My mom left behind a lot of debt. The kind that couldn’t be swept under the rug or ignored. I’m not sure how long it was after she was gone that the phone calls started — relentless, constant reminders that numbed me. When we didn’t answer them, their frequency just increased. The trouble was there was no easy way to answer their questions. My go-to was short, simple, and to the point.
“Hello, is Amy available?”
“No, she’s dead.”
And then I would hang up.
If I stayed on the line I would be met with an awkward silence, a hurried apology, and ultimately be forced to manage this complete stranger’s emotions. It was a shock to hear, so I never blamed them. (I can think of no better example of this uncomfortable situation than the title of Brittany Ashley’s podcast “Don’t Tell the Babysitter Mom’s Dead.”) I don’t know if the forced grief counseling was worse or better then when they didn’t believe me. When they thought I had been coached to say this. When I had to convince them, repeat it again and again, robotically: “Yes, she’s dead. No, I’m not lying. No, there are no other adults you can speak to.”
I don’t remember the exact day, what made it different from all the other aimless summer days of those years, when my sister took one of these calls and disappeared upstairs. I noticed she had been gone awhile and went to check on her (did this mean I got to the tv to myself?). I found her in our dad’s room, still on the phone. She was telling whoever was on the other line about what we did after our mom died, how we had moved towns and schools, how we were adjusting to all the changes. Here she was, laying her heartbreak out for this complete stranger to see, like it was a totally normal thing to do. After she hung up I asked her what had happened. She said that when she told the debt collector about Mom he seemed really upset, like he had lost someone recently too. He was concerned, kept asking questions and offering condolences, so she just kept talking. She said he seemed like someone she could talk to.
Her actions were unimaginable to me. I wasn’t angry, or jealous, or embarrassed. Just confused. Baffled as to why and how she could do what she did.
It was exactly the kind of thing our mother would have done.
(I don’t remember this, but I’ve been told she was an over-sharer. I’m told she would talk the ear off the checkout clerk at the grocery store, boasting about her lesbian sister who had just come out, and how she couldn’t be prouder of her. I’ve been told she would tell her whole life story to the nearest friendly face, and ask them theirs in return.)
I can’t remember my last birthday with my mom. She died the summer after I turned seven, the summer before my sister turned 13. I assume we did something silly and over the top and completely beyond our budget (which was zero, considering our water was being shut off regularly). But that’s the kind of lady (people tell me) she was. She loved huge, perfect celebrations and had absolutely no concept of credit card debt. Actually, now that I’m sitting and writing this, I’m almost positive that was the year I had a Powerpuff Girls themed party (in our living room) and invited not only my entire first grade class but every kid we relatively knew in our ginormous apartment complex, and instructed them all to come as their favorite Powerpuff Girl (but not Blossom because she was my favorite and heaven forbid the birthday girl get outshined).
I don’t remember my 8th birthday either, the first one without her; most of us don’t. I remember my 15th, though. I remember thinking with a stark clarity “I’ve officially been alive longer without her,” and feeling nothing at all.
My family approaches grief and death in a way I’ve learned is not the norm. We talk about it. All the time. When I wish we wouldn’t. When I wish we would just let her die so I could move on with my life. But each milestone, each birthday, graduation, career achievement, has inevitably been met with an “Amy would be so proud.” “Amy should be here.” “Amy loved you so much.” She’s taken on her own mythos in my mind, this “Amy.” I hoard stories about her, anecdotes, casual mentions of her tossed out during family parties. Like the world’s most pathetic detective I piece them together, desperately trying to paint a more complete picture. Something tangible. Something I can talk to the way my sister still talks to her — but for me it never works. I just end up embarrassed and confused and somehow more alone than I felt before.
For my 18th birthday my aunt gifted me a box of letters my mom had written, the most depressing and important gift I’ve ever received. They sit in my closet and when I feel inclined I’ll pull them down, trace her handwriting with my fingers. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I’m angry. Sometimes I’m numb. Every time they don’t seem real. She doesn’t seem real. Even when she writes about me, I feel like I’m reading a fictional story or letters written by a stranger.
