In the twelve years since you died, I moved eleven times and saw five therapists. I hiked in the Grand Canyon, backpacked through Europe, and drank wine in the high, open window of a Montreal hostel. I took a train alone from Toronto to Vancouver, sleeping upright in my seat for three nights. I graduated from college. I fell in love. I hung your portrait above my desk.
In those dozen years I considered but did not attend graduate school. I read hundreds of books, wrote four, and published one. I got married, bought a house, and adopted two cats. I walked through graveyards. I learned how to cook, how to garden, how to juggle. I fasted. I stopped eating dairy and then started again. I mentored troubled girls. I led disabled children around on ponies. I took up yoga and jogging and joined the Y. I got my wisdom teeth out. I visited the emergency room twice. I kayaked, attended pottery classes, carved pumpkins, and screamed on roller coasters.
I broke no bones in the years since you died. I learned no new languages. I had no children.
I made it through twelve Mother’s Days without you. I made it through twelve Christmases, twelve of your birthdays and mine, my college graduation, my wedding, three career changes, and a book launch. On the day you would have turned fifty-seven, I sat in your best friend’s living room and didn’t mention you once. On your most recent birthday I forgot, for hours at a time, to miss you at all.
The day after you died, I went into your bedroom to sort through family photos. Scott’s wife, Megan, found me there and asked if I was OK. She had asked me this same question two days earlier in the hospital room, where I sat stunned by your side. She would ask it again a few months later, on the day she and I packed up your house for good and drove away. We were alone in her car, and I thought about how she was blond like you, and a teacher like you, and had even gone to the same college as you and studied music like you. In that moment I let myself pretend she was you.
You died on a Sunday, so it was a Monday when I sat on your bed and went through the old photos to make a collage for your memorial service. I’d bought a piece of pale-blue poster board at the drugstore, and I stuck photos of you on it. There you were with Scott and Craig and me as babies, and there you were laughing in front of the Christmas tree. I wrote a line of poetry about you in the top right corner, but I can’t remember what it said.
Megan isn’t my sister-in-law anymore, by the way. I thought you should know.
I volunteered to pick out the flowers for your memorial service. Everyone kept asking if this was a good idea, but I insisted. Scott and Craig were handling everything else, and I was tired of playing the helpless little sister. Buying flowers was a simple, concrete task. I could do this.
It was January and snowy, and I underestimated the road conditions. My car skidded down our driveway and fishtailed across the empty cul-de-sac. Then I drove on as if it were not a frozen January afternoon following your death but a dry, sunny August morning. On the second hill my car spun out of control and jerked to a stop on the side of the road.
I took a deep breath, then eased back onto the asphalt and proceeded slowly, cautiously, all the way to the flower shop where, during prom season, high-school boys and their mothers bought corsages. I had received my own share of chilled flowers in little plastic containers from this florist. Now, only two and a half years after my senior prom, I was flipping through the catalog of funeral arrangements. Even the simplest ones were more expensive than I had anticipated. I wasn’t sure we should be buying flowers. What would we do with them after the service? None of us lived in town anymore. I would go back to college in Maryland. Scott would return with his wife to their home outside Philadelphia. Craig would go back to central Pennsylvania to finish his final semester.
I ordered two modest floral displays to place on either side of the altar. The woman at the counter didn’t ask who had died. She didn’t ask if I was OK. She didn’t even try to convince me that a proper funeral had more than two puny bundles of flowers. After I paid, I returned to my car and crept along the slick roads. I had just bought flowers for my mother’s memorial service. It was, I realized, a singular experience: something I’d never done before and would never do again.
These are the questions I can never ask you:
Who was your first boyfriend? How many times did your heart break? How many men did you sleep with? Why did you marry my father and have three children? Did you love me more than you did my brothers? Tell me about your miscarriage, the one I know about only because I heard you mention it to someone on the phone. Tell me again, sober this time, about how you stopped taking birth control to make way for me to be born.
What was it like to die? Did you want to be alone when it happened, or were we wrong not to be by your side? Did you hear me when I said you were a good mother? I was already thinking about London then. Do you forgive me for making travel plans in the hospital? Do you forgive me for dreaming of escape?
Should I move closer to the lake, buy that purple sweater, feed my cats this new food, part my hair to the side? Should I forgive and forget? Should I make things right? Should I stay or go, laugh or cry, be more like you or make myself anew?
Seven months after you died, I sat in the sunshine on the back patio of a Toronto youth hostel with a man I’d just met and would one day marry. I was so young and grief-stricken that I couldn’t see what this moment might lead to. I was simply drinking beer and playing Trivial Pursuit with Peter, whom I expected never to talk to again.
