Marcia was a good girl. On her first day of kindergarten, she left her room neat as a pin, her little shoes all in a row. The oldest of three, Marcia set a good example for her sisters. She was a good student, not exceptional, but she was active in clubs and well liked. She grew into a very pretty girl with shiny dark hair and wide blue eyes. In high-school, a goofy boy, the class clown, pretended that his scooter had broken down in front of her house so he could talk to her. He would do this several times. She fell for him, and they became sweethearts. In her senior year, she discovered she was expecting a baby. She kept her secret for as long as she could, and then they married before he took off for Vietnam and escaped her father’s wrath. After, they settled into a military life and two more babies came. A few happy years had passed when she found the lump under her arm. At the doctor’s office, fearing the worst, she was told that twenty-six year old women with three children don’t get breast cancer. The doctor was wrong. On a January night in 1976, two weeks past her twenty-eighth birthday, she died in a Boston hospital. She was my mother.
Here’s something you probably don’t know: Women can smell a mother-less child from miles away. It’s true, they’ve done studies and everything. Especially if the child is particularly young. I was just shy of my third birthday when my mother died. Throughout my childhood I became accustomed to a certain special treatment. Teachers gave me secret presents. I had many ‘surrogate’ mothers, including a very special baby-sitter who made me feel loved as if I were her own. Even as a young woman in my twenties, the older ladies I worked with clucked around me like mother hens. I am grateful to them all. There is a picture of me, ten years old with a barrette haphazardly stuck in my unbrushed hair; my attempt at grooming myself like the mothered girls I went to school with. That little girl thanks those women from the bottom of her heart.
I have no memories of her. My brother and sister were eight and nine when she died, and they do remember. If you take anything away from this story let it be this: ” You can’t miss what you never had” is not true. I missed having a mother. Very, very much. I missed knowing my mother even more. I knew not much more about her than I’ve already told you. The pain of her death hung palpably over my family. She was spoken of reverently, but rarely and always in sound-bites like the ones you’ve read. Glowing anecdotes that were certain not to provoke emotion. I knew that the air left the room if I said “my mother”, so I learned not to ask much and waited instead for the precious mention of her. I fixated on her pictures. And there were not many of those either. I stared at them, dreamt on them. I wondered what she was thinking in each one, what was she saying? Which way had she turned her head after the shutter closed?
Eventually, I grew a little bolder, asked more probing questions. I didn’t want the ‘official’ story, I wanted to know who she was. The good, and maybe even more, the bad. There was a hollow part of me where that most essential connection had been broken, and I tried to fill it, but there was so little to pour in there. As the years passed, as I flew further and further from girlhood, I came to a sort of acceptance. There were questions I would never have the answers to. She was a woman that I could never know.
Then I became a mother.
There are truths I understand about her now that I wish I could wipe from my heart. From her heart. How she must have agonized over leaving us. Her three babies. I’ve played out the scenarios of my own death many times in my mind. Who else could love my son like I do? How can anyone else know him, mother him? He is my boy. My love.
She was alone the night she died, much more quickly than expected. We were mostly kept from her in the hospital. Hospital rules. But my grandparents snuck us in from time to time. The pain of the disease melted to nothing. Nothing could hurt more than being torn from your children, from their futures, their fates. I know this. This much I know.
This is why we mourn so deeply for a mother who loses her child. Why we’re giddy for each other when our babies are born. Why we come together, share and fight and bear witness to the minutiae of motherhood. We are connected in this way.
I will never experience the sound of her voice, the touch of her skin, being held and comforted by her; it’s the deepest regret of my life, only now, when I hold my son close, and breathe in the scent of him, my mouth slightly watering from the joy of it, I know how much she loved me.