I was cutting strawberries at the sink the other night when I thought of my mother, standing over her own kitchen sink all those years ago, doing the same exact thing. Slicing fruit. I adored watching her slice fruit. She could skin an apple with one swift flick of her knife, tossing the peel on the counter like some sort of motherly mic drop. She’d blast through a container of strawberries in 60 seconds, holding the knife and fruit in the same hand, nimbly pressing the blade through the fruit’s red flesh and up into her thumb without once cutting her own skin. I’d spent years clumsily slicing into strawberries on a cutting board, too scared of stabbing myself to try it her way. But over the years I’d gained courage from childbirth and a consistent Lexapro prescription, and I started cutting strawberries just like her without even realizing it.
My mother passed away eight years ago, when I was 27, and I’ve spent years grieving her death deeply. But as I stood there the other night, going through her motions, I had an unsettling realization. As usual, I was conjuring up emotional images of my mother. But this time, I felt no sadness, no tears, no urge to curl up in the fetal position at the foot of my sink. My grief was simply gone.
My mom was 55, in perfect health, and fresh off a trip to France with my dad when her stomach stopped working. Her doctor spent months shooing her out of her office with heartburn medicine in hand, insisting it was indigestion. It wasn’t. It was stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Nine nightmarish months after she was finally diagnosed, she was gone.
In the early days, my grief was overwhelming and all-consuming. I logged my 10,000 hours of weeping. (I am a Malcolm Gladwell–approved genius at sobbing into an Ikea couch pillow.) But the terrifying thing about grief is how easy it can be to function in your day-to-day life while it quietly eats away at you. In the months that followed my mom’s death, I got my dream job writing about celebrity and pop culture at VH1, my boyfriend became my fiancé, and I smiled through bridal showers and bachelorette parties for dear friends. But through all these milestones, as well as the boring everyday, I was only barely present. I was stoned on my grief, my brain perpetually clogged with the memory of my mother.
Before she died, my mother taped instructions on all the appliances in our family home detailing how to use them. From the vacuum to the washing machine to cabinet full of lightbulbs, my mom covered things in her tight, sloped cursive so we wouldn’t be completely lost without her. She cared deeply for my father, brother, and me, investing herself in our lives but not losing herself in them. She was a gentle force, a strong advisor, and a fierce ally. A week before she died she could barely take a sip of water, but she somehow found the strength to demand I not revisit a toxic friendship I’d ended years prior. If someone screwed you over, she’d loathe them for a lifetime on your behalf.
Our relationship had just recently transitioned out of the antagonistic teen years into a space of mutual love, understanding, and trust. I matured, she eased up, and a true friendship blossomed. She’d take the train down from Boston to visit me in my tiny New York City studio, sleeping on my couch and taking me shopping for expensive bras I could never afford on my own. We’d stroll the city, linger in Barneys, and eat too much avocado toast at Cafe Gitane. At the end of the weekend I’d drop her off at Penn Station, feeling so grateful she was mine. Then suddenly the apocalypse hit. I was supposed to be figuring out who I was, exploring all avenues of my adult self. Instead, my grief shifted from a coping mechanism to my whole identity.
My younger brother and father were also entrenched in their own sorrow, but I was too absorbed in my own pain to even begin to acknowledge theirs. We’d always been a close family, and we had bonded even more as my mom’s caregivers, sleeping on the floor together around her bed during those last weeks of hospice. But with her gone, the family dynamic shifted. I was now the only girl. My brother — who shared a quiet stoicism with my mother — was now the lone introvert. And my dad, who had once charmed my mom by playing harmonica at a college party, was alone for the first time since he was 18. Still, they coped. They threw themselves into new adventures — my brother started business school, my dad took up ballroom dancing. My relationships — with my fiancé, friends, and colleagues — were an afterthought, my hobbies nonexistent. They were no match for the constant sadness that scrolled through me like a news ticker, distracting me from focusing on what was happening directly in front of me.
