The short days, the long nights, the cold—sometimes I feel like I’m just surviving in these waning days of the year. Especially as the calendar winds around to today’s date, December 22. Today is the fifteenth anniversary of my mother’s death.
It’s hard to write this in the midst of so much holiday gaiety (cue record scratching sound). For so many years, all of December rang hollow for me, a month to simply get through. I used to wonder where I could go that would feel completely unlike December, and where I could find a place without Christmas, which was now so indelibly linked to losing her. It is no accident that my babies were born in the lightest time of the year—I couldn’t imagine the load my heart would be forced to carry if I had a baby in the darkest days of winter.
But the years, they do march on. It tugs on my heart to know I am so far from the person my mother last knew, that 21-year-old college senior. That Maggie, Matthew and Kate, my three siblings, have now, in reverse birth order, each spent more of their lives without her than with her, and my heart aches for that loss.
It wasn’t in her plan, that’s for certain. Diagnosed in April 1992 with metastatic colon cancer, my mom bargained for life with everything she had. Disregarding her terminal diagnosis and her doctors’ urges for quality of life, she said, “Nothing? I have to do something. I have four children.”
Just 50 at the time of her diagnosis, she pursued treatment at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, followed a macrobiotic diet and underwent experimental liver surgery at Yale before entering a study at New York’s Maimonides Hospital. She set goals, adjusting them as the cancer moved in. First, to see her eight-year-old daughter become a teenager. Then see her fifteen-year-old daughter graduate from high school. Then see her twelve-year-old son get his dream fulfilled—a dog. And finally, with the window closing on her, she hoped to at least see me graduate from college. She missed it by exactly five months to the day.
And now the thing I didn’t understand fifteen years ago, is all the years we have without her. It wasn’t just the self-absorbed 21-year-old that would miss her. I didn’t understand how much the 25-year-old scientist-turned-writer would miss her when there were career choices to make. And how much the 29-year-old bride would wish she could be there for a day filled with joy, yet one that underscored her absence more than any day so far. And how, when the 32-year-old first-time mother would shed tears, they wouldn’t all be because of post-partum hormones. And then again with another baby, this time a sick one, that the 34-year-old mother would mourn her absence so deeply again.
My heart clenches when Will asks me my mother’s name, or why she isn’t here. I wish she could have met my husband and held my boys. I wish, political junkie and presidential historian that she was, that she could be here to see that the once portly governor from Arkansas is now campaigning for his wife. I wish, techie before her time that she was, that she could live in this age of the Internet, instant information and blogs! I wish she could explain why I can’t get the snowflake cookies from her cookie press to come out properly. But most of all, I just wish she was here.
A close family friend of ours said my mother’s funeral mass on December 26, 1992. His words offered me perhaps the only comfort I have ever found in the wrong that is the mother who was taken away from her four children. Over the sounds of my eight-year-old sister sobbing in church that day, I heard him say, “She stayed with them through the darkest days of the year. She stayed, until it began to grow light again.”
And I do take comfort in that still. Because while I am still without her, and in the words of poet Dylan Thomas, I can rage all I want at the dying of the light, the days are getting longer now, and the light is coming back.
And I have a little boy who says, “Tell me who your mom is?” And I can hold him tight and say, “Her name was Carol, and she would so have loved being here with you.”