Here’s what I remember about my mother, who died from breast cancer when I was 10: She smelled elegant, she had beautiful blonde hair, she made the most delicious cinnamon toast, she used to gently caress my head as I fell asleep, she was kind, she was beautiful, and she made me feel loved.
Here’s what I don’t remember about my mother: What she sounded like. But I used to. For years after her death I heard her voice every day. I would hear her calling my name, I would hear her laughing, and I would listen to her outgoing message on our answering machine for hours.
My family did their best to keep her alive in my memory. My aunt always told me how smart, funny, and quick-witted she was. My grandparents told me that she was endlessly compassionate, and couldn’t bear to see an old man sitting by himself. And my father informed me that she loved to play craps.
But it feels like everything I know about my mom is a second-hand story. And as I’ve grown older, those stories are what I’ve clung to as clues of what she might have been like if she were still alive.
So even though not sharing milestones — like graduating from high school or getting my college acceptance letter or when my niece was born — is tough, the magnitude of her loss unexpectedly hits me most in the everyday moments. It’s those times I wish I could remember her voice the most. I never got to run home and tell her I won Best Movie at my middle school’s Film Festival, that I got an A+ on Mr. Sewell’s crazy hard science test, or that I have a new outlook on Brussels sprouts — and that she was right about how delicious they are.
It’s tough to know we’ll never finish another crossword puzzle together, or see the Eiffel Tower at the same time, or share one last duet of her favorite song, Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis,” as we drive down Route 10. (Although a small part of her is with me every time I sing that song today, as I’m fairly confident my tone-deaf musical abilities were inherited.) I’m sad that I’ll never get to tell her that I’m gay. I’m sad that I’ll never get to tell her I’ve been consumed by love, or rendered inconsolable by heartbreak. But I’m equally sad that I can’t simply call her on a whim to ask, “Whatcha doing?”
I hope she would have told me that everyone hates high school and that college is so much better. I know she could have told me that buying a couch on Craigslist was a terrible idea.
I feel like she should have told me how much I would miss her.
I know our relationship wouldn’t have always been perfect. I know we wouldn’t have always seen eye to eye (can’t imagine my tongue ring would have gone over well). I know that she’d stress me out and that I would disappoint her and that we would fight. I can almost hear her shouting, “Quitting college is not an option.”
But I also know that she loved me unconditionally. And if I ever needed a literal or figurative shoulder to cry on, our issues would fall away and she’d embrace me while sharing words of wisdom.
I’ve found myself longing for those words countless times over the last two decades, but with each passing day they feel further and further away. That’s why I’ve clung to the best piece of advice my mom ever gave me: “Close the windows when you sing in the car, sweetie.”