I spent most of my time in my tiny NYC apartment, sitting on my bed, digging through the pretty Container Store box I’d purchased to hold things that reminded me of her. I saved the most insignificant of things: grocery lists with items like “real oatmeal - not flavored,” and the pad of paper on which she’d listed out the family friends who warranted invitations to my wedding someday. I read and reread old emails, the most mundane correspondences shaking me the most. “So maybe your gas issue is realted [sic] to gluten allergy,” she wrote, offering me advice about a rash in February 2006. “It means not eating lots of what you like. it is hard.”
Nothing made her feel more alive again than when she was at her most nagging. “Kate,” she instructed on a yellow Post-it note. “You have to fill out the customer agreement & the assumption of liability form. Then return to Verizon. They did not include an envelope. xoxo Mom.”
Just looking at her scribbled signature could launch her back to life to the point where I could almost trick myself into believing she was still real. Revisiting that deep, endless sadness again and again allowed me to remember all the details about her I feared I might forget, to touch and smell and see her. I began to not just enjoy these daily grieving rituals, I craved them. Nowhere in the five stages of grief does Elisabeth Kübler-Ross mention that mourning might actually feel good. I was happy existing in a perpetual state of grief, because it kept my mom alive.
I found solace in Tumblr, dumping my emotions into raw, rambling blog posts that would often result in a friend texting me, “I saw yr post abt yr mom, r u doing ok?” It was a relief to put those emotions somewhere. But every time they spilled out, I filled right back up. Still, being The Girl Who Blogged About Her Dead Mom only strengthened my relationship with my grief. I became so good at grieving that I didn’t know how not to do it. And I definitely didn’t want to live without it, because it would mean discovering who I was without her in my life.
The thing about grief is that the old adage is true: Time heals all wounds. The rushing roar of pain and mourning that once swept me up and carried me away has now dried up to a trickle. I have lived a full eight years of my life — chasing career dreams, moving across the country, pushing babies out. My brother’s career is flourishing, and my father got remarried to a wonderful woman whom he met at his ballroom dancing lessons. Sometimes we text each other on my mom's birthday, or the anniversary of her death. Other times, we’re silent, and the days go on almost as if nothing ever happened.
My grief slipping away feels just as terrifying as it did to lose her. In some ways, I’m losing her all over again. My memories of her are becoming sloppy and unclear, foggy around the edges. My box of mementos is shoved on a shelf in my living room; my Tumblr is mostly a home for One Direction photos now. In that moment at the sink cutting strawberries, I pushed myself to go into my grief, to come up with a memory, a moment — something to hold on to, to bring her back. I searched my mind to hear the pitch of her laughter, to eye the slope of her shoulders as she sat paying bills at her desk, to watch her stand there cutting strawberries, piling them into the dingy, plastic, yellow strainer that she bought before I was born. I wanted to feel the sadness because it would mean that a part of her was still there, living and breathing through my sorrow. But my mind just circled around and around, until I finished my work, tossing the strawberry tops in the trash.
I am a mom now; my daughters are 4 and 2. They are tall, mischievous, and empathetic, just like her. My eldest knows my mom is dead. She asked me about her one day in the kitchen, as I hunched over the counter scribbling out detailed instructions for their babysitter. “Your mom died,” she said dramatically, and I nodded. “But where IS she?” she asked. “Can she still talk?”
And so I told her that yes, she is dead but she is still here. She talks through me, and lives on in my relationship with her and her sister. She is there in the advice I give them about navigating friendships, in the songs we sing and the hugs we share, in my endless nagging to pick up their toys, put away their shoes. She’s there when I’m at the sink slicing up strawberries for them to eat. As I said this to her, I realized that I no longer need to drown in my sadness just to keep her alive. I’m letting go of my grief, and finding my mom in myself.
Kate Spencer is a writer, comedian, and mom living in Los Angeles.
Contact Kate Spencer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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