It’s your birthday, Mama. In the picture you’re about 12 or 13, but you did headstands for as long as I can remember. When I was a teenager, I lived in fear of your doing one when a friend was over. The other mothers didn’t do things like that.
I’m beginning at last to see you more fully, twenty-five years after your last earthly birthday. A truer picture emerges as I learn more about life, about myself—maybe it’s you coming clear or maybe it’s me? But the veils are falling away.
For a long time, I kept my memories of you behind those veils, blurring the edges and obscuring the painfully sharp details. The veils were garnet-colored, the blood-red of your birthstone. Looking at you through them softened the memories of you, made them pink and pretty as a sunset, and as distant.
The summer I was eighteen your anchoring roles were torn away. Your last baby (me) off to college. And then: Dad died. I still remember the grief, suffocating and thick as the August air. Suffocating because we were locked into pretending to be strong and calm, you and I.
At exactly the age I am today, you became a widow. And all these years later, I am a divorced woman. Funny how both of us emerged from long marriages, newly single at the same age. I feel a new kind of kinship with you. I guess our relationship isn’t over, is it? It’s true what they say: the people you love live on in your heart.
As I find myself, I unearth pieces of you, and you continually surprise me, Mama. You are not all fierce hugs and pots of vegetable soup, not just chewy raisin-oatmeal cookies and games of cribbage and piles of books and papers everywhere, though I see you in my mail stacks and my habit of saving the tiniest bits of leftovers.
I also find your “hot-spit” spirit in the shards of my anger, I find your ancient wounds, and mine, in my middle-of-the-night panics. I hear your voice sometimes in my dreams, and in shrill of my own voice, when I lose patience and boil over. Oh, I am fine, Mama. More than fine. Like you, I’m resilient and now: I don’t have to pretend to be ever-strong and ever-calm. I can just be me, roiling emotions and all.
The last gifts you gave me are the ones I’ve spent the last couple years opening. Remember that night in the kitchen after your chemotherapy, in the window of time before you grew queasy, how you and I sat and you told me some things that maybe you never told anyone else, because I needed to know them? Or maybe you told others, it doesn’t matter. You gave me what I needed to figure myself out. I didn’t quite know what to do with most of what you shared; I was embarrassed by your shame at your human failings. My own baby was stirring in my belly, and somehow I thought it best to push difficult things aside. Pretend it was all okay. I was afraid, you see.
I told you not to worry about the things you’d shared, things that were hard for you to say. Personal things, confessions of your weaknesses. I dismissed them all away with a rushed out thank- you-for-telling-me. I put those precious words, the evidence of your humanness, your stumbles and triumphs that were just you and not my mother, into the bottom of my very deepest brain-drawer when you died. And I pretended I was ever-strong, ever-calm. I was carefully incurious.
Silly, blind me. You meant to give me a shortcut, didn’t you? You were trying to let me know: it’s okay to be human, that falling apart—happens sometimes. That the key is trusting, and sharing, and connecting. Getting up, and forgiving yourself for falling.
And all of that starts with not pretending to be strong or calm when you are not. It means not pretending at all. It was like in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy realizes she’s had the power to go home all along. Pretending to be what we are not, to deny who we are, drives us into very lonely territory.
This year, I finally learned how to do a headstand. Like mother, like daughter.
I’m so glad, Mama, that you are still here, in my heart, while I figure things out.