My mother was always present, literally and figuratively. She was like a floating head – every time my sister and I turned around, she was there. She was in all of our business — snooping through our rooms – finding things she didn’t want to find, but that’s a story for another day. She was room mother, a volunteer in our school, and chauffeur to us and all of the other neighborhood kids. She chaperoned field trips and fed the softball team after games. She was everywhere we were.
It was this need to be present in all facets of our lives that made my decision to study abroad in England for my junior year in college so painful for my mother. At the time, being a naive and self-absorbed 20-year-old, I never considered how hard this was going to be for her. I was scared for me. This was my big journey. I never saw it from her eyes, from her heart.
This was a woman who had been there for every single event throughout my entire 20 years of existence, and I was leaving—going to another continent, where her presence would be absent. She would not move me in to my dorm room, as she had when I began my freshman year. She would not help me unpack and neatly fold my clothes into my new dresser. She would not take me shopping to fill my kitchen with easy to prepare meals.
I of course knew that my mother would miss me. And worry about me—who would care for me when I was sick? Would I be safe? Would I be scared? But prior to becoming a mother myself, I did not realize the impact this journey of mine would have on her because of her lack of presence there. There would be a void for me, where my mother normally would be, but there would be a void for her as well, as she had to endure the hole in her heart of having her daughter live a life without her for the first time.
And this ache that I know she felt would only be soothed if she came to England and saw my life there. I know now that she needed to feel her body in the place, where I was living, where I was sleeping, eating, laughing, learning, and experiencing. She needed to see my life with her own eyes and touch it with her own hands, or else she was not my mother.
Their trip was booked—hers and my father’s—to visit me in March. By then I’d been gone 5 months – 4 1/2 months longer than I had ever gone without seeing her. I could hear it in her voice on the phone, as the date neared—she could barely eat, or sit, or speak in coherent sentences due to her anticipation. She and my father had never been out of the country and they were flying to England to visit their baby girl. I remember the excitement in her voice as we discussed our plans.
What I did not hear, as she hid it so well, was pain and fear. You see, what my mother so unselfishly hid from me while I was off experiencing life abroad, was that her own mother was dying. My grandmother—the matriarch who had raised her daughter to be my unselfish, hard-working mom—was dying.
At a time in my mother’s life when she was facing one of her greatest fears—letting her child go and be in a place where she was not, she was also saying goodbye to her own mom. While I was missing mine, hers was slipping away.
My mother had to make a choice. Due to their circumstances, this was the only time my parents could visit. But my grandmother could possibly die while they were gone. The doctors did not know if she would make it until my mother’s return. Her decline was happening very quickly, as death often does not follow the rules of a predictable timeline.
Now that I am a mother, I can imagine this struggle, this tug-of-war that was pulling her into opposite directions. She wanted to be there with her own mother, holding her hand, comforting her, in her final days. But she desperately needed to see her daughter.
In the end, she and my father did come to England. I’ll never forget the image of her tearing around the corner at the train station. In my 20 years, I’d never seen the woman run, and she was in a full-on sprint, trying to get to me. She had left my father in the dust with the luggage, back at platform 9. Having me that close—she couldn’t wait any longer.
When she finally told me the truth of my grandmother’s health, I asked her why she came. “I had to see it,” she said.”I’d never be able to live with myself if I didn’t see your life over here.” And she did. She brought her presence, her eyes, her hands, to my life in England, so that for the rest of her life, she would be a part of it.
We spent a couple of days together in England, and then my parents and I rushed home to say goodbye. My mother was able to hold her own mother’s hand, in her final days. She was able to have a presence there too, in another place where she so desperately needed to be.