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A few years before I moved out of my mother’s house, hummingbirds started nesting in the roof. One, above the front door. Another in the backyard just above the kitchen window. I don’t have a single memory of what they looked like. I didn’t stop to really look. But my mother loved them, and she regularly called us over to peek. “Oh, look! The babies have hatched!” she’d say. “Come look at the baby hummingbirds!”

When my mother was dying, I kept thinking: I want a tattoo. I want a tattoo to remind me of you. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted until I thought of this memory, my mother leaning toward her window, trying to share a small moment of joy with us.

One day, in the care facility, I told her I was thinking about getting a tattoo. A hummingbird. I didn’t tell her why. She paused a second before saying, “A small one.”

It’s not a small one. But I do think she’d like it. I can hear her in my head, saying it. “Oh Colleen,” she’d say. “It’s beautiful.” As, to her, so many small things were.

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The brain holds on to memories but so does the body. This morning I drove alone to work and I was struck by the feeling, delirious with it, that I was headed to Utah, my mother beside me. I tried to figure out what it was – the sunrise ahead of me, the particular chill of morning on my thighs (the first time I’ve worn shorts in months), the fact that I’d woken up with Rhiannon playing in the back of my mind – but I don’t know.

I do know that as I drove to work I thought of the large, red walls of Zion, the white noise of a man-made water fall in my ear at our hotel, a sense of peace coupled with a new sense of dread.

Lately I’ve been asking myself, when did you know mom was going to die? Part of me says from the moment she knew there was a mass part of me from the moment the doctor called to say it was cancer but I think in truth, I didn’t know until I really knew, when I saw that she wasn’t getting better. I remember feeling like a fight was coming but that me and my mother would win, because we had always won. When she had an ulcer burst two years before and ignored it for three days, she lost weight and I saw her weakened body, the needles and tubes coming keeping her stable, I remember thinking, You made it. Of course you made it. In no world could the universe take you from me.

I think that stuck with me. I think I thought that it would be a hard fight, but of course we would win. How could we not?

I didn’t know that in Utah. In Utah I looked at her as this sure thing in my life. In Utah, in the particular chill of the morning, I didn’t think I could lose her. And I’m glad I didn’t know.

The absent grandmother

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I want to have kids, but I don’t want them now. I don’t want them now for several reasons: career, finances, personal situations. But I also don’t want them now because I want to be the kind of mother my mother was to me. 

My mom loved us. Not in the way that all parents love their children (but certainly this too), but in an all-encompassing, specific and tailored love. She loved us with a deep deep empathy for our need to create ourselves, even long after it was a cute expression in our toddler bodies. She winced but supported our crazy hairstyles, our late night friendships, our disinterest in certain classes. She thought carefully about how to approach my brothers as they started exploring alcohol and drugs. 

My mother accepted the ultimate lack of control she could have over us if she wanted us to become independent beings, able to navigate our own lives with confidence and agency. She explored our personalities and interests in the same way she might a stranger, completely rapt in our feelings and thoughts of the moment. She didn’t harken back to yesterday, a year ago. She didn’t try to push us toward who she thought we would be. We just were, and she was happy to witness. 

I think she was able to do this, in part, because of how much she valued her own independence. My mother wanted to mother: it was in her bones. But she was also smart and entrepreneurial, numbers-savvy and customer oriented and imbued with a profound sense of integrity. For all of her life as my mother, she had her own business in one way or another. A cleaning business, Watkins, Pampered Chef, Mary Kay, a welcoming service, a printing gig, all of these sometimes supplemented with things like waitressing. 

She told me once that she used to feel bad when I was little – she would be in her office, a space she always set aside for herself, working. I would drag a warm blanket and lay by her feet. She would look at me and feel she wasn’t doing enough.

I told her not to feel bad. I had loved that. I didn’t want her to get on the floor and play with me, I just wanted to be near her, and she was always happy to have me. “You were my buddies,” she told me. “I was always glad to have you with me.” What kind of love is that? So close to a big, warm hug but also the widest, open arms to send you chasing your own dreams. She wanted us to be free. 

When my mother was dying, but before she believed she was dying, she talked about coming to live with me and my husband and eventually being a caretaker for our future children. “I won’t pay rent,” she said. “But I will watch over your children. I will bring them to you on your lunch break – I’ll even order your food for you so you can just show up and be with them. Wouldn’t that be nice?” My mother was very much looking forward to grandmothering. She saw it as an opportunity to be the kind of mother she had wanted to be. 

When she died, I had this thought: Now I will have to love them with the love of two mothers.

My mother was devastated by not having my grandmother more involved in our lives. By the time my mom had us kids, grandma was already deep in the throes of Alzheimer’s. The first time I met many of my relatives, we had flown to Boston for my grandmother’s funeral. 

Once my mother was crying next to me in bed and I asked her, Why are you crying?

Sometimes you just need to cry, honey. Sometimes I still miss my mom.

Now when I think about having children, I am thinking also about the mythos I will create about my mother. What will I tell them? What stories will they associate with her existence? I only have one memory of my grandmother, a woman I met only a couple of times as a child: I put my shoes in the most out-of-the-way place I could find, and still she yelled, No! Move them! 

What stories will I tell my children about my mother? How can she possibly be described?

Grieving, in-process

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My mom died on January 10th.

I guess you could say that means I’m in the process of grieving.

Grieving looks different from how I imagined it. I am not immobile in my bed. I am not bursting into tears at inopportune times. 

My eyes well up when I talk about my mom. I don’t like telling people my mother is dead. I don’t like the idea in their head: Dead mother. Dead mother girl. Her mom is dead.

My mom was alive for so long, for my whole life. It means infinitely more to me than her death. My mother is not my dead mother. She is my mother.

I am not hiding secret pieces of her clothing. I am wearing her pants. They were her pants but they were not her pants. They were her sick pants. Stretchy sweat pants from Target, $12. Her belly was swollen and painful and she couldn’t stand the waistband hugging her abdomen.

I don’t understand it, they hug mine. I am fatter than my mother. For the most of my life, that wasn’t true. But then the cancer shrunk her appetite and she said, I guess my metabolism is finally working and she lost weight and told me I finally fit into a size 12.

When she started getting thin, too thin, I told her I would fatten her up. I can’t have my mom being thinner than me, I joked. At her first surgery, she told the doctor, Can you give me a tummy tuck while you’re in there?

I am wearing her pants and they don’t make me think of her, except when they do. They are comfortable pants. They look casual chic, so I feel less frumpy around the house. I don’t think: these were my dead mother’s pants. 

Her orange shirt, the one she wore in all the photos from our last trip together, is sitting on my dresser. I don’t know what to do with it. It is not my shirt, unlike these pants, which are now my pants. I would not wear that shirt. It isn’t my color. It reminds me of her. I see it and I see her in it. Where do you put a dead person’s shirt? What about your dead mother’s?

My grief, if that’s what you want to call it, comes in waves. They are tiny, I think, like the ripples you see on the open ocean. They don’t come when someone talks about their own mom or when I read about cancer or when someone says, How are you doing? 

They come when I think of her, in all her specificity. The way she would congratulate us when we said something funny, That was a good one or appreciate a delicious meal or the manic way (the manic way that I have always thought was mine) she would solve a problem, talking it through and through and through again. And how I can no longer tell her about these things and the way they have shaped me. How I wish I could say thank you, and can’t. 

There is a quote for which I cannot find the author: “My mother taught me everything, except how to live without her.”

I find it to be completely untrue. My mother taught me everything, especially how to live without her. I want you to always stay, but I haven’t done my job if you want to.

Thank you thank you thank you.