The shape of a mother

by mymothersbrain

When one of my dear friend’s mother died a couple of years ago, she tried to describe the resulting void. It was, she said, as if the rug had been pulled out from under her feet — the rug of her entire life. How could she possibly go on when everything in her life had been turned upside down by the death of the person who birthed, reared and influenced her the most? I suppose that’s probably true for those of us who have had the great fortune to have our mothers well into adulthood. Losing a mother is tantamount to losing your identity if you’ve had a good relationship with her. (I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to lose a mother when you’re just a kid, though that must be an even greater trauma.)

Up until recent years, whenever I’ve been sick or in need of a listening ear, I’ve been able to call my mother. But I forget that things have changed, that my mother and I have, for the most part, switched roles. That starting in 2007, I was making decisions and doing things for her that she simply had no judgment for anymore– euthanizing a dog so old she could no longer walk, taking the car into the shop to figure out the source of that strange grinding noise, quitting driving altogether, etc.

When I was out of commission a couple of weeks ago with some kind of stomach bug that had me puking my guts up all I could think of was how I used to be able to call my mom and she’d make things better just by listening. In my case, despite being sick I was calling to check on my mother anyway; my fear that she’ll forget who I am compels me to make sure she hears my voice at least once a day. When she asked how I was, I told her I wasn’t feeling great; she promised to put me on her prayer list, then promptly forgot about it. I know she forgot because when we spoke the next day I told her I was better and she had no clue what I was talking about. She did however, ask how my old dog Zeke is, because he is on her prayer list due to his advanced age and illness. (How she remembers some things and not others remains a mystery.)

But while talking to her, I was reminded of a line from a novel I recently read; I forget the exact words, but the gist of it was that even as adults, we cry for our mothers because we still need them. Reaching adulthood doesn’t immediately make some yearnings go away; the ache for a mother’s comfort is chronic.

When I was in college, my mother was friends with a woman who attended our church. This friend was guardian to her granddaughter, a precocious child with long brown hair and a sprinkling of freckles across her nose who loved to play with our dogs. She had a kid’s belly laugh, but was apt to break into tears for no reason at all. One particular night when she stayed over at our house, she sobbed long past her bedtime, and we couldn’t figure out why. She finally cried herself to sleep with my arms around her. I thought then, and still believe it now: she just missed her mom, though how does a six- or seven-year-old put words to such a deep ache? Eventually, her mother did come back into her life, though I don’t know how their relationship turned out.

I suspect that if I were losing my mother to a disease of the body  the pain I feel would still be the same. The ache in the pit of my stomach would still be shaped like her; heartache is heartache. Sometimes, though, I just wish I could still talk to my mom the way I used to — that she still could carry on a nuanced conversation, that she were still capable of reasoning so she could talk me off the ledge when I’m facing some momentous decision or just feeling like crap. My longing is that basic.