About a year ago, rifling through an old desk in my childhood home, I came across my mother's datebook from 1982 -- the year she died.
Her "Girl Scout Pocket Planner" is a stapled-together thing with a flimsy cover, emblazoned with a picture of a girl looking out from a sailboat as the sun sets behind her, in a flourish of golden stripes. It's an artifact that became a symbol of the end of one chapter of my life, and the beginning of a new one.
Looking back, for the first few months of that year, my mother's errands seem innocent enough. On Jan. 28, she wrote, "Pick up earrings" -- the jeweler had probably transformed a pair she'd found at an estate sale into clip-ons. (She never had her lobes pierced.)
On Feb. 11, she took my sister and me -- that's me on the left, above -- to Dr. Santise, our brilliantined and mustachioed dentist, a handsome man who looked like he'd walked into his office straight off the set of "Happy Days." A Parents Guild meeting at St. Mary's, our elementary school, took place on April 29. A March 1 note puzzles me: "Send out résumé." My mother stopped working in 1973, when she gave up teaching at a Catholic prep school in the Bronx to have my sister. She couldn't possibly have been thinking about renewing her career in 1982, not when she'd been told four years earlier that she had a little more than three years to live ...
Although maybe she had
been thinking about it. She refused to talk about her impending death with anyone, and had even half-convinced my father -- and herself -- that she would beat the Reaper. Perhaps she thought she'd have more than enough time to start over.
On the second of August -- my eighth birthday -- she has two things marked. First, it's simply my name, "Maura." (My heart skipped a beat, seeing that.) Underneath my name, there's a single line through "Blood Test," which makes me wonder if she'd forgotten we'd have to celebrate -- if she'd forgotten me -- and had rescheduled the procedure only after remembering.
A week after my birthday, "Blood Test" appears again and never gets crossed out. On Aug. 23, "Thyroid exam" appears. She never made that last appointment, because the day before -- 28 years ago this Monday -- she passed away.
The things I remember about my mother are a child's details: simple (and sensory), more than insightful. The henna she used to dye her graying hair stunk like the food pellets we fed my cousin's turtle. But whenever she was going out, Chanel No. 5 made her smell like the star of an old movie. Sometimes, just to get a good whiff of it, I'd hug the clothes in her closet, inhaling the lingering perfume. When she baked so-called "brown bread" -- some hearty Irish recipe that was ambrosial when it was fresh out of the oven and smeared with butter-the kitchen would fill with a fog of yeast.
Until recently, though, I understood my mother best through my father's memory of her. He's still in love with her, 28 years later. (You might think that's romantic; I think it's slightly tragic.) He hasn't remarried. As he reminds me all too often, he still "talks" to her every night after saying his prayers and looks forward to their reunion in heaven. He has always idealized her: for taking a construction worker like him to see performances of Shakespeare; for giving up the teaching she loved to be a mother; for never giving up on life till the bitter end. Another favorite recollection: "The last thing she asked me to do was to promise I'd take care of her two girls. Then she let go of my hand and drifted away."
She remains perfect in his mind. She was in mine, too, for a long time, until one spring afternoon when I was in my 20s. Walking from the subway to my shrink's office, I passed an affluent young woman saying farewell to a little girl as a middle-aged nanny looked on. Peeling the tearful child's arms from around her neck, the mother smiled, saying, "Come on, silly. As soon as you get to the playground, you'll forget me."
By then, I'd been in and out of therapy for years. I couldn't shake a lingering depression or find a healthy relationship. My psychologist seemed to think talking about my mother would help me overcome my problems, which annoyed me. ("Her death is ancient history," I'd say. "Can we please focus on something relevant?") That day, however, after mentioning that the sidewalk scene had upset me, I couldn't help but talk about my shrink's favorite suspect.
"I told you my mother never said goodbye to me, right?" I said, squeezing back tears.
No, she said. I hadn't mentioned that minor detail.
I shrugged. "She never told my sister and me she was dying -- just that she had a bad cold -- because she thought we were too young to handle it. And my father deferred to her, because she was 'educated' while he'd never finished high school," I said. "Eh, it's no big deal, really."