My sister has three kids of her own now. When the oldest turned seven, I could barely talk to him. I was back home in California for the summer after dropping out of school, waiting tables with my sister at a 50’s diner, and desperately trying to act like everything was fine. We gathered midday in the little park near my cousins house despite the triple degree temperatures. For most of the party the birthday boy refused to take off his Spider-Man costume, and when our fear of heat exhaustion outweighed keeping him happy, he ran around in his tighty whities.
He was just so little. His fingers didn’t even look like real, human fingers yet. The soles of his feet were still so incredibly soft. I looked at him and I imagined telling him his mother was dead. I imagined his big, big eyes confused and uncomprehending. I imagined holding him, destroying his existence, and then shoving him out into the world anyway.
I’d look at him and my throat would close and my vision would tunnel and I would smile without teeth. I realized, somehow for the first time, just how impossibly young I had been. Unequipped doesn’t begin to cover it. I thought this realization would make me angry, the kind of angry I am when the melodramatic “RIP AMY” posts from distant relatives make their yearly appearance, but I wasn’t. I was just sad. A bottomless sad, too deep to examine. A sad that could swallow me if I let it.
I wonder what she was doing before her water broke on March 13th, 1994. I wonder what she ate for breakfast. If her feet were hurting. What she was wearing. I wonder if the drive to the hospital was long. If the radio was playing music. Was she scared? Did she wish her mom was there? Did she poop? I hear some people poop when they give birth. I wonder if she was happy to see me. If she was too delirious to think much of anything at all.
There’s a video of it somewhere; her best friend filmed the entire thing. I’ve never watched it. I could track it down. I think my aunt has it. I could find someone with a VCR. I could get really, really drunk, or really, really, high and just watch it. I don’t know that I ever will. You see, I don’t remember what she sounds like. I’ve lost the memory of her voice. I’ve lost the memory of realizing I was losing the memory of her voice. I think if I were to hear it again I would die.
I used to say I didn’t miss her. That I was over it. Her birthday, or death day, would come and everyone from her high school sweetheart to my distant cousins would post a picture of her. I never did. I still don’t. I would scoff at their sentiments, deep down feeling like a broken, cruel, monstrous freak. I would think, they have no fucking idea. They have no fucking idea what real loss is like. They are posturing, vying for attention, trying to be interesting. Real loss, I would think, wouldn’t even try to be expressed through a Facebook status. Real loss is too scary to even look in the eye.
These days I still don’t say I miss her, not even to myself. I think, instead, I was ruined by her.
My sister, my infuriating and beautiful sister, doesn’t seem to hold such conflict in her. She’ll tell anyone who listens about our otherwordly mother. The wild things she would do, like lend our car out to complete strangers she met at a garage sale because they seemed like they needed the help. She’ll tell them about the number 38, how it’s our mothers way of communicating with her. She sees 38 everywhere: license plates, flight numbers, every time she glances at a clock. I can tell how alive she is to my sister, how she never really left, and I feel more alone than ever. To me, she was never there to begin with.
I’m starting to think about another weird birthday on the horizon. My sister’s 34th, my own 34th five years on. How will it feel to be the same age she was at her death? How will it feel, exactly one year later, officially older than she ever was? Uncharted waters. Unfamiliar ground.
I’ve flirted with superstition and magical thinking my entire life. I tend to gravitate between jaded skeptic and romantic depending the day, never sitting comfortably in either role. When I found out this article would be published near my mother’s birthday I felt split down the middle. Is this her way of saying “hey”? Do I want it to be? Does it matter? The thought that she could be kept alive, present, through my writing is too saccharine to even entertain. I know, deep down I know, that she’s gone. That I went to sleep one night and woke up to a new world. That I will never remember the last words I said to her or she said to me. That 34 years is more than many will get. If deep down I know all this, why can’t I feel it?
