I was sixteen when my mother died. I was a baby when she was diagnosed with cancer the first time. Five when she was diagnosed the second time. Seven, the third. Then eleven, when my dad picked me up at softball practice to let me know that my mother’s bone marrow transplant hadn’t worked, and the cancer was back, forever associating the clank of aluminum bats with bad news. Then thirteen, when I got off the bus and could tell just by looking at my dad’s face. The recurrences and diagnoses blend together after that. There was more chemo, another transplant. My mother died with the white blood cells of an anonymous German man — her third set.
I’d already felt like I was growing up in some significant way during my sixteenth summer. I had tried to break up with my therapist earlier that year. I think maybe I thought I’d outgrown her — she had toys in her office. Legos and dolls and games.
I was sixteen, writing impassioned letters to my first girlfriend. I was sixteen, and the last Harry Potter book had just come out, which, after growing up with him, seemed to mark the end of an era in my life. I was sixteen, and I was learning to drive. I was sixteen, so when my mother walked behind me at a snail’s pace, I wasn’t worried that my beloved Mama and best friend might be silently slipping out of existence — I was just frustrated. I was sixteen.
I was sixteen when I found myself back on the therapist’s couch beside the legos, hurling myself down where I always sat, on the seam between two cushions, despite having the entire couch available to me. I stared at her. She stared at me. I said, “We were out running errands last week, and three days later, she was dead!”
On the morning my mom died, I came home from the hospital with my dad and my grandparents and my aunt and my uncle. I sat on the couch, eating a yogurt, becoming more and more agitated, feeling like the only thing that might possibly help would be if I could crawl out of my own skin. The only thing anyone could think to do with me was send me to school, for Student Leader Training, which had been the day’s original plan — the one written in on the calendar my mom kept, before August 28th became the Day She Died. I sat there, in the training, wide-eyed, staring into space. The facts of the day marched back and forth in my brain. It seemed impossible that I still seemed to exist, despite the fact that the thing I had dreaded most my entire life had finally happened.
I spent the next few years on a righteous search for meaning and purpose, literally traveling to the other side of the world to try and convince myself that I could transform the gaping hole in my life into something else. This was reinforced by the books I read, which were primarily tropes of transformation by straight white women whose great losses were usually men who had broken their hearts. I’m still young, I know, but I was so young, then. Eighteen. Trying to do things on my own. Certain I could. I thought I could force myself into some sort of moment of self-acceptance and actualization. By the time I got to college, I had disengaged — I pushed my grief deep inside myself somewhere. I thought I had moved on to other things. I was wrong.
I went to a training at the hospital in my first year of college. People swapped hospital stories while we waited to go inside. Broken wrists. Appendicitis. Kidney stones. I realized the last time I was inside a hospital was the day my mother died, nearly four years earlier.
As we went up the elevator, I began to hyperventilate. My vision got fuzzy. My ears began to buzz. We stepped out of the elevator and I froze. “I can’t go in! I can’t go in!”
My friend grabbed me, pulled me back into the elevator and took me outside, where I calmed down and cried. I spent the rest of the weekend in bed watching old romantic comedies my mom and I used to watch together: Maid in Manhattan, Father of the Bride: Part II.
I trod carefully around hospital and dead-mom triggers after that, throwing myself into feminist and queer activism and academics. I was politicized because I came to understand that my privileged background meant that I had had my mother much longer than I might have otherwise, and I wanted to work against the systems that prematurely and unnecessarily tear people from their loved ones. But I almost never talked about this. I avoided actual discussion of mothers. When cancer narratives came up on syllabi, I skipped class. I walked away, infuriated, when friends started to talk about how much their mothers annoyed them. People were either too sentimental about their dead mothers or too ungrateful for their living ones. I didn’t want to engage with the feelings all this brought up. The few times I tried, it was too hard. I wanted to seal off that part of my life. It seemed easier.
In my third year, I found myself miserable. I cried a lot about the world. I cried a lot about a girl. I hid in my room in the co-op on the edge of campus and listened to more Tegan and Sara than I’d ever listened to in my life.
And then something shifted. Maybe it was because I started thinking differently about the residual feelings from the breakup that had steamrolled me the year before — I finally let myself be angry at the girl who had broken my heart. Maybe it was because I was making some serious plans about my future. Maybe it was that my queer community felt stronger than ever. Maybe it was that it was spring. Maybe I was just growing up. I don’t know exactly what happened, but something changed. I kept crying, but suddenly I was actually crying about my mom. On my 22nd birthday, I kissed a girl I liked, went running, and Laneia published “I Am Jack’s Preoccupation with Mortality.” I wrote her a note:
“I sit here, crying these tears that I really needed to cry, and some of them are sad tears for my mama who will never meet this girl I’m crushing out on, and will never meet a child of mine, and will never cry to me on the phone; and some of them are happy tears, because I’m 22 and alive and strong and this girl kissed me in the sunshine today and maybe someday it will be my own child’s 22nd birthday.”
Having grown up with my mom being sick and then dying when I was 16 feels like exactly as significant and inextricable a part of my identity as being queer or anything else. So it doesn’t come as a huge surprise that trying to hide from it took me, more than once, to a breaking point. Once I was able to step into it, I began to blossom.
