This is What It’s Like To Be Motherless On Mother’s Day

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A few nights ago, I was driving home from work when “Dear Mama” by 2Pac came on the radio.

Now, I’ve never been shot multiple times in a recording studio, nor been the target of extensive F.B.I. surveillance (as far as I know, anyway), but for some reason, Mr. Shakur’s ode to his mother just resonated with me – particularly, the couplet “cause through drama I can always depend on my mama, and when it seems that I’m hopeless you say the words that can get me back in focus.”

Listening to Tupac pine for his mom that evening pushed me to the brink of tears. And by the time Shakur dropped the song’s final lines – “there’s no way I can pay you back, but the plan is to show you that I understand” – I was weeping like a baby.

I don’t know what came over me. It was the first time I outright bawled in years, and it wasn’t until I looked at the calendar that I truly understood why.

This is the fourth Mother’s Day since my mother, who had just turned 61, died in 2012.

I’ll never forget getting that phone call at 4 a.m. It was one of those rare moments in life that was so shocking, it took my brain several hours later to fully process it. I had just moved into a new city, and had a job interview that morning. I showered and put on my best dress shirt and rubbed on deodorant and grabbed a cup of coffee. Yeah, I knew my mom was dead, but it hadn’t sunk in. It didn’t become real quite yet.

Somewhere between leaving my apartment and arriving at the office, it became real. I lost it. All of those sweet memories – every kissed boo-boo and every word of encouragement when I was feeling depressed and every delicious home-cooked meal she ever gave me – came roaring back. And I realized I’d never get to experience those ever again.

For the rest of my life, I would never hear her voice. I would never be able to hug her, or talk to her or feel her warm, reassuring palm patting me on top of the head.

She was gone forever.

Nothing can prepare you for that realization, even if you had years and years to get ready for it. Accepting that horrible truth burns worse than any physical pain you’ve ever experienced; you can almost feel the pressure of reality crushing you, squeezing every ounce of air from your lungs.

Attending her funeral was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I watched every single visitor file out of the chapel at her wake. As sad as they were, they could go on with their own lives. But mine had come to a sudden stop.

I must’ve spent an hour alone with the coffin. I just hovered over it, afraid to take my hand off the lid.

There was so much I wanted to say to her, things that I should’ve said years ago. I never got a chance to tell her any of those things while she was alive – something that, to this very day, I haven’t lived down.

Far and away the biggest regret of my life is not picking up the telephone and wishing my mom a happy birthday when I had the chance. I still remember holding my phone in my hand, debating whether I should call her or not. I almost, almost, pushed send, but something stopped me.

Was it fear? Anger? Pride? Resentment? Apathy? I don’t know. Maybe it was a combination of all of them. But I just couldn’t force myself to talk to her that evening. I had plenty of opportunities to call her later, I reasoned. I can just send her a belated birthday message midweek.

I had no idea that in just a few hours, she would die.

Like everybody else, I had a love-hate relationship with my mother. Somedays, she was the most annoying, infuriating person on the planet and others, she was the saintliest, most comforting woman who has ever lived. She had her vices – she drank, and she smoked and her purse was always stuffed with more high-octane prescription drugs than a CVS pharmacy – but she also had her more redeeming qualities. For one thing, she was the most honest human being I’ve ever met. She never sugar-coated anything, and she always told you exactly what was on her mind. Case in point: I was kvetching over one of my girlfriends once, and her response to my melodramatic relationship woes? “Eh, I don’t see why you’re that upset. She ain’t that pretty and to me, she kinda’ looks like a ho.”

She was always like that. Even now, she’s the only person I’ve ever known who I would describe as ascending to Kohlberg’s highest level of moral reasoning. Simply put, she always followed her heart, and nothing – threats of physical harm, federal law or Newtonian physics – could convince her she was wrong. She believed what she believed, she felt she was right and that was it. For 10 years, she pronounced Osama bin Laden’s name as “Oh-Samuel-Bean-La-Dean” and if you tried to correct her, she’d tell you to go eff yourself. And if you criticized the way she made macaroni and cheese, she’d yank the plate out of your unappreciative hands and tell you to kiss her ass.

She was a hard worker. Up until I was in middle school, she was a single mom who worked, at various points in time, as a school bus driver and bookkeeper after my dad – who never paid a single dime in child support payments – flew the coop. When I was older, she told me how hard it was, that she used to go into grocery stores and fantasize about stealing meat to feed me. Most of her career, she was a nurse at a retirement home, working 12-hour shifts. She took great pride in her profession, and even greater pride in not letting it wear her down.

We didn’t have much – throughout elementary school, we lived in a single-wide trailer – but I never went without. She taught me to read at a very early age; by the time I was in the first grade, I was tackling Stephen King novels all by myself. She always implored me to ask questions, and never unthinkingly defer to authority. While other kids were watching Barney and Friends, she sat me down with a VHS copy of Schindler’s List and told me to “never forget there’s a real world out there and don’t ever dumb yourself down for nobody.” She introduced me to Richard Pryor and George Carlin and Johnny Cash and all of the great exploitation movie classics of the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Her idea of “winding down” at the end of the workweek was renting Faces of Death and I Spit on Your Grave and ordering a pepperoni pizza.

