No matter my chosen form of escapism, before the journey of relaxation, wonderment or suspended disbelief runs its course, I get hurled back into the reality I’m trying to forget for just a moment. I never want to forget the mother I lost to ovarian cancer when I was eight years old, but sometimes I want to disregard that feeling of permanent loss. Memories of her are fading, but like sugar crystals that have dissolved in hot tea, her essence is ever present.
People, places and things trigger memories of my mother every day. There is always something that directly or indirectly reminds me of her, but particularly of her being gone. Some days I don’t miss a beat, other times I become an emotional mess. While I’m happy for the friends and family whose own mothers or other loved ones have overcome cancer, there is a bitterness that resides inside me because my mother was not “lucky” or “blessed” to have beat her cancer. I donate to Dana Farber nearly every year, buy daffodils during Daffodil Days, and sponsor people who participate in cancer walks. This year I sponsored a friend who walked in the Avon Breast Cancer Walk in honor of her mother, a breast cancer survivor; I also supported a co-worker who competed in a triathlon to raise money for cancer. He lost his father to cancer when he was in high school. I recently spent a weekend in Canada with my mother’s three sisters and my grandmother, their mother. I was happy to be there to attend a baby shower being thrown in honor of my cousin’s firstborn. Our side of the family was underrepresented to begin with, and my mother’s absence was all the more glaring.
Years ago, while brunching at a café in Puerto Rico with friends, I had to excuse myself from the table. The unmistakable soothing voice of Julio Iglesias wafting through the café speakers transported me to the kitchen of my childhood home in the 80s. I was enveloped by the scents of garlic, onions and herbs as my mother cooked Sunday dinner and blasted and sang along to Julio. She owned several of his vinyl records, for which I was spanked if I dared touch them. My reverie morphed into my mother’s transformation of beautiful skin, toned arms and fluffy hair to gaunt cheeks, yellow eyes, wispy hair atop a mostly bald head which was covered by a horrible wig as she lay in her casket. It’s amazing how many memories the mind can process in mere seconds.
During a weeklong stay with my sister and her family in Jacksonville, Florida, I observed a lot, including the bratty side of teenage-hood rearing its ugly head. When that happened I pulled aside the offender to remind him or her to always be respectful and to be grateful to have a mother, let alone a mother who loved, adored and went above and beyond for her kids. My sister, my father’s child from a previous relationship, also grew up without her mother, though hers was alive. I think her own longing for her mother was the blueprint for her own motherhood. She’s always present and has done an incredible job of documenting the lives of her kids with photos, albums and long posts on Facebook that always require the reader to click “more” to continue reading.
My sister is her children’s biggest cheerleader beyond sports and academia. I once overheard her utter a quick prayer for my nephew to win a round of a dance video game. Her clutched hands and crouching position as she concentrated on the screen with laser vision illustrated her seriousness. I felt a pang wondering about the level of devotion my mother would’ve felt and displayed for me. The week in Florida was spent indulging in Q&A sessions (me asking the kids about themselves and vice versa) and watching several movies on cable and DVD, including The Lion King, Immortals, Harry Potter. After a scene in another movie in which yet another mother died or was killed, my nephew turned to me and said, “Geez, you were right, Auntie.” I confessed that oftentimes the movie-watching experience is nearly spoiled because a parent, most often the mother, dies.
Music, almost as much as movies, sparks thoughts of my mother. Comedian Chris Rock jokes that no one ever acknowledges daddy; everyone is always thankful for mama. God and Mom are the first ones thanked at the Oscars, Grammys and other award shows. I would venture to say that songs about fathers are most often about them being deadbeats, like Everclear’s Father of Mine, whereas songs dedicated to mothers are thanking them for their love and support. Depending on my mood, I’ll either skip, listen to and maybe even hit repeat when Boys II Men’s Song for Mama, Tupac’s Dear Mama, Jay-Z’s Blueprint (Momma Loves Me), Anthony Hamilton’s Mama Knew Love, Trey Songz’s From a Woman’s Hand or R. Kelly’s I Wish come up in my iPod. Although Ellen and Jimmy Fallon make many jokes about Adele’s songs being tear jerkers, it didn’t apply to me until I heard her wail the line “I miss my mother” in Million Years Ago off her latest CD, 25.
