It was binging yet another of Netflix’s dime-a-dozen puzzle-box mystery shows recently when I felt a pang in my gut. The grown-up version of an apparently distinct character sought unethical revenge for a long-standing transgression. I was desperate to reach my mother. “Which episode did you figure it out?” I would ask. And her answer would be, most likely: “Within the first five minutes.”
I can’t call my mom because she died, 10 years ago, on the second day of May. This was her last day, and it is also the hardest day of my life. She was 63. She was 63. I was 26. It was enough for her to be sick, but it wasn’t enough to live. Although I had given up on fearing the worst, I wasn’t ready to let it happen.
She died six weeks—seven episodes—before the resolution of the murder at the center of The Killing, a series my mystery-loving mother had followed obsessively and one of the few she couldn’t solve on her own. To this day, my dad finds the injustice of the finale’s timing unforgivable. It’s a shame that the grieving can pick from such irrational and totally justified bones.
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This time of the year, my longing for simple conversation about plot twists and other mundane topics is intensified. She left us—no, she was taken, for it’s wrong to imply there was any agency in her leaving—the same week as Mother’s Day. It was a blessing to have two days dedicated to her memory, and we would all be glued together each year on the calendar. A curse: a time for sorrow when everyone else—or so it seems, but of course it isn’t—is celebrating? You get a little bit of both.
Her last breath was slow and uneven. It occurred on the day that I still remember being the best of the season. There were violets and yellow crocuses scattered across the lawn and her favourite, the lilacs just starting their annual, brief, but beautiful recital. The day was too lovely for death with all its horrible corporeal details. A blessing? Or a curse? Some of each.
This month marks a decade of Mother’s Days without her. My first seven Mother’s Days, which were before I had children, was bittersweet. Instagram was a yearbook of the best (living) moms of the year, each thumbnail photo a grain of salt in the wound, though I knew no one meant their odes to their mother’s brisket or bear hugs as a personal affront to me. My inbox was two weeks’ worth of reminders not to forget mom this year, encouraging me to spend money to prove how much I loved her. “Thanks, these slippers will look great on her headstone!” I wanted to respond. “Do you make these bathrobes in size dead?”
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The past three Mother’s Days have been different. Now when I see brands’ appeals not to forget Mom, sometimes I think of myself as the honoree before I remember to be indignant on her behalf. Now there are my own quotidian efforts to acknowledge—the 10,000th chicken nugget microwaved, bottom wiped, wet raspberry Thwomped across a warm, squishy belly—and they demand some of the real estate once squatted upon by sadness alone.
But sharing this day with my dead mom heightens that sadness, too: for only since becoming a mom twice over do I understand, and more with each passing year, what she gave—and gave up for—me. Because motherhood was so important to her, she wanted it. But it wasn’t everything. Now I understand why her third child, I, demanded she spend more energy on her self-actualization and her career. She also had to redirect her time from puzzle solving and art and craft, and her hobby of being an artist.
I didn’t know enough to ask her about it then, and I can’t ask her about it now—how did you manage to keep your cool when I willfully defied your simple directions for the eighth time in six minutes? Worse yet, I can’t thank her and know she understands it’s a gratitude that can come only from having stood, covered in poop and spit-up and up to here in exasperation and worry, in the very same trenches.
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Lately I’ve consumed a rash of time-travel narratives, thanks largely to the serendipity of their proximate release dates. In Emma Straub’s Tomorrow Tomorrow, Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of TranquilityAnd another Netflix puzzle box show. Russian DollCharacters travel back to the past and alter the events. These ripples can sometimes affect the present. If I had the chance to go back in time, what would you do? The answer is obvious: I’d travel back a few years before the second cancer diagnosis and demand that she schedule an elective surgical removal of the organs, no longer essential, in which those insidious cells would soon proliferate like so many microscopic assassins. To make brownies and allow my five grandchildren to lick the bowl, she could be there now. After finishing the Sunday crossword, she went for a hike with her dog in the woods to see how much the Internet has changed in her passion of bargain hunting. She also wanted to share her scathing opinions about politicians on social media.
But if for some reason it wasn’t that kind of time-travel story but the kind in which the future is immovable, I might return instead to a Thursday night circa 2000. You can sit with her next to you on the sofa, a bag microwave popcorn in hand. DUN-DUN The Law & Order theme song plays. My homework sits waiting for me to finish. I start to squint as the image of a grisly corpse appears on the screen. I’d watch for the glint in her blue-gray eyes as they light up, barely looking up at the screen from the knitting in her hands, with the knowledge of whodunnit. Five minutes into my watch.
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