I have been motherless for nearly 40 years. I was 21, a senior in college and unprepared and ill-equipped to fully deal with or understand what this profound, life-changing event would mean for me or to my siblings. Not yet an adult, I certainly lacked the maturity required to manage this loss. There was no guidance ahead of time or conversations about what we would do when the time came. No one talked about the big “C” forty years ago. And, no one talked about the severity and seriousness of my mom’s diagnosis in front of her. Somewhere along the line, a decision was made to keep things from her. This “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy meant that everyone walked around with their heads in the sand or truly unaware and unable to imagine a time without her.
As a teen, I was rebellious. My parents were stupid…(in my mind) didn’t understand anything and they never left room for possibilities. Conversations were shut down with a word. My mother never asked me about anything she didn’t want to know about. More “don’t ask, don’t tell.” That seemed to be the family motto. Truths were cloaked in secrecy. Private whispers shoved to the background because there were just some things that shouldn’t be talked about.
Ironically, as a young child I was clingy and hated leaving my mother’s side. I couldn’t play for more than a few minutes outside without running in to check on her whereabouts. I remember yelling down to the basement through the laundry shoot to see if she was there or where in the house she might be. God forbid she left me. In fact, one summer, when I was four years old, I overhead by mom talking about sending me to the parks and recreation day camp. Unfortunately, you needed to be five years old to attend…fortunately for me, I had one more summer at home with my mama. Apparently, in those days, proof of birth date was not required. My mom walked me to the camp and signed me up…just like that. Was she so desperate to get rid of me? She lied to the camp office. I never went anywhere without her except to my grandparents’ house. That day, 57 years ago, is imprinted on my brain like a tattoo. No sooner did my mom turn and walk off that I began to cry…hysterical, wracking sobs. “I want my mommy…. I’m only four,” I managed to get out in between tears. BUSTED. My mom was called to come retrieve me. She must have been so embarrassed. Can you imagine?
Then came puberty. My mother handed me a book and told me to let her know if I had questions. SERIOUSLY? This was the “film strip” era; health in school was delivered via this medium and certainly wasn’t taught in a way that celebrated puberty, changing bodies or healthy sexual relationships. I believe that at one point my mom did tell me that intercourse happens when a man and a woman (who are married) love each other. By the way, this is the very same woman who had three babies delivered while under general anesthesia. So much was hidden, not talked about and attached to some level of shame. She couldn’t teach me how to use a tampon and didn’t offer to go bra shopping or find appropriate make-up for a 12-year-old. I needed her for all of those things and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” mindset made it impossible for me to let her know this.
When I was a sophomore in college the call came from my dad who handed over the phone to my mom, I didn’t really know what to make of the information. Something had happened while she was out enjoying a ladies’ luncheon. Whatever she experienced scared her. She asked me to come home; she needed me. I don’t think I’d ever heard my mom say that. I didn’t know what my presence would do for her or why she needed me. But, she did. So, home I went. I went to the doctor’s appointment with both my mom and dad where difficult news was shared. I was just a kid (in my mind). On some level, I think I knew more than she did, but we never talked about it.
Surgeries, chemo, hair loss, radiation and devastating news…the tumor is back. More poisonous cancer treatments.
I was away at school so not plugged in to the day to day at home. Keep in mind this was before facetime was even an idea and the only phones we had were attached to the wall with a cord. I believe it was Passover. I came home for the traditional Seder and brought a friend from school. We took the bus from campus. When my parents picked us up at the bus stop, there was a stranger among the group… no one bothered to tell me that the cancer treatments changed my mom’s physical appearance. My mom was nearly unrecognizable. I actually let out a gasp when I realized who I was looking at. In that moment, I was angry and ashamed. That was not my mom. She didn’t look like that. And why didn’t anyone prepare me?
There were quite a few life events that I was unprepared for, especially my first few Mother’s Days without my mom. More shame. I didn’t know how to get past the day of not having a mother. I felt less than. I couldn’t talk about it. Kids were supposed to have mothers and fathers. I didn’t know any different until it happened to me. And then, it was unnatural. It was something to hide. More “don’t ask, don’t tell.” I was ashamed to be a motherless daughter.
Four decades later, Mother’s Day has a very different meaning. However, I’m keenly aware of those who are without and those who are experiencing their very first without their mom. It is a loss that is unimaginable. Even as adults, we need our moms or a mom-like figure in our lives; someone who will love you without question, who will feed your soul, nourish your mind and fill your heart like no one else.
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