I grew up feeling jealous of everyone: classmates, co-workers, aunts, uncles, cousins. When I was younger, most of the adults in my life, except my father and his twin sister, had living mothers. Any topic of conversation by a convened group somehow invoked one’s mother.
My mother is so annoying.
My mother would be mad.
My mother bought me a new toy.
I hope my mother buys me McDonald’s.
I have to ask my mother.
Go ask your mother.
I want my mommy.
My mother will pick us up.
My mother is coming for a visit.
I had nothing to contribute to such conversations.
Being a bookworm, an Oprah fan and working in bookstores for years was a dangerous combination. Pick any of the Oprah selections and the plot is most likely heavy and emotional. The Bluest Eye, Mother of Pearl, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, Middlesex, She’s Come Undone, Twelve Tribes of Hattie, to name a few. Being a glutton for punishment, I gravitate towards memoirs, bios and works of fiction that feature triumph over struggles, especially loss, which oddly gives me sense of comfort. I feel less alone. I’ve lost count of how many books (and movies) have a storyline with the initial setup of overcoming obstacles is becoming an orphan, mourning the loss of a parent, or wanting to be reunited with a living mother, like in Delicious Foods by James Hannaham. Sometimes, though, the death of a mother catches me totally off guard. Page after page I was chuckling as I read the collected personal essays of humorist David Sedaris in Me Talk Pretty One Day. Without warning, I was trying to swallow the lump in my throat when he mentions the death of his mother in the context of the family pet taking her place beside his father in bed at night. Even if a book is about the extraordinary lengths a mother will go through for her children, like in Terry McMillan’s works (Mama, Who Asked You?, A Day Late and a Dollar Short), I’m overcome with sadness. I wonder and will never know if my mother would have done the same for me. I don’t romanticize or daydream about my mother being perfect or us having a flawless relationship. I know that would be unrealistic.
I do daydream about writing a book similar to Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother. The novel is called this even though the narrator barely knows anything about her mother who passed away when she was young. I feel that way sometimes, though I don’t like to admit it. I have my own memories, like how she halved then sprinkled sugar to eat grapefruits, but whenever I learn new nuggets of information about my mother, like her being left-handed, I cling to them wishing I knew it all along. When it came time to write my thesis in creative nonfiction writing to earn my MFA, I planned to write a series of personal essays about various experiences. As much as I tried to focus on and write about myself, mentions of my mother creeped in that I didn’t and somehow couldn’t edit out. The writing process revealed that moments of happiness, accomplishments and milestones were tainted and incomplete by my mother’s absence.
I was excited to see the movie Creed. I looked forward to seeing the handsome Michael B. Jordan on the big screen for the second time this year. I’ve been a fan since watching him on the TV series Parenthood and the movie Fruitvale Station. I also saw him co-star with Zac Efron in That Awkward Moment. I vaguely remembered the Rocky movies, but planned to see Creed when I first watched the preview in the theaters before watching another movie. Jordan plays Adonis “Donnie” Johnson, the son of Apollo Creed, who died in a boxing match in 1985’s Rocky IV (another dead parent). I was engrossed in Donnie’s training and determination to be a skilled boxer on his own merits and not his father’s reputation. Then there was the curveball of Rocky’s cancer diagnosis. My own shoulders slumped when the doctor said “lymphoma.”
I wasn’t present when my mother was diagnosed, but I can only imagine her fear when diagnosed, and the hope while going through chemo. I related to Rocky’s initial decision of not fighting the cancer and just letting it take its course. He watched his wife battle and lose. At the age of eight I didn’t know I was watching my mother battle, but once she lost, I immediately knew, felt and continue to feel it. Rocky told Donnie if he could bag all his happiness and trade it for one more day with his wife, he would. I feel the same about my mother.