My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was five but her infectious enthusiasm allowed those around her to forget she was sick. She dropped everything for me and constantly told me not to worry. She accepted her breast cancer and brushed it off so I did the same. Eventually, in the last few years of her life, she did start to look a little different but I pushed it so far out of my head that I did not see was right in front of me.
A few months before she died, she started to actually look sick. She lost her hair. Her body started storing fluid. But I still didn’t see it. I convinced myself there would be some sort of miracle.
It would have been too painful for me to say, “These are my last words,” because I hoped for her recovery. She would say, “If anything happens to me, I want you to stay in school. You can’t stop living just because I have.” I ignored those words until she was gone.
While my mother telling me those things helped me stay acutely focused in college, it also made me live as a robot. I did such a good job of pretending nothing was wrong that I convinced myself it was not my reality. I didn’t start truly grieving until one year after her death. And once I did, I realized that grief can be a powerful source for good and a release from obligatory conventionalism.
I have stopped burdening myself with regret or pressure to fill the preconceived notions of what grief should look like. Now I try my best to accept what happened in the past while trying to make my mother proud of me in the present. There are fleeting moments when I think, “maybe I should have asked my mother more about parenthood.” Or, “Maybe I should have asked her about marriage.”
Having this type of regret discredits two wildly important pieces of information, though. When I sit down and really think about her opinion on a given a topic, I come close to knowing exactly what she would say. I may not like it but that’s a different story.
Second, and this is something my brother Bill, who is blind and autistic, has said: “Mom is alive in every one of us.” When he first said it, I couldn’t completely absorb its profundity, but it kept me from hysterically crying. Eventually, I realized he was right.
After being introduced to Bill’s revolutionary wisdom, I did two things. First, I started to notice the ways my mother is alive in my brothers and me. I see my brother Mike’s unflappable willingness to help people while asking nothing in return. I make sure to eat my leafy greens per my mother’s instruction. And, most recently, I reached out to people close to her and found that there is a treasure trove of untold stories about my mom.
Just the other day, an email popped up in my inbox from my mother’s best friend when the rain was pouring down outside. She told me how she continues to love rainy days because of my mother. She reminisced how when they both had little kids, she and my mother would stay inside with all of us. She said, on rainy days no one was running around the neighborhood and it gave both of them a chance to enjoy a full day of peaceful family time.
Days when I hear a new story inspire new traditions and serve as a reminder that Brother Bill was indeed right: Mom is alive in every one of us.