It’s a cloudy yet bright day in Los Angeles, the kind of day where it feels like anything can happen – a light drizzle can begin, the temperature can drop without warning, or a shaft of sun might break through and bathe us all in light. The kind of day that reminds you that whatever you’re seeing right now, whatever seems fixed and immutable, can change.
Or maybe I’m just in a funky mood because of what happened this morning.
7 a.m., Los Angeles time, and I’m padding around the kitchen in my pajamas with a mug of freshly-brewed coffee clutched to my chest. My older daughter has just left for high school, and my younger daughter and my husband are sleeping. In five minutes they’ll wake for the day. Until then I have the house to myself, to luxuriate in the brief silence before the day begins. I’ve set aside this morning to write this annual Mother’s Day letter, but I’m not sure what to say. For more than twenty years I’ve been talking and speaking about mother loss, extending words of encouragement and hope to young women whose losses are fresh and older women whose losses still smolder. Because that’s how it works, right? The fire of grief doesn’t burn forever, but the embers never die. Motherless daughters are reminded of this all the time – at graduations, weddings, births, deaths, birthdays, anniversaries, on Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day. Especially on Mother’s Day, when our thoughts naturally turn to the one who isn’t there, the one who left too soon.
I take a sip of coffee. One of the cats, the big, lazy one who loves my husband best, stretches on his way up the stairs and yawns. And then, from upstairs in the office, come the loud, mechanical clunks of the ink-jet printer gearing up to do its thing.
That’s weird, I think. Who’s printing at this hour?
I walk into the office as the sheet of paper starts emerging into the tray. Creatively Use and Respond to Change, it says at the top, and right underneath, “Vision is not seeing things as they are, but as they will be.”
Has my daughter had woken early to print something for school? Some uber-sophisticated 7th grade philosophy treatise? No – when I open her door, she’s still asleep. And in our bedroom, my husband is an immobile mass under the white duvet cover. So it’s not him, either. Huh.
Here’s a secret (because what the hell, I’m getting too old to keep secrets any more): Left to its natural state, my mind veers toward the mystical. As educated, as scientific, as cynical and jaded as I often am, as rational and systematic as I try to be, underneath it all I really do believe in magic in real life. Weird stuff happens. Weird stuff happens all the time. The hard part is giving ourselves permission to pay attention without feeling ridiculous, or ashamed, or bat-shit crazy for thinking this way. So I’m just going to give myself permission this morning.
Creatively Use and Respond to Change. Vision is not seeing things as they are, but as they will be.
Thank you, dear god of the ink-jet printer, for your inexplicably unsolicited wisdom. Because what is the experience of the motherless child if not a constant, creative, lifelong response to change? Our mothers are here, and then they are not, and much of what follows is an attempt to adapt to a world without them (and to whatever collateral damage they may have left behind). For some of you, that path will be strewn with obstacles. Maybe some big ones. They may feel insurmountable. You may want to give up. You may feel that way right now.
Please don’t give up. Here’s why.
Because those of us just slightly further down this path, by now we know that what is will not always be. Change is a constant. And thank god for that. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, soon after my mother died, I would console myself through hard times by thinking, “Nothing lasts forever. Whatever is happening now will change. I just need to get to tomorrow” or “I just need to get to next Tuesday and I’ll be on the other side” or “I just need to make it one more year and everything will be different.” And then I’d remind myself to get there one day at a time. Or one hour at a time, if that’s what it took. And hour by hour, day by day, Tuesday by Tuesday,– circumstances did change. Usually for the better, but not always. And then those situations eventually changed as well.
Those of you whose mothers have recently died, who are still immersed in the necessary and normal stage of acute grief – for you, I know, it’s hard to believe that the pain you’re feeling will lessen over time. It takes up so much of you right now, I remember. It may even help you still feel close to your mothers. I remember that part too, and it was hard to let that go. But please, let it go when you’re ready. This sorrow won’t always define you. Mother loss will always be part of your story, but it does not have to be your story. Your story is a gorgeous, unique tale that’s going to be full of highs and lows and pain and happiness, all the things it means to be human. You just got a heavy dose of the hard part too young.
You may feel now that your life will never be the same again. I won’t try to tell you otherwise. You’re right. A mother-sized hole will always exist in your life. But as the author Abigail Thomas has said, eventually you get used to never getting used to it. You recognize it as part of what has made you, you, and then you’re ready to move forward with that part integrated into your beautiful, complicated whole. This is the highest form of acceptance, I think.
The early loss of your mother has already set into motion a chain of events that are going to lead you to places you can’t even yet imagine. And you will, one day, be able to recognize good things that have come out of your loss, things that you cherish or are proud of, things that otherwise might never have occurred. In the 34 years since my mother died, some really bad shit has happened to me as a result (let’s block out most of my college years, shall we?), but some crazy good things have happened, too. Because she died I wrote Motherless Daughters, and because of that I met a motherless woman who introduced me to my husband, and 18 years later we have two daughters who have brought more joy and laughter into my life than pessimistic, worst-case-scneario little me ever thought possible. And because my mother died of undetected breast cancer so young (at age 42) I get regular check-ups and mammograms and do everything I can to preserve and maintain my health. I know it’s not all in my power. Still, I try. And when I sit at my older daughter’s high school graduation next month, a milestone my mother never got to celebrate with any of her three children, it will be perhaps the greatest accomplishment of my life thus far, just the simple act of being there. I have outlived my mother’s age by eight years now, and I wake up every morning so damn grateful just to be alive. Of all the gifts my mother gave me from her life and death, gratitude may be the most important one of all.
Newly motherless daughters: you may not feel any of this yet. I remember that part, too. But I promise you – I promise, I promise, I promise – that whatever you feel now will change. Whatever upsurge in emotion you may have this weekend is normal and understandable and real. If you feel the overwhelming urge to run from it, that’s okay. You get to call the shots. You wait till you’re ready. It’ll still be there when you are. But if you can bear the pain, I encourage you to embrace it as part of your journey. The pain means you loved your mother. It means you miss her. It means you are honoring what she gave you. Or mourning what you never had. And know that it will pass.
Outside my office door, the sun just broke through the clouds. I swear to you, this is true. (Granted, I’m a slow writer, so a lot of time has passed. But still.) See? Everything changes, it really does. Vision is not seeing things as they are, but as they will be. The same, I believe, can be said about hope.
Love and sisterhood to all of you on this weekend and always,
* For a list of Motherless Daughters support groups in the U.S. and Canada, please click here. *