But by the time I left the session, it was. Having decided to walk home -- 70 city blocks -- I called my father en route to shout: "It was so stupid of her not to prepare us. She never even gave me one last hug!" I knew I sounded like an 8-year-old, but I couldn't stop myself. "It's like she didn't even care that she'd never see me again! Like she didn't love me!"
After that, I began to see her as selfish, cowardly and misguided; a mother who'd failed me. Her neglect seemed all the more inexcusable because she was the one person in the world who was supposed to know exactly how to handle everything -- especially me. I was sure I'd never forgive her.
About a year ago, however, I began to reconsider. A friend of a friend was diagnosed with cancer, at age 28. David, as we'll call him, needed two surgeries to extract 14 lymph nodes, which left him with two jagged red scars, like long lines of intertwined starfish. A loving army of his friends and family nursed him through the worst of it, including a month he had to spend in bed, resting. The doctors successfully took all the bad cells out of David's body. But he had to take heavy-duty drugs for 12 months after that, and still has years of regular checkups ahead of him. The physical trauma of the surgeries would have been enough to leave me psychologically shattered. What's (possibly) worse is that David has to live knowing there's a chance a growth will reappear.
His experience got me wondering who had helped my mother through her long and debilitating illness. My father did as much as he could -- I remember him carrying her into the house from her car more than once -- but he worked long hours. My grandmothers and my mother's sister lived far away. My mother seemed to get by on her own, managing to keep up with the two little kids who depended on her for everything while going through innumerable immobilizations.
She had more operations than my father can count, and monthly chemotherapy treatments that weakened her so much that she had a tough time getting out of bed for a week after them.
On top of everything else, not long before she died, she shattered her leg in 17 places during a car accident that left her in traction for weeks -- and meant the chemo had to be put on hold until her body was strong enough to handle it again. But knowing she had a death sentence must have been most difficult of all. Even if it wasn't written in ink, there must have been a note in her mental calendar about when her time was supposed to be up.
And after seeing what David went through, I could sympathize more with her decision to remain tight-lipped. Maybe she had to trick herself into thinking her life was not going to end so soon and that she wouldn't leave behind two little girls -- and one depressive man for whom she was the center of the universe. Otherwise, fear and hopelessness might have paralyzed her completely, and she wouldn't have been able to perform her maternal duties half as well. I began to appreciate how difficult it would have been to explain to two children that she was going to disappear forever, how excruciating it would have been for her to envision leaving behind the three people whose lives were so dependent on hers. That's why she closed off the dying part of herself and pretended, as much as she could, that everything was normal. Even though I don't think it was wise, I bet she really believed it was the best thing for all of us.
That fragile datebook of my mother's, which I discovered during a recent trip home, helped me realize how much her life revolved around her family. My own pocket calendar -- a candy apple red Moleskin -- reveals a narcissist. There are appointments to get Botox, laser hair removal, haircuts. There are notes about cocktail parties, theater performances, a movie night with a friend. There are also dinners and dates with the different men I've met recently ... although I can't imagine getting serious with any of them.
Part of the reason I've never been able to get into a truly steady relationship is because I still don't quite feel adult -- even now, in my 30s. I've never had any desire to be a grown-up, married with babies, partly because I fear I'd screw up my family irreparably if I died suddenly. Less altruistically, I also feel like I can't properly care for anyone else, child or man, because I never had my fill of parenting.
For that, I'd been cursing the woman who died so soon after my eighth birthday. But recognizing why she fought so hard to ignore death has enabled me to see how much she wanted to be a great mother, even if she could never be omniscient or immortal. She had to write things down to remember to do them, just like I have to. Our hearts were also probably similar. For too long, I thought she didn't give enough of hers to me. But now I realize she gave all she had. And instead of wasting my years wishing she'd played out the end of her life differently, maybe it's time to really start living my own.
Maura Kelly writes a daily dating blog for Marie Claire and recently completed her first novel. In January 2012, Free Press will release the book she is currently working on, about what literature can teach you about love.
How To Deal With (And Heal) Grief:
-- 10 Best (And Worst) Things To Say To Someone Who's Grieving
-- How To Cope With Losing Someone You Love
-- Celebrity Grief: Why We Mourn When We Lose a Hollywood Legend