My mother died thirty years ago today. She was thirty-seven years old. That’s how old I am now. If I remember correctly, it was a Friday. My father told us as he drove us home from school. The image of the intersection we waited to cross as he said the words is burned in my memory. Later he sent me to a friend’s house to play. When I told her what had happened she said she already knew, and I had the uneasy sensation that she had known even before I did.
I remember the wake: the crowded room, my mother’s gold-embroidered gown, her cold face. I saw my father sitting on the edge of a table swinging his legs beneath him, the way children do. “My father is like a little boy,” I thought. I wore a green dress to her funeral, a source of shame until adulthood, when a therapist kindly pointed out that a seven-year-old could not have been expected to have funeral-appropriate clothes in her wardrobe. “Yes,” I said, “but she had been sick for a long time–” “No,” he interrupted, shaking his head.
I was old enough to understand the finality of death but not to accept it. One day after it was all over, I don’t remember exactly when, I told my father, “I want Mommy back.” At school, the third-grade teacher badgered me for weeks for an absence note. Finally, her patience exhausted, she asked me why I never brought it. I told her we didn’t have paper. Incredulous, she announced it to the class. When everyone laughed, I screamed, “You’re all idiots!” and ran from the room, the beginning of my life as an outsider. Was it really that difficult for an adult woman to imagine chaos in the aftermath of a mother’s death? Perhaps a couple of sentences scribbled on a piece of paper torn from a steno pad would have sufficed for her, but to me, a letter written on anything other than proper stationery would have constituted a public admission that my life had changed irrevocably, and not for the better.
(I often wonder whether the darker aspects of my personality depend on my having grown up without a mother or on having learned so young that the world is such a nasty and brutish place.)
My greatest fear is that I will die young, like my mother, and leave Pata with the heavy, inescapable sorrow of a child who knows that after a nightmare or a scraped knee, or a bad day at school, there is no comforting mother’s embrace. I imagine my mother’s anguish as she confronted that reality and my heart breaks for her.
Mommy, the decades that pass without you will never cancel out the seven years we were together, whether my memory of them fades or not, nor can they ever make me doubt how much you loved me.