This is my fifth Mother’s Day without my mom. I thought it would get easier by now. But it’s loss breathed in a different way. While the raw pain of her death—and the memory of those final raspy moments in hospice—has faded, the missing her and longing for her have grown—to make a quick phone call to find out her meatloaf recipe, to head to Bloomindale’s on a Saturday afternoon to find the perfect LBD, to squeeze her hand during my daughter’s dance recital.
There’s something even more lasting about the five-year mark. This can be a good thing—think about the five-year mark when it comes to cancer remission or staying clean from an addiction. But when it comes to a loved one’s dying, at least for me, five years means she’s really not coming back.
And right now, I need her.
So much has happened since Judith Mary Chauhan passed away on that September morning in 2007, the sun spilling languidly through the windows, the hospice nurse uncurling my fingers from my mom’s to lead me down the hall to a vacant room. “Look how beautiful,” she said, as she pulled up the blinds on the sun’s rising. For a long time, I wondered why—was it to give my mother’s final moments a backdrop of serenity and grace?
The second she died, I ran out of the hospital, leaving my 84-year-old father and brother floundering. I went home and took a shower. My husband at the time didn’t know what to do with me. I drove back to my parents’ apartment and curled up in her bed, surrounded by the warmth of her floral comforter, the faint smell of perfume still lingering in her sheets. I stayed there for two days, until I had no choice but to re-enter my life as a mom of three children, ages 6, 4, and 2, smile, blink away the tears, and tell them Grammy was in heaven.
I went to therapy but made it very clear: I will never accept my mother’s death. I was pigheaded in my grief. To me, acceptance implied, “yes, it’s OK that it happened.” Five years later, with the caretaking of time, I know it really means, “I understand why you had to go.” She had been the most important person to me, my Grey’s Anatomy “person,” my life coach, my best friend.
In the three years following my mother’s death, I needed my best friend: I lost my father to pulmonary fibrosis, I became ill and was diagnosed with celiac disease, and then on my husband’s prompting, we decided to divorce.
A relative is going through a painful separation with her husband. I speak with her mom often, trying to offer perspective and help her understand what her daughter may be going through. And I find myself saying, repeatedly, sometimes a whisper to myself, “at least she has you.” My divorce has been particularly hard because I don’t have my mom as a sounding board or a safety net. In the beginning, I wallowed in tearful self-pity; now I just think about how nice it would be to pick up the phone and call her, even to laugh at the absurd moments (and there have been many).
This is where the missing hurts the most. I wish she had told me more about what to expect as life experiences age you. But at the time, the questions and challenges hadn’t yet come. It was still early in my marriage, and my children were not yet in full-day school.
Among the many questions I’ve racked up in my head: Was I this unpredictably moody at age 10? Is it OK that I didn’t sign up my 8-year-old for travel soccer, excluding her from her group of friends? Did Greg and I ever make you so nuts you wanted to get in the car and drive away? (I did ask my brother this once, and he recalled my mom’s being so mad at us for not trying her homemade carrot soup, she, in a huff, got in the car and drove it, pot and all, to my cousins’ house.)
I see my life quilted in hers and hers in mine. We still call it Grammy’s French toast, the one made with Challah bread; I still wear my grandmother’s gold wedding band my mom slid onto my finger moments before my mom’s last surgery; I make an embarrassingly huge deal out of my kids’ birthdays, as she did with mine.
I’m struck by the similarities of our life paths. We could have some soulful conversations about having to leave behind the life you had worked for and switch gears. At 48, she packed up my childhood home of 22 years and moved to Maryland to start over (how I wish I’d helped her instead of indulging in another mindless weekend of college keg parties). My father, who was 20 years older, had to retire early from a career as a general surgeon; she was forced to go back to work.
At 43, I’m putting my house on the market and looking for a rental until I’m financially back on my feet. After seven years at home, I’m starting over in my career, launching my own business teaching writing to adolescents.
I realize my ability to do these tasks pretty much solo is because of her—the courage and determination she instilled in me from a very young age, first with her go-to mantra “the world is your oyster” and then by becoming a living example of a woman who took charge of her life, not letting disappointment get the best of her.
I like to think she died young, at 64, at the height of her career as a human resources director, a few years from retirement and a life of being a full-time Grandma, because of me—to give me the inner strength to face the challenges coming my way. That’s what a mother’s death will do for you.
Still, I wish I could know what she is thinking. Is she amused by my continued lack of domestic abilities—landmines of laundry and kids’ paraphernalia scattered throughout the house, dinner an a la carte menu of chicken nuggets and grilled cheese without crusts? Or is she proud of how I’ve handled myself—trying to put the kids first, remain friends with my ex, become financially independent, and still believe I am meant to have true love?
At times I look around at my girlfriends. I’ve never been one to be jealous of others, especially when it comes to impeccably decorated houses, better-behaved children, or more thriving careers. Those are feats I could attain if I worked harder or did a more consistent job disciplining my children. But I find myself in moments envious of my friends who still have their moms.
Sometimes it catches me by surprise, a pang in my chest when they casually mention their mom’s coming over to babysit or dropping off a roasted chicken for dinner. Or I will see a mother and daughter sharing lunch, surrounded by shopping bags, or arguing in a grocery store before a holiday (I remember my mom and I planning menus weeks in advance—we both loved to eat). I feel the urge to go over and hug them both—and tell them how fortunate they are.
I feel a little guilty because I know I am luckier than so many women who lost their moms at earlier ages. After all, I was an adult. My mom helped me pick out my wedding dress, she rearranged my furniture in my first house, and she was by my side for the births of all three of my children. I say, “I’d rather have 38 years of the relationship I had with my mom than 65 years of one filled with animosity or resentment.” And most of the time I mean it.
But today, Mother’s Day, I’d give anything to have her sitting across the table from me, a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and a couple of lobster tails between us. To simply look in her eyes and tell her how much I love her and miss her.