So I’ve just moved to London and in meeting new friends and colleagues, the following conversation tends to happen a lot:
“So where are you from?”
“Oh wow, I bet your parents must miss you.”
“Yeah, but I talk to my dad every day, so we’re really okay!”
“Oh, you don’t talk to your mom?”
And I tend to be pretty open about the fact that my mother passed away three years ago. “Not having a mother” has become an integral part of the back story I feel the need to flush out in order to introduce myself and who I am properly. And I always talk about it briefly and then usually end my explanation with some silly story about how I don’t believe in ghosts because if they were real, my mother would be first in line to haunt me, just to make it clear that I’m okay talking about her because I am.
Except that there’s a big difference between it being a quick blip in a conversation and actually talking about how I feel, and that’s something I never talk about because, to be perfectly frank, no one really asks me, or if they do, they don’t really want a full explanation because let’s be honest: no one really wants to know. No one wants to know how it must feel to lose a parent. And I understand that, so I keep my mouth shut.
But then it occurred to me that although these strangers whom I’m just now befriending may not want to dive right into my brain and try to empathize with or understand my personal loss, neither have my friends nor family. And I’m mostly to blame. I don’t tell my loved ones how I really feel because I don’t want them to worry. I put on a happy smile because I know that my father lost the love of his life; my aunts and uncles lost their baby sister; my grandparents lost their baby girl, and whatever pain I’m in is nothing I’m sure compared to what they must feel.
Except that when you lose the only anchor that grounds you to this earth, it takes a long time for you to find your way back, and after three years of the loneliest journey, I finally feel comfortable talking about it. I need to talk about it. I need you all to know.
So what does it feel like when a parent dies?
Well apart from the profound sadness I feel at the end of the day when I’ve closed my eyes in bed and my mind begins to drift, and somehow leads me back to home and to Dad and to her, I feel a lot of things.
I feel angry. All of the time. I’m angry at myself. I’m angry that I parked my car on the top of that parking structure that day we went to the movies. I’m angry that I made you walk up those stairs, because you were so tired for three days after just four flights that you went to the hospital because you felt something was wrong. And they took tests. And they took your blood and little pieces of you, and they told you that you had cancer.
I am angry at myself for choosing to go to school in Boston. I chose to move my life to the other side of the country, not knowing what was going to happen, because if I did, and if I had stayed like you wanted me to, I would have had at least four more years with you before you died.
I am so confused. I’m confused because I look at where I am in my life right now, I look at what I’m doing, I think of how happy I should be, how happy I really am when, for a brief moment, I forget that you aren’t here, and then I wonder if the only reason I am here in London is because after you died, I looked for any excuse to move away. Because the only way to move through this pain was to leave.
I am jealous. All of the time. I’m jealous of everyone who still has a mother.
I’m jealous when I see a new mom walking down the street with her baby girl. I’m jealous when I see moms shopping with their teenage daughters; moms having brunch and coffee or mimosas with their twenty-something year old daughters; moms on their daughters’ wedding days; moms talking their daughters through their first pregnancies and being there in the delivery room; moms talking to their daughters about petty relationship or marital problems. I’m jealous all of the time because you all have mothers, and I don’t. I lost my best friend, my sister, my guardian, the person who breathed life and purpose into my being in one day three years ago, and you stand there with your teenage angst, rolling your eyes, shouting at or ignoring your mother when she talks to you.
There was a person in my life who was supposed to be there every day, who had been there every day, who just suddenly isn’t. I can’t explain that kind of absence.
I don’t know if there are correct words to embody that heavy feeling of lacking, but it’s always there. Even when I have great days. Even when I’ve just come home off a thrilling adventure into the city, had a wonderful day at work, and am in the best of moods. That lacking is there, sitting under the surface, just waiting for that right moment every night to creep up and remind me that it’s never going to go away.
I went on an amazing date a couple of months ago, and I was driving home with a stupid grin on my face when it occurred to me that the only person I wanted to go home to and talk about it with wasn’t going to be there.
So I drove to her grave the next morning and I sat in silence while I drank my coffee and left her latte sitting on her stone.
That’s what it feels like when you’ve lost a parent.