Every year since I was 19, I’ve dreaded August 26th, as it’s the anniversary of my mom’s death. When my dad called to tell me she had died by suicide, I sank to the floor, unable to do anything but scream “tell me you are lying!” It was 1998 and I was just about ready to start my Sophomore year of college. I had my whole life ahead of me, and in that moment, everything changed.
So when I looked at the calendar this year, I couldn’t believe what I saw. August 26th was going to fall on the first day of school.
Okay, great, I thought. So this meant that on the 26th, I was going to have to handle going back to work for staff week at my school, getting my kids to their first days of school (including Tommy’s first day of kindergarten) and trying to manage the emotions that always come up when I miss my mom. Inevitably, I knew I’d also really miss Shawn, both because my major losses are so linked and because he wouldn’t be there for the first day of school (again.)
So I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy day.
I actually tried to prepare a bit for my grief by thinking more about my mom and going through some old photos. In fact, I’ve had other quiet moments this summer when I’ve spent more time than ever before thinking about my mom. Of course, most of my headspace is still reserved for Shawn, but there are times when I’ve been able to carve out some time to think about how much I miss her too.
My sister had a baby this summer. I loved cuddling my niece, and I know my sister really appreciated that a number of family members showed up to help in the early months. But you know who would have loved that baby so much? My mom. I know it because when Claire was born, one of the first things my dad said to me was “your mother would have loved to be a grandmother.”
I know it’s true. Hilariously, my mom made me keep these running lists as a kid entitled, “things I will never make my children do.” They included things that my young self thought were insane: brush teeth every day, always wear shoes when leaving the house, eat dinner before having a cookie even when dinner is “gross.” I even have a faint memory from one of the last times that we did this list: I looked over at her and she was smiling one of those knowing smiles. You know, the one that says, “oh, kiddo, you have no idea right now, but you are going to laugh at this someday.”
My mom would have made the best grandma, just like Shawn would have made the best grandpa. They would both have spoiled their grandkids rotten, not just with toys and sweets but also with the best stories and smiles and hugs.
The other day, I was on a jog with Claire, and we started talking about what I’d be like as a grandma. “Oh, I’m going to give your kids cookies and ice cream all the time, even in the morning!” I said.
“That will be awesome!” Claire said, excited.
“But you’ll be the mom of my grandkids, so you’ll hate it!” I pointed out.
“That’s right!” Claire said. She thought for a moment. “But that’s what grandmas do!”
I laughed at that. Claire is lucky to have a lot of older women in her life who love her and spoil her plenty.
But she doesn’t have my mom. And neither do I. It makes parenting, especially parenting without Shawn, infinitely harder.
This is not to say that my dad isn’t great. HE IS GREAT, and I don’t think I need to say much more than I’ve already written about him. But there are so many things I wish I could also share with my mom. And there are so many moments, especially as a young widow, when I wish my mom could be here to say, “oh, honey, you are my perfect girl and you are doing great.”
I remember, when I was young, I used to feel overwhelmed sometimes. My mom would wrap her arms around me and say, “whenever you feel sad or scared or lonely, you just remember the feel of my arms around you. You remember that no matter what, your mama loves you.”
As I set off for the first day of school on Monday, as I packed lunches and put on my high heels, as I took photos of Tommy proudly holding his brand-new kindergarten backpack, I felt sad. Shawn wasn’t there, and it is him that I always grieve the most. But my mom wasn’t there either, and I was really missing her that morning.
But when I left my kids at school that day, I wrapped my arms around them and said what I say to them every year on the first day:
“If today you feel sad or scared or lonely, you just remember the feel of my arms around you. You remember that no matter what, your mama loves you.”
My mom is gone. But she’s not completely absent. My children have her eyes and her creativity. As for me? She lingers both in my words and in my love for my children.