Thirty years ago today, my mother died. I am now the same age she was on that day. And being here is so much scarier than I’d thought.
This isn’t a story about grief — not really. My grief for the loss of my mother was complicated, because our relationship was complicated. After she died, there were nights I howled with pain for hours on end. There were days I felt relieved, as if I’d experienced a reprieve from judgment. And there was, of course, just about everything in between.
A therapist once told me that grief, like other strong emotions, can be best conceptualized as a spiral. You deal with it, she said; and then another milestone comes by — another curve on the spiral — and you deal with it again, but differently. Another curve, another milestone, another different approach to the same emotion, because we’re all growing and changing all the time. I am not the same person I was thirty years ago. My grief, like many other things about me, has changed.
But what makes this anniversary — this twist on that spiral — so different from all the others? It’s that for the first time I’m feeling alone. Up until now, I’ve been able to gauge my life and my progress and my triumphs and my failures against hers. I knew what she had been like, at almost every age I hit. When I turned forty, I remembered her at forty. We were extraordinarily different from each other at that and every age; but there was a yardstick of sorts I could hold up.
And it wasn’t just about measurement. I knew I could navigate every age I reached, no matter what it was, no matter what happened to me, because she had. She had somehow gone before me out into that unknown, out into the world, and had done… something. What she did. It didn’t really matter what that was, because I was going to make different choices anyway. But there was the security inherent in knowing she had been there.
Tomorrow when I wake up I will be a day older than my mother ever was, ever would be. I’m going somewhere she didn’t go, I’m going to be somewhere she never was. And even though I’ve pretty much made a life and a career of going places she didn’t go and doing things she didn’t do, there’s still a part of me that feels I’m looking out at a disturbingly mysterious and unknown horizon. Beyond this be dragons.
My mom didn’t fall off the edge of the earth, though it felt very much like it at the time. And I won’t, either. I know — even though I don’t really feel it yet — that I can face this and every subsequent new horizon, because she did it, too, she did it first, and in ways I haven’t yet even begun to examine, it doesn’t matter if your compass is lost or stops functioning or just plain disappears… because, by then, you can find true north on your own.
Jeannette de Beauvoir writes about writing and, occasionally, about real life. Find her at her website.