I needed stories about people losing their moms. It’s still unclear to me if I’ve read so few dead mom narratives because I’ve been afraid of them or because they simply don’t exist. It seems to me like most dead mom stories have either a long-dead mom, or a mom who dies when the daughter is old. Dead parent stories where the parent dies young and while the child is old enough to comprehend what’s going on seem, to me, to almost always be about dead dads.
Whether it was about an actual lack of resources or my own refusal to engage with them, that spring, I was finally ready to read stories about women like me. And then Cheryl Strayed came to speak at my school.
At the time, I knew nothing of Cheryl Strayed except that she’d written a book called Wild. From what I’d heard, Wild sounded like a cross between Eat, Pray, Love and A Walk in the Woods — both books I’d found interesting, entertaining and exasperating. Wild might have been compelling to an earlier me, I was sure, but it wasn’t something I felt a need to go out of my way to read. When my journalism professor invited her to have a conversation about writing Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, I only went because I’d been giving him a hard time about including women in the syllabus. He’d framed it as a course about “New American Media,” and yet, we only were reading work by two or three women in the entire semester. My exposure to “New American Media” had been meaningful mostly because of the women and people of color I’ve gotten to read on small indie blogs and Twitter, who I never would have read if my media was only widely read publications with “New York” in the title. I let him know my frustrations with the syllabus, calling him out in class and also in my final project. So when he advised us to come to a reading by a woman whose work he enjoyed, I figured I should go.
I was thoroughly overwhelmed to find myself face to face with another woman who’d lost her mother to cancer at 22: the same way I’d lost my mother, and the age I’d just turned myself. I cried in the reading. My voice broke as I told her about my mom while she signed my book, “Happy trails.” I read the book slowly, partly annoyed at how many stupidly near-death moments she had on the trail and entirely fascinated at how closely I related to her grief. Consumed and fixated on the pain of losing her mother, and everything else attached to it, she kept walking, determined to find a way, somehow, to be alive. It was the first thing I’d read about a woman whose mother died that didn’t have me searching for all the ways my narrative was different, that didn’t make me feel more alone.
Last May, I graduated from college, and that summer, as I tried to figure out what the next steps in my life would be, I also started seeking out more narratives of women who’d specifically lost their mothers. I came to the startling and immensely comforting revelation that many of the things that I had been fighting to keep from consuming me in the years since my mom’s death are normal. It was immensely comforting to me, and also a little frustrating — Everyone else feels this way, too? And I’m only finding out now? I felt so relieved.
As I read, I also made plans to drive across the country at the end of the summer, alone. I scrawled out a schedule on a piece of yellow legal paper. I didn’t give much thought to my plans for August 28th, the seventh anniversary of my mother’s death.
I’d never been alone on this day. Since the morning she died and I was sent off to school anyway, there’d always been stuff going on to distract me, especially when I’d been at school doing trainings for freshman orientation, or moving myself in. I didn’t have the distractions this year. It was just me, in my car, alone on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
I was driving along the access road on Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, following the southern shore of Lake Superior and listening to a boring podcast, when it became apparent that I had come to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to scream for my mother where no one could hear me. And so I screamed. I screamed for the woman who’d been my best friend. I screamed for the woman who will never sit beside me driving along Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. And then I cried, calling for my mother while I drove with my hands in the ten-and-two position, keeping myself magnificently alive while I faced the fact that we would never live in the same time and space again, head on.
“In your twenties, you’re becoming who you’re going to be, and so you may as well not be an asshole.” – Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things
I was listening to Tiny Beautiful Things on tape in the car, and this was the line that resonated, bouncing around in my head. I wrote it on my journal. I don’t think this is exactly as she meant it, but I took it as a very serious instruction to not be an asshole to myself. “Not being an asshole” to myself meant letting myself look straight on at what it meant and means to me to not have my mother living and breathing alongside me. “Not being an asshole” to myself meant admitting that my mom’s death and her illness permeate every single part of my being, and always will. It’s not the only thing that will. The fact that I am her daughter, with her sense of humor and her determination and possibly her bunions, also permeates all of me. There are other people who know something about what this means. “Not being an asshole” means connecting with them. I think about who I am, and what I want my life to be, who I am becoming, as this woman here, in this skin I never managed to crawl out of: a strong, independent, queer woman who lost her mother at sixteen.
As I drove further west, now on the other side of the seven-year anniversary, I tried so hard to give myself room to just be. I wasn’t trying to be intrepid. I wasn’t trying to be Chris McCandles or John Muir or even Cheryl Strayed. I drove across the Midwest and the Plains and into the Rockies over interstates paved with tar and federal infrastructure bills, over land colonized by my ancestors and occupied by my country. Though I was physically far from home, I was hardly isolated, with my iPhone by my side and the same box stores and strip malls popping up again every couple hundred miles. But the physical distance had me flip-flopping between loneliness and bliss in my solitude. I wanted to go “home,” but where was home anyway? And so I kept driving, satisfied, if not entirely comfortable, with myself.
I will always be the girl whose mother died when she was sixteen. I will let myself sit with that, in this skin right here. Simmer in it, soak in it. Cry in it, happy and sad tears all at once.