice, it's that we miss: the blanketing warmth. One of the women Edelman interviewed for her book said, movingly, about being motherless: "You have to learn
how to be a mother for yourself. You have to become that person who
says, 'Don't worry, you're doing fine. You're doing the best you can.'
Sure, you'll call friends who say that to you. … But hearing it from
that person who taped up all your scraped knees … that's the one you
keep looking for." Perhaps that's why now—though I'm usually very
polite in public—when I drive, I hit the horn more than I used to. The
other day I rolled down my window and said, softly into the air, "You
asshole."


Oh, and Mom: Todd Pletcher's Super Saver won the Derby this year, with Calvin Borel onboard, for his third of four Derby wins. That man is a rainmaker.

Views: 28

Replies to This Discussion

I lost my Mom at a time when I needed her the most which was during our search for Jon. My entire, large family, was grieving for Jon when Mom went in for a simple operation and ended up catching that horrible infection (not super staph, the other one) and died months later after a slow and painful death as the infection claimed her inch by inch. As she was dying the cruelty of this infection made it so you could walk into her hospital room and she would seem like Mom, carrying on wonderful conversations, reading books, laughing and then 15 minutes later she wouldn't be able to recognize anyone.


I was living in Arizona when my Mom was dying. I had made it back to KC to see Mom and talked to her on the phone frequently but I really had not prepared myself for the call from my family telling my brother and I to get home now. That flight was a blur I barely remember it however the race from the airport to the private treatment center was horrifying. We kept getting calls to hurry and my brother seemed to be driving so slow. I kept trying to get him to run the red lights for fear we wouldn't get there in time to say goodbye. As we pulled into the parking lot family members were outside waving us to hurry I think I jumped out of a moving car and I remember flying down the hallway to Mom's room. When my brother and I got there it meant that all six children and almost all of my Mom's grandchildren were in the room surrounding her. Mom lingered on for another day. That last night I slept on the bed between my Mom and Dad. She was in such pain and we prayed for her to die. Here we were all with her which I knew that was what she was waiting for before she would allow herself to pass yet she kept living. My Mom the good Irish woman who always, always cared about how she looked and being clean ... well it dawned on me that she would not go to heaven until she was clean but thinking that she would die any minute the nurses had not bathed her. I asked the nurses if they would give her a last bath and they did. Mom died just a few hours later. Clean, with her family around her and Irish music playing but I believe it was her favorite song Somewhere Over the Rainbow that was playing as she passed. Mom wanted to be cremated so after she passed her granddaughters and one sister-in-law were the last ones in the room with her. They made an Irish Toast over her and then left the room, closed the door ... for us it was like the closing of the casket.

As I think back on that time I was so, so proud of my daughters. They were in KC while I was in Arizona and they spent so much time with my Mom. My oldest daughter spent all of her spare time with my Mom, reading to her, discussing their love of books, just being together. My middle child had inherited my Mom's need to look nice at all times so she would come in and brush my Mom's hair and make sure she had lotion on and lip gloss. My youngest would bring her gift of gab that she inherited from my Mom into the room and along with both their abilities to be able to discuss current events both news and entertainment I know my Mom enjoyed those visits. I always knew I had great daughters but the beauty of their personalities still touched me during this time.

Although I lost my Mom at the worse possible time of my life when I needed her the most I will always be grateful that I made it home in time to say goodbye.
That was beautiful Sara...thankyou for sharing !

It's my Mom's 7th Mothers-Day in Glory for her...but yes, it's as difficult as nearly every day without them...

Hey, no worry's...we'll join them one day SOON !

Blessings dear Sister... blessings.
PS: AND thankyou for sharing your photo...
YOU look adorable, as always & your Momma, so young & sweet !
I can relate to your story and how true. But our family we did celebrate Mother 's Day . I remember the last year I had my mother and I was a mother. My mother was to come home from rehab on a Friday but she insissted to stay through the weekend and come home on Monday, well they gave her a medication that she was allegdic to and she died in my arms the the she was to come home Monday, that's the day I became Motherless and 8 weeks later I came home from work and my only child Jason had been murdered, and that is the day I no longer was a mother, but for me each day becomes harder and harder to cope.But I do have my wonderful memories of my mother and son especially on Mother's Day. My son would bring me a single red rose and a gigantic card and I would buy mom a box of candy and a card because she loved cholate candy.
So every Holiday especially Mother's Day I spend my day at the cementery because I feel a sense of comfort and peacefulness with being with them so we all are together.They my not be here in body form but I know in my heart they are with me in spirit.I truly cherish my wonderful memories of my son and mother( my buddies)
Ah, Cynthia you went through so much in such a short amount of time. You still are a Mom and you still have a Mom. Maybe not in the way you would like it but they both died very much loving you. Their love for you is so strong it will carry through eternity and so will your love for them. God has never said that love dies but He did say it lives on through Him. I know those words are hallow on a day like today, revist those words tomorrow and they will make more sense.
Maureen,
Thank You for your comfort and support. I have tears running down my face as I was reading
your words and yes it is true ,our love for each other will always be alive for eternity!!!

Stay well and God Bless

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