I don’t remember what I did for my mom on her last Mother’s Day. I hope we got her lobsters for dinner, or maybe flowers for her gardens — these were two of her absolute favorite things. Whatever it was, I’m sure it wasn’t enough. It’s been 15 years since then, however, and at this point, I honestly have no recollection.
She died a month later, 13 months after being diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of lung cancer the doctor said would take her life in six months, tops. She was past the point of treatment — she liked to say she was “carrying on; living with, not dying of, cancer.” She’d grown thin quickly, however, and her body was weak, though she tried to be strong. The morning she went into the hospital for the last time, she was on her way home after dropping my brother off at school when she swerved into a ditch to miss a deer on the road. Though she survived the crash, her car accident did something to her stomach that required surgery. As she was being put under, the last thing she told my siblings and I was that it would be fine, everything would be fine. And yet, her face looked panicked in a steely sort of way, like she was holding back laughter or tears. I don’t think she believed it herself. After the surgery, she was hooked up to machines for a few days, but to no avail: She never woke up again.
It’s hard enough to get through the days, weeks, and months following the death of a loved one, but holidays are a special kind of hell. Not even just the first one, like everyone says — nothing is ever quite the same. As in many homes, my mom was the glue of ours. More than the glue, even; she seemed to be our reason for existing, and the traditions in our family were fundamentally changed by her death. Christmases are much quieter now; birthdays too. I didn’t even call home on Easter this year (bad, I know). How much of this is just the nature of a family growing up together I don’t know, because we didn’t get to that point in our lives with her to see what it was like.
But of course, Mother’s Day has a special sting. It’s inescapable. No company pushing perfume or pedicures stops to take into consideration those of us for whom the holiday is less than celebratory. Come Mother’s Day, every year, with all the email newsletters and store displays, I’d give anything to feel stressed about what to get for her. I’d buy every shitty card in all the stores if I still could. Another knickknack you don’t need? Here’s 300 of them! I’ll move home and never leave if all you want this year is to spend time with your kids, Mom. Don’t try me.
Almost a full year had passed by the time the first Mother’s Day without her rolled around. We’d been through the holidays, graduations, birthdays, and even a few other gut-wrenching firsts, like receiving some good news only to remember that she wasn’t there to share it with. Shortly after she died, someone (I think it was a telemarketer), called and asked for her by name — I’d never been so stunned in my life. There are other details that I don’t remember, except for bits and pieces.
Over the past few years, the increasing performative Olympics of social media have created a whole new kind of grief. Of course, no one should feel guilty for celebrating. Flood my feed with your joy, please — I mean it; it’s so sweet, I get to live vicariously through it (though pity posts, not so much). I have a lot of feelings surrounding the day, and it’s hard to juggle them all. I think I’ve gotten better at managing other people’s grief over my mom’s death than my own throughout the years.
Some days I don’t really have the energy to cope with it all, but on Mother’s Day it’s almost impossible not to, so I dig in and feel it all and try to remember as much as I can. Broad strokes like school day routines, or small details like how she chewed the inside of her cheek (same). I squeeze my left thumb into my palm, because for some reason that nail is bumpy, just like hers was. I think about my father and my siblings. I feel grateful that I’ve had so many amazing women in my life, women I think my mom would love and probably send “Just Because” cards with funny drawings inside them to: She was always such a goof.
It does get easier, of course — time healing all is a cliche I’ve clung to in my own experience. Someday, in the not-too-distant future, I’ll have been alive without my mom for longer than I was with. Still, I think about her almost every day, and on Mother’s Day, I try to be a little more okay with the fact that not only in her too-short life, but in her death, as well, she’s given me so much. And I know she always will.
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(Photos via Keystone/Getty)