My mom has been really annoying me lately, and it’s been especially bad since she died last spring. It didn’t start immediately. Initially after her death I felt her presence from time to time, mostly in the condo she had shared with my father the last dozen years of her life. Her presence, but not her voice—it just felt like she was in the room. But then, after a bit, that feeling was gone. It was as if she had just slipped away, she was done. As if, as my father put it the week after she died, “Dead is dead, that’s it.” (Gee, thanks Dad!) Perhaps what I had initially sensed was just the vestiges of her energy. For a while the condo, especially her room, smelled like her, particularly her bed. (In one of the stranger memories I have of the immediate aftermath of her death, I recall my brother and I going into her room, lying on her bed facedown and inhaling her mom-ness from the pillows, desperately trying to get one, last, visceral shot of her. We knew at the time how insane this looked, and we didn’t care.) But soon the fragrance disappeared and all too quickly my memory of her shut down. I could only picture her with the help of photos, could only hear her voice through videos, she was just…gone. And I was, in my sixties losing a mother in her eighties, the most normal thing in the world, more heartbroken than I could ever have imagined.
Three months later I went to Barcelona with my two daughters. I was in Las Ramblas market, (yes the place that suffered a horrific attack just a few weeks later), taking in the stalls, the produce, the cheese, the charcuterie, and suddenly and reflexively I thought to myself, “This is exactly the kind of place mom loves. I need to take pictures to show her later. Even though she can’t travel, I can still show her and we can…”and then of course, I remembered, so sharply it was as if I was understanding this fact for the first time, that she was no longer here, no longer on this earth. A day or two later I visited Sagrada Familia, the magnificent, in-progress (for almost one hundred years) masterpiece of Antonio Gaudi, and it was there, in a cathedral where she had never visited, where I found her. Maybe because I associate cathedrals with her, (although she left the Catholic Church when she married my Church-of-England father, she spent her girlhood in a school taught by nuns and attended church service daily throughout her entire pre-university education) maybe it was because I knew she would have LOVED this particular, whimsical, jaw dropingly beautiful Cathedral, but it felt like she was there all the time, just waiting for me, hiding out in this small chapel area. So I did what was at once totally alien and completely familiar, I sat at a pew and said a prayer. And since then, I can’t get rid of her.
Her voice is in my head all the time, she is my sideline cheerleader, urging me to let go of my fear and find more joy in my life and relationships, to drink in nature when I have the chance, savor good food and conversation and a beautifully set table. She is wonderfully encouraging. She was never particularly judgmental, even in my over sensitive teens, and that hasn’t changed in death. Her speaking voice, the one in my head, sounds more like how she sounded in her forties and fifties, it is not the deeper and then eventually weaker one from her late middle and old age, and it’s comforting, like being reunited with an old friend. But, seemingly freed from the restrictions of being alive, especially being alive with alcoholism, depression and then dementia, she is now no longer stammering or searching for words—they come so freely to her now. She is taking advantage of this and talking to me quite often in full paragraphs. There have been times when I wish she would give me an hour off.
And yet, I am mostly grateful, because it’s often quite lovely. Recently I was walking outside with my dog, and I just heard her say to me, almost in a whisper, “it’s okay, I am really okay.” And, a bit later, “it’s all going to be okay.” Now that would be more comforting if that mantra, “I’m okay,” wasn’t something I associate with her drinking days, when I would ask her how she was doing with her sobriety, and sometimes it was a clear indication, oddly, that she was drunk or very hungover. She would just say, over and over again, “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay,” when she clearly was not. So this “I’m okay” is not always, let’s face it, OKAY. But I do recognize it as pretty much the same message I have heard in my head after others I have loved passed away and decided to take it at face value.
As I went through my early years of motherhood, it was my mom, (who in many other ways was someone who suffered from major, often crippling anxiety, decades before it became the all too common scourge of our time) who was the reassuring voice in my life. In spite of her own growing anxiety disorder, when it came to my own worries about my kids — how to protect them from bullies or mean teachers, or, later, getting into a car with a distracted or drunk driver— it was her who would soothe my concerns. She would tell me how smart my daughters were, what good judgement they had, what a good mother I was, she would tell me not to worry. I often took what she said as empty platitudes, perhaps just a way of shutting me up to calm down her own worry, but looking back I can see she was right, there really was no point in all that worry. Parenting, like all of life, involves embracing at least some risk and there is no point in overthinking it. Later, to my dismay, she did succumb to worry in a way that was exhausting to be around and, much worse, came at a huge cost to her own mental health. But that overwhelming, anxious concern didn’t, for whatever reason, seem to include her grandchildren. Her attitude seemed to be, YOU’VE GOT THIS. And that, looking back, was such a gift.
For reasons I couldn’t completely articulate even to myself, I recently figured out that I needed some serious time alone. I wasn’t even sure this desire (no, obsessive need) for this solitude had to do directly with her, but who was I kidding? Shortly after she died my husband became alarmingly ill for a month, shortly followed by my father and then me and even my adult daughters coming down with less serious but still attention consuming respiratory infections and it interrupted whatever needed to happen at that moment in terms of my own grief. So, although I have gone on with my life, traveling to Spain, etc., I haven’t felt done with whatever needed to happen in order for me to move forward. (Forward, not, as is sometimes said, on. I have discovered that you never really move ON from some losses.) I wanted to feel less heavy with a kind of undefined malaise. Last month in the waning days of summer I decided to take myself on retreat. I had nothing but an instinct, but it turned out to be a good one. Alone in a town up the coast, in a familiar setting (a California beach, similar to the one closer to home where I associate my happiest times with my mom), I was able to hear her.
I have been home a couple of weeks. She is no longer just a voice in my head, she has comfortably settled into my heart, with me for the duration. She doesn’t say as much, but occasionally still has her chatty moments. Whenever she does speak, I am happy and grateful to listen. She still has a few things to teach me.