My 4-year-old was recently trying to grasp why daddy had produced her a grandma but mommy hadn’t. We were in the van, just us two after having dropped a million other kids off at a million different places, and I wasn’t in a particularly warm nor coddling mood. I finally just said it: “My mom is dead.”
The aggravatingly inquisitive type, she kept peppering me with follow-ups. How did she die? When did she die? Where did she go when she died? When will you die? I forgot she was four for a second and found myself accelerating to the bottom-line sort of steeply, “There comes a time when all of our bodies are all done living, Sweetie. Everyone eventually dies.”
At which point she lost it. Flailing in her car seat, hyperventilating, she screamed between breaths, “I! Don’t! Want! To! Die!”
I wish I had my mom here to help me explain things better to my kids.
Luckily for me, I got to have my mom to guide me through puberty, to be at my wedding to her charming son-in-law, and for the exuberant announcement we were pregnant with twins.
Not so luckily for me, I lost her before she could meet those twins and their subsequent siblings. Before a series of mental health spirals I’d never seen the likes of, and before several cross country moves that left me feeling desperately family-hungry. Now at age 40, if you asked me what grieves me most, that’s easy—that my mom was never able to hear the word from my babies she most longed to hear: Grandma.
When it was starting to become clear that cancer was going to get her, I had a friend who had lost her own mom lovingly take me aside one day and say, “Whatever you do, make sure you have all her recipes.” I’m thankful for this because I made sure to secure every last one. Mom’s angel biscuits, her bean dip, her fudge, her holiday peanut butter balls . . . they will continue being made in the exact way she made hers. Once I lost one of these recipes and staved off the mounting panic by remembering I am not her only memory keeper. I had enough aunts with their own handwritten copies to serve as co-conspiring historians.
Recipes aside, though, there’s so much that is lost.
There’s this ring with blue sapphires surrounding two small diamonds shaping the loveliest of flowers, all secured in white gold that I’d never seen her wear and made no sense to have found lurking in her jewelry box. She only wore yellow gold. Was it from an ex? Was it special to her in a way I’d love to know? I’ve asked, and nobody can explain. It’s information I’ll never know. Lost.
But the biggest loss is the one I never had—my mom as a grandma.
I still get a lump in my throat the size of Hawaii at the thought of the exceptional grandmother my kids aren’t getting. Just as bad is the reverse thought—the exceptional grandkids my mom isn’t getting. All the giggles, the baking projects, the playground trips, the perfectly thought-through birthday gifts, the first haircuts, the lessons, the holiday traditions, her no-nonsense disciplining, hearing her announce her famous line when they whimper over a skinned knee, “You’ll live.”
I had no idea I was holding all of these expectations for my kids and my mother’s relationship until I realized there’d not be one.
When a disfigured, unhappy mole on Mom’s shoulder first alerted us all to her melanoma skin cancer, my parents were quietly cryptic about what lay ahead. “Just surgery to remove a cancer spot,” is what my brother and I breathed in over the phone, quite satisfied with the conclusive explanation. “Great, no worries then?” was where our appetite for inquiry and sixth senses screeched to a halt—we were away at college and clueless. We didn’t know my mom’s diagnoses was stage-four status, nor what the word “metastasized” meant.
Which is the only reason, months after the surgery to remove Mom’s “spot” and once things had in my mind gone completely back to normal, I would ever go into a line of questioning drilling straight down to the future. Filled with levity and absolutely no forethought, I asked the question, “What are you most looking forward to in the life you have left to live?” My mom got quiet, then looked away toward something that was not me and said, “I’m looking the most forward to being a grandma and watching you be a parent.”
I didn’t understand when she looked back at me with pink-rimmed eyes, this wasn’t sentimentality of the general variety. Even though I didn’t know it, Mom was aware the chances her cancer would show back up were staggeringly high, and she had no idea whether or not she’d get to have any of the things she most looked forward to.
The cancer did show back up. Several more times, in several different organs. And my brother’s and my ignorance evaporated.
Mom was in trouble.
Between her seasons of wellness, she fought. She fought with everything she had, and she fought even when she didn’t have anything at all to give to her battle for survival. More surgeries, experimental chemo, clinical trials, radiation, hospital bed after hospital bed. But in the end, she died seven years after that college phone call. And that was also the day my twin baby boys were 2-weeks-old.
So, she did get to exist as a grandma for a couple of weeks. It’s just she wasn’t very lucid or mobile, and I, tethered to a NICU with premies, was a couple hundred miles away. The days on bed rest leading up to the birth of my babies and the days after their birth nursing them to health in a hospital were some of the hardest I’ve ever endured. I wanted to be a daughter to my mother in her final days but no one besides me could be a mother to my brand new babies.
Now my babies are a total of four, ranging from middle-schooler to pre-kindergartener. With the exception of the 4-year-old who is now scarred for life thinking about her own imminent death, they are all developmentally capable of handling the complexity of their grandma’s passing.
And they know her well, too.
I tell them story after story. I show them picture after picture. And, in between these intentional sharings, they get me: a living, breathing daughter to their grandma, one who often catches herself saying “you’ll live” over their mild injuries or feeble attempts at getting attention.
It’s not always easy to be a mom without my own, but I know I’ll live, too. She may not have, but I can honor her by remembering that, even though the heart-wound left by her absence is way bigger than a skinned knee, I will live.