Yes, she was weird and to the outside observer, perhaps even a bit prickly. But she was loving, and she cared for me deeply. At times, she sounded like the only sane voice in a cosmos of madness. When it felt like everything was going wrong in my life, she was the only thing in the universe that could snap me out of my funk. Somehow, someway, she always knew the right thing to say, even if it was grammatically (or politically) incorrect.

And she was tough. She had a brain aneurysm and went back to work a few weeks later. Just months after a botched sleep apnea surgery and subsequent MRSA infection almost killed her, she was right back on the nursing floor, even though she still had a giant hole in her neck from the emergency tracheotomy. Even after a stroke left her virtually paralyzed, she still didn’t have any quit in her. One of the very last times I saw her, she was zooming around in her motorized wheelchair, wielding one of those Gopher reaching tools like it was a lightsaber.

Maybe that’s why her death was so shocking. She had survived so many things that would’ve killed an ordinary human being that I just figured she’d fight out of her latest emergency room visit like she did everything else. But she, like all of us, was human, and humans can only absorb so much punishment. I knew she wasn’t happy with her life, and she was in tremendous pain. Hearing about her dying was heartbreaking, but I could at least take some solace in knowing she was no longer suffering.

But it still hurts not having her around. Every Christmas, I keep expecting to get a phone call from her, and to get a birthday card in the mail from her and to see her on Thanksgiving. Like Tupac said, you can always depend on your mama, and just knowing she isn’t there makes you feel vulnerable. You never realize it until she’s gone, but just having your mother out there is like having a safety net for your soul. No matter how much you mess up or where you go wrong in life, she’s going to love you, and be there for you and support you. You’ve always got a place to go, someone to pick you up when you are down. The world gets so much colder, and so much lonelier, once she’s gone. Her absence puts a damper on even the happiest moments of your post-orphan life; every time I think about walking down the wedding aisle and holding my firstborn child, I can’t help but think “she isn’t going to be there with me.”

I spent many nights just sitting in bed, sobbing my eyes out, thinking about how much I miss her. For a year after her funeral, I had a recurring nightmare where I pushed her in a wheelchair through a never-ending swamp; I’d wake up, so happy to see her again, only to realize it was all an illusion in my head. In fact, only one thing helped me maintain my sanity after accepting she no longer existed: that being, the fact that she did exist, and lives in any everything that I do.

Like energy, memories – and the powerful emotions they evoke – can’t be created or destroyed. Instead, they simply change forms over time and get redirected and redistributed. My mother made such a lasting impact on me that at times, it feels like I can interpret the world exactly as she would’ve. Whenever I watch a movie or see a piece of art or hear a joke, it’s like I inherently know how my mother would react. She would’ve said this particular swear word or criticized this part of their appearance. No one did more to paint my worldview, how I interpret the reality around me, than she did – and for that, I will always be appreciative.

As much as the sad and hurtful memories still sting and demotivate me, the happy and encouraging experiences do just as much to keep me pushing forward.

I remember her making me her world-class chili before finals in high school and buying me a six pack of Heineken – “that pee-tasting Nazi stuff,” she deemed it – when I turned 21. I remember coming home from school and being commanded to play the Sega Dreamcast role-playing-game Shenmue before I started homework so she could, in her words, “find out what happens to that little Japanese boy” next. I remember her adoration of Elvis Presley and pro wrestler Bret “Hitman” Hart and how hilariously outraged she would get waiting in the fast food drive-thru lane. I remember staying up all night with her watching all of the old Jason and Freddy movies and poring over the latest issue of The Weekly World News and laughing our heads off over the latest Sasquatch sightings and stories about women giving birth to alien creatures. I remember her telling me how proud she was when I graduated college, and I remember how excited she got when I showed her all of my old journalism awards.

And even now, when I feel like I’m down and I can’t ever get back up, I swear I can hear her voice whispering in the breeze – “ah, come on, you big pansy, things ain’t all that bad.” And then I think about her flowery use of profanity – almost always a conjunction of animal parts and lewd bodily functions – and no matter how bad I’m feeling, I can’t help but laugh. Physically, she is no longer here, but in my heart – as clichéd as it sounds – I know she’ still hanging around, smoking Viceroy cigarettes and yelling about the stupidity of the defendants on Judge Mathis.

Even so, I would give up so much to go back in time and call her on her last birthday. I have no idea what I would have said, but I would have said something. That’s why at the funeral home, I spoke to her casket as if I was talking to her in flesh-and-blood. I told her I was sorry for being such a jerk and that I always cared for her and I never hated her. I apologized for never seeing her as often as I should or visiting as much as I could have. I thanked her for everything she ever did for me, and I told her I forgave her for every bad thing she did to me.

And right before I walked out and said goodbye, I told her I loved her. Until the day I die, my biggest regret will always be not telling her that when I had the opportunity.

That’s why this Mother’s Day, I urge everybody reading this to call your mom. Send her a text, an email, something. Even if you haven’t talked to her in years and you don’t really like each other that much, you need to let her know you appreciate her and that you love her while you still can.

After all, she’s not going to be around forever. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

James Swift is an Atlanta-based writer and reporter.

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