I will soon be 75. This is not old by today’s standards, and most of the time I do not feel old, but if I survive until mid-November I will have exceeded my mother’s lifespan. She died eleven days before her 75th birthday.
My mother suffered from type two diabetes and heart disease so her death was not shocking but it was sudden. One hot summer day she was pruning hedges around the house she shared with my dad, when she collapsed. At the hospital she learned she’d had a mild heart attack. This was 1989, before we had cell phones, and my family was traveling at the time, so we didn’t learn of her hospitalization until we got home a day or so later. It was evening by the time my brother connected with us to tell us that Mom was in the hospital. We lived two hours away. I called Mom in the hospital at around 7 the next morning, August 3, a Thursday. I told her I would come to see her on the weekend. We had a sweet, short conversation. She said she would be fine but she was worried about who would tend my father while she was in the hospital. His health had seemed more fragile than hers. I learned a few hours later that she had a second, fatal heart attack minutes after we spoke on the phone.
I had told her I loved her but of course I hadn’t said goodbye in any final way. Besides shock and grief I felt regret. Why hadn’t I turned right around and driven in the night to be with her when she woke that morning? On the other hand, had the phone call precipitated that second heart attack?
Maybe my mother, too, felt like things were unfinished between us, because for many years she was a regular visitor in my dreams. Spirit Mom, as I came to call her, was sometimes her modest Mennonite farm wife self and sometimes someone wilder, more archetypal: flowing hair, peasant woman, mischievous crone. In any guise, she showed up as comforter and guide. She often cooked in these dreams, presided at feasts, hosted family and strangers. Thus, my mother continued to mother me decades after she passed into the other realm.
If you count these dream appearances, my mother lived, for me, until she was about 90 or 95, quite a respectable age. But she hasn’t shown up in my dreams for quite a while. I sometimes miss her acutely, both Real Mom and Spirit Mom. More often, though, it is a kind of mild, achy lack that I can’t really identify until something happens to remind me that I am a motherless child.
Sometimes grief shows up around the anniversary of her death. This year my newest grandchild was born on August 1 as I was flying back from my latest trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. So after one night in my own bed I turned right around and drove with my husband to meet baby Elin Ophelia and help her parents for a week or so. As we were picking up fresh vegetables at the farmers market for a big family dinner that evening, I was suddenly aware that it was August 3, and this was the thirtieth anniversary of my mother’s death. I was, in fact, planning exactly the kind of meal she would have made: grilled chicken and fresh corn, tomatoes, and beans from the garden. As we put the meal together, our son pulled out a sweet-sour marinated cucumber salad he’d made a few days earlier. He said he’d been hungry for Grandma’s cucumber salad and looked up a recipe that seemed to approximate it. So we celebrated baby Elin, whose middle name echoes her great-grandmother Orpha, and Orpha was with us, for sure, in that joyful, poignant feast.
In the past months, though, I’ve been in one of those low places that happen to me now and then. Amorphous low energy, malaise, boredom, lack of creativity and imagination. I haven’t felt like writing. It’s gone on so long that I’ve started to worry about myself. Is old age really overtaking me?
And then this morning I remembered my mother and that I am fast approaching the exact age where she suddenly left us and crossed to the other side. It feels like I am approaching a wall. I am grieving her, and I am grieving my own mortality. I do expect to survive until my birthday and well beyond but this one feels big.