Anyone who has lost a parent (or worse, a child) can understand that when this happens it becomes an indelible line of demarcation: your life before and your life after. It does not mean nothing is ever the same or that you can never get past it (everything is the same and you can get past it except for the fact that nothing is ever the same and you can never get past it. You don’t want to).
Of course, one need not suffer the untimely death of a parent to appreciate that their presence—in the ways we can measure and the ones we can never fully fathom—are inextricable from one’s own. Up to a certain age my mother was my confidante, my confessor, my friend, my mother. It is discomfiting to imagine how I might have handled her death if it had happened earlier—not to mention much earlier—in my life.
According to the less than immutable laws of society, by definition I became an adult at eighteen. By my rather more reliable reckoning, I did not become an individual prepared to wrestle with adult realities until I’d finished graduate school and then spent several crucial years learning new things and unlearning others.
The period of time that did more than anything else to prepare me for the rest of my life, with and without my mother, were the months from early summer 1995 through late spring 1996. A mutually broken engagement and opting not to enter the PhD program that had accepted me are two decisions that befuddled friends and family, then, and likely perplex some of them, still. It was during this year that I figured out, for the first time, how to take care of myself. I was alone, really alone, for the first time, yet I found that I seldom felt lonely. Being on my own, alone with my thoughts, questions and concerns provided the space—physical and mental—to unravel the reveries that signaled the kind of person I hoped to become.
Being one’s own best friend is dangerous, potentially delusional territory and I knew it. But I found that the more time I spent alone the better I was able to love everyone around me, and my capacity to learn and evolve did not abate. By the time my mother got sick the first person I talked to was myself. If this had happened five or ten years earlier I would have been lost, without a foundation. My mother remained my number one resource in so many regards, but I was finally equipped to withstand the ordeal I had unwittingly been fortifying myself for. Depending on my mind, my music and an ability to take care of myself, I managed to get through it. Barely.
*Excerpted from a work-in-progress entitled Please Talk About Me When I’m Gone