But one day I would fly to Toronto to visit Peter. We’d pick up a pizza and take it back to his basement apartment, and I’d wrap myself in his comforter to watch cartoons. This was my life without you in it.
Nine years after you died, Peter and I were married in a planetarium. All those times I’d told you I would never get married or rely on a man in any way, and now here I was: so trusting and willing to give up control that I was getting married in the dark.
After you died, when I learned to cook for myself, I began to judge your choices. I couldn’t help but think how much healthier I would have been if I’d been raised on fresh vegetables instead of frozen; if we hadn’t had all those cookies and coffeecakes, all that sugary cereal and microwave popcorn and store-bought cheesecake. Your salads were prepared with iceberg lettuce, your hoagies with white bread and rubbery cheese. I didn’t taste mango, kale, or Swiss chard until I was in my twenties.
But now I see that I overlooked what you did cook for us: chicken cordon bleu, pasta, meatloaf, toasted cheese sandwiches pulled hot from the oven, a steaming bowl of peas or broccoli in the center of the table. You taught me how to bake biscuits, chocolate cake, and blueberry pie with that cookbook from your girlhood. When I became a vegetarian at thirteen, you took it in stride.
At the age of twenty-five I went vegan. I shopped exclusively at the natural-foods market, started a regular yoga practice, and began biking to work. I rode my bike eight miles each way to a little cafe for greasy vegan patty melts, salted vegan macaroni salad, and dairy-free chocolate shakes. This food wasn’t so different from the processed, sugary, salty diet I’d eaten as a child, but I was convinced I had changed.
Now I see that the choices you made were no worse than the ones I make on a daily basis. Sometimes I think I would give up all my quinoa and dark, leafy greens for one more piece of your pizza. I’ve never tasted any quite like it.
This is what I'd rather forget:
The memorial service, when I laughed in the church basement as if nothing were wrong.
Being asked the question, “How was your winter break?” over and over after I returned to campus.
The frat party where I drank too much, burst into tears, and fell hard on the ice outside.
How I pestered you to eat toward the end.
Lying across the row of plastic chairs while you got your last MRI.
Not being there when you woke up from surgery.
How the nurse interrupted me during my final moments alone with you.
The clock striking midnight.
The paleness of the January sun.
The same year you died, Peter’s cousin Casey was born. By the time I met her, she was two years old and splashing around in a baby pool. A year later her mother was dead.
Casey constructed offerings for her mother, like a paper-towel tube pasted over with flowers and ribbons. When Casey flew on airplanes, she claimed she saw her mom up there in the clouds.
Casey has brown hair and blue eyes, like me. People sometimes mistake her for my daughter. Once, at a touristy horse farm, the woman leading Casey around on a pony casually referred to Peter and me as her parents. It would have been awkward to correct her, so we didn’t. Casey didn’t react in any discernible way, but I wondered how she felt: Betrayed because we hadn’t told the truth? Relieved that this stranger wouldn’t have to hear her tragic story? Or perhaps she simply felt sad that her mother wasn’t there with us, leaning against the fence with a smile on her face.
The summer Casey turned twelve, I took her bra shopping. She already had bras, but they didn’t fit her well; her father had just pushed a few bills into her palm and sent her into the store alone to buy them. In the girls’-underwear department it took me a moment to realize that she was embarrassed. I’d forgotten what it was like to be that age.
I bought Casey two blue bras. Afterward, in the parking lot, I handed her a copy of Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss, by Hope Edelman. She wasn’t old enough for the book, but when I’d seen it at the library book sale for fifty cents, I couldn’t pass it up. As I gave it to her, I told her why: “Because you don’t have a mom, and that will always be a part of who you are.” She took it without a word.
Last fall I was driving through Indiana when I came upon a stretch of farmland: the silos, the fence line, the plowed cornfield — the sort of scenery you’d love. Even twelve years after you left this world, you’re here when I look at something and know that it would have mattered to you, and that it matters to me only because of you.
You told me I should have children. You told me your kids were the most meaningful part of your life. I may adopt a child someday, but I don’t plan on having my own children. I can’t see myself adding one more life to a world that already has so many.
The first days and weeks and months after you died were filled with vivid dreams, grief groups, and TV watching. It was a time of packing up the house and selling it, of working three jobs before quitting, of getting drunk and promising myself I wouldn’t drink again and then drinking some more.
That first semester back at college I earned a 4.0. I sipped cheap rum out of Styrofoam cups. I fought with my roommate. I cried alone in the dorm showers. I saw a counselor who remembered little of what I said but who at least encouraged me to take walks, which I did: around campus, down to the river, through a graveyard filled with broken angels.
That short, dark time after your death is what returns to me now, those days and weeks when I didn’t see how I could go on. The real story is not that I did, but that, miraculously, we all do.