I wake before the sun. I sit up in bed. I notice the half-light and lay back on the pillow.
My husband Joe shifts beside me and sighs in his sleep. I wonder what he’s thinking, if he’s dreaming. I look over at him. His face is relaxed. His goatee is more silver than dark.
I think of her. My mother. I reach into the side drawer for my notebook.
It’s been nearly a week since she passed.
At the same time, it’s been a decade.
To me, good writing means you’ll see a piece of yourself inside my words.
Great writing will change, however infinitesimally, the way you live your own story.
Though I have no assumptions about where I fall on this sliding scale of letters to page, I offer them to you anyway.
Take what you will from this mother-daughter elegy. Leave the rest.
Maybe you’ll feel validated, curious, upset, confused, hopeful.
This is not an essay about making amends. I don’t have anything to say about amends. Perhaps I never will.
We were fractured, she and I. Estranged. We didn’t call each other on birthdays. We didn’t call each other at all.
Every morning, I lace up my sneakers. Through winding back roads, I run. Past the farm on my right, a wide field on my left. The horses stand still in the heat.
Grief is loud until it is quiet.
It is exhausting.
It is ordinary and messy.
Estrangement is never the first choice. It is important to me that I make this point.
It is not a teenage huff, all slammed doors and rolled eyes. It’s not because we disagreed about politics or religion.
I did not ghost my mother. I did not cut her off. There was no line I drew in the sand. There was a falling out that led to space, and our gap never quite bridged again.
It was not what I wanted.
But the toxicity bloomed between us, the way a spill on the rug turns to a crimson stain.
Estrangement is wandering by the card aisle on Mother’s Day. It’s standing on the periphery of your friends and their mothers, wondering if there is something inherently lacking in you.
It’s a heightened alert for your own children, wondering if the legacy of brain wiring may land within one of them.
My son Jack has autism. And while their diagnosis was different, the presentation is often the same. Anxiety, paranoia, a tendency to conspiracy theories mixed with a smidge of righteousness. For him, we introduce all the things her generation rejected: counseling, medication, open conversation. I refuse to let his spirit be ravaged as hers was. I refuse to lose him to it.
I turn at the stop sign at the top of the hill. I think of Jack, tucked into a summer program hours away, waiting for the phone call about his Grandmother. I pause to tie my shoe. I begin again, one foot in front of the other. I’m not ready to tell him.
I guess I’m trying to find legitimacy for my grief after a relationship long gone dormant. Dormant, yes, but always vibrating below the surface, a proverbial mother-daughter volcano.
Perhaps the not-nicest thing one could say at a time like this is, “But you weren’t really close to her, right?”
Forgiveness, guilt, regret. These are words lobbed my way, but it will be a while before I untangle the syllables.
For now, I am flooded with memories. Popcorn on New Year’s Eve. Her silhouette in the bathroom mirror, applying eye liner. The navy blue sweatshirt she wore on the weekends.
And though her advice was rare, I’ve always clutched tightly to the kernels.
Don’t order seafood in a diner.
Once you go all the way, you can never go back to holding hands.
You can’t trust a dentist.
That last one may have been lost on me, seeing as I married a dentist. Or perhaps that was the start of the Great Unraveling. After all, it’s hard when you’re asked to choose between husband and mother.
Somewhere, in the recess of my mind, maybe I thought we had time. It’s not something I articulated, even to myself.
I have a deep sense of loss. I just don’t know what it means yet, or what shape it holds.
As I make my way back home, my breath is a little uneven. I think about the phone call I stopped to make, once I was past the farm, the field, the made, to a tall boy miles away. As always, he takes me by surprise.
“Mom. I’m sorry. I know how much you loved Grandma.”
I did love her.