By far the weirdest person who posts on my mother’s birthday and deathday is the woman who has her heart. Both of her lungs went to people already close to death; I think the term is “life extension.” The recipients died, expectedly, a few years after the transplants, her organs giving them precious extra time with loved ones. Her heart, though, went to a young woman in her late teens. She was able to get married and even have kids of her own. My family of romantics love this story. Years after the transplant, after the mandatory waiting period, many of them began relationships with her. They wrote her, met her, held stethoscopes to her chest and cried. I thought it was the dumbest thing; I think I even wrote a bad poem about it. About how the heart is just an organ like any other, that it wasn’t her. The thing that held her personality, her memories, her essence, or soul, or whatever you want to call it was her brain. She died of an aneurysm, brain failure. How off base could they get? Years went by and I never reached out to the woman. She died, suddenly, last year. I think my aunt went to the funeral. It was odd because we never talked about it. No one ever told me directly that they started talking to her or went to see her. No one asked me my opinion or if I wanted to come (I didn’t). When she died, no one told me. It popped up on my Facebook timeline. I was with friends, scrolling through my phone casually, when I saw my sister’s post about it. I didn’t mention it to my friends. Why would I? I didn’t know this woman. The heart, I reminded myself, is just an organ, and anyways, my mother had died a long time ago.
When I think about my mom herself, the whole and complete being she was, I see this great, giant missed freeway exit. A big ol’ “what if.” One definitive and unforgiving question mark. When you lose your mom as a kid, the absence becomes greater than the presence. I don’t miss her smell, or her smile, or her cooking (I’ve been told she was a horrible cook anyway). You don’t miss things that you can’t remember.
Is there a word for missing what never was? What could have been? Is there a word for grieving someone you can’t remember or never really knew in the first place? Is there a word for a person who has no beginning?
I want you to think about your own birth. Maybe you don’t have a relationship with your mom, and for that I am truly sorry. But you’ve had the privilege of knowing her and for that I will always envy you. Maybe she’s a real piece of work that has only ever given you body image issues and emotional whiplash. But if it came to it, you could ask her about that day. Ask her if it hurt. Ask her if she had an epidural. Ask her if she was afraid. Ask her what she felt when she held you for the first time.
The trouble with birthdays, your own or the deceased’s, is you never know which ones will hurt and which ones will pass without event. My 18th for instance, didn’t hurt so bad. For some reason, though, my 20th laid me out.
I had just flunked out of college, after all of three semesters, and was more depressed than I had ever been. I was just beginning to grasp the kind of financial debt I was in, devastated over a long-distance relationship gone wrong, and completely alone in a furniture-free bedroom I had sublet a month ago from a now-graduated classmate. My new friends were on the way to being close but not there yet, so I didn’t have any plans to mark the occasion, not even a casual dinner or movie; I was too scared to even bring it up. My self-pity and self-hatred were bottomless, and I wouldn’t be snapping out of it any time soon.
I got home from my job waiting tables, put on every sweater I owned (you could feel the wind blowing off the Monongahela through my window panes) and cried. I just fucking missed my mom. It was that simple. She should be here. It isn’t fair, I thought. I was, and still can be, a petulant child about it. It was stupid and cruel that she wasn’t calling to wish me a happy birthday from 3,000 miles away (like my sweet dad would three hours later thanks to the time difference).
But when I look at my grief, really look at it, like I did that night, it’s like opening Pandora’s box, or falling down that creepy hand tunnel in The Labyrinth, or chasing a rabbit down a fucking hole, or or or. Thinking about how she should be here on this birthday only got me thinking about all the other times she should have been somewhere, been able to do something that moms do. And I cried some more, because when you lose someone that young, when you lose someone that fundamental, it warps you. It changes who you are and who you’ll become. It impacts every choice, opinion, thought, action, from then on. It changes the way you experience the world, because from then on you will always see through the lens of “dead mom.” Just like your hair is blonde and your eyes are brown, your mom is dead.
So I cried. I cried for who I could have been, all the versions of myself that died that day too, all the versions of myself dying every day without her. All the versions of my dad I didn’t get to know and the versions of my sister that never got to be. I cried for us and how her death was a blow but each day after a splinter out, never ending, forever and ever.
After a while, I crept downstairs (I knew my housemates had heard me crying over the past month, and to cope with this I avoided them at all costs) so I could make myself some toast and hot chocolate. I placed the cup in the center of a plate, cut the toast diagonally to place around it, and brought it all back to my room. I sat on my questionable shag carpet and dunked the toast in the hot chocolate, like my mother taught me. It tasted like tears, and butter, and like maybe being alone didn’t have to be a bad thing.🎈
edited by rachel.