I’ve often wondered if the beginning of human life resembles a scene from the stop-motion animated classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. As Santa’s reindeer-driven sleigh soars over rooftops on Christmas Eve, a pointy-hatted elf retrieves toys from the overstuffed bag in back, choosing precisely the right toy for each home in accordance with Santa’s list. The elf hands the next toy an open umbrella, offers a few words of encouragement, and waves cheerfully as the toy glides down to its destiny. Substitute God for Santa, a radiant angel for the elf, and you’ve got a possible mechanism for ushering souls into human bodies. If such a scenario were true, I can imagine what advice my angelic instructor might have offered when it was my turn:
“You’re going to a good family with fine parents, but one of them is going to contract an illness—fatal, I’m afraid. You’ll have to watch her suffering for a couple of years without being told much by the adults. You’ll be confused, angry, and terrified. It’ll start about twelve years from now; you can’t miss it.” With a gentle push he’d send me parachuting to my new human form. Maybe I would shoot back a look of panic, which makes the angel regret his candor.
“One more thing,” he’d shout down to my spiraling soul. “You’re going to have the same name as the parent, so thoughts of mortality will appear early. Try not to look at her tombstone too much. Good luck, kid!”
Why God and the angels (or Santa and his elves, for that matter) would sanction such a script has eluded me for decades. Perhaps I’m naïve, but that kind of start doesn’t provide an efficient roadmap for success. I have encountered twists and setbacks as varied as what Dorothy Gayle experienced in The Wizard of Oz.1 At least Dorothy’s adventures occurred in a world of color revealed upon landing in the enchanted world of Oz. The timeline of my life did just the reverse: starting in color and switching to black-and-white in 1975 to represent the indelible “before” and “after” demarcation of my mother’s illness/death.
The degree to which the experience of my mother’s death colored—or should I say, paled—my subsequent outlook cannot be understated. It’s a comfort to realize that the true horror of her illness lasted less than six months, a disturbance as brief as a stone’s ripple in a pond when compared to the full expanse of my life. Yet the emotional fallout would endure for decades, receding below the surface of consciousness only to reemerge at significant moments. There was the loss itself, the perpetual aching void I wrote about in the previous post. My mother’s death also meant that she would not be present at any of the future milestones of our lives, beginning with my middle school graduation the month after she died, to all other graduations for myself and my siblings, to marriages and the births of our children. Her unremarked-upon absence floated silently in the hazy periphery of these events, shading each otherwise joyful celebration with a sepia tint of sorrow.
Only someone with a dazzling disposition could be unaffected by these changes. Perhaps because my own personality fell short by several hundred lumens, I began to develop a pessimistic outlook on life. I was in good company. In her excellent book Motherless Daughters, author Hope Edelman describes the feelings and experiences of many daughters in the years after their mothers died. One recounted how she felt that “calamity might be lurking around every corner, and that some terrible loss might come at any moment for which there is no preparation and no defense.”2 The statement has all the hallmarks of abandonment; I shared the same catastrophic ideas for years.
I also developed a deep mistrust of adults. Not long after my mother’s death, her family ceased contact with us for reasons still unknown. At roughly the same time my paternal grandmother died. Any hopes my sisters and I had for an adult female role model in the family were gone. I wish I could say that a kindly teacher took me under their wing, but the truth is that I kept adults at a wary arm’s length throughout high school and college for this very reason, and the trend continued into adulthood somewhat. What’s the point in getting close to people when they can’t be counted on to stay around, is the common sentiment I’ve read about children who lose a parent early. In those days I was of the world but not in it, with attention often trained elsewhere in hopes of rekindling an old feeling of comfort always out of earthly reach.
After some time passed I also began to sense that my emotional life was frozen in some way. I continued to mature and age into adulthood, and yet my understanding of my mother and the knowledge that she imparted didn’t update in tandem. Everything I learned from her had been encoded from a child’s perspective. Decades later when I was pregnant with my children and preparing their nursery, I sewed a ruffled skirt to go around their bassinet and wove a pastel ribbon through its bonnet just like my mother had done— but for a toy bassinet I had received as a girl rather than for a real baby! All of my references for what to do originated from this girlish perspective, frozen in time. According to psychologist Nan Birmbaum, a young girl’s identity develops as layers of knowledge that reorganize upon each other, sometimes replacing old information with new, but consistently building upwards to adult identity. When a mother dies, the daughter’s identity gets stuck at a given level: mine was thirteen with all of its glorious emotional inconsistencies. I used to joke that I had an inner teen rather than an inner child.
The memories of my mother themselves also began to lose color. Memories are not stored holistically, like individual books sitting on a shelf, but rather are spread throughout the brain. Visual characteristics are stored in the occipital lobe, spatial characteristics are stored in the parietal lobe, auditory components are stored in the temporal lobe, and so on. When we remember something, what we experience is not so much a replay as a reconstitution of the components of the event. This means there’s a possibility that incorrect details get assembled, or that some components are left out of the memory altogether. Sometimes we can catch the errors and update according to reality, but other times we are unaware. Before I began working on this blog, I had discovered that certain details of memories of my mother had begun to fade, likely because there was no reality to compare them to.
Linguist Noam Chomsky invented the sentence “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” to demonstrate that short, illogical phrases strung together can cohere into a complete sentence that contains correct grammatical structure. Nevertheless, the sentence remains semantically meaningless. In the whole, the structure of my life has contained no real controversy. However, the brief circumstances of my mother’s death were meaningless, and still are. This side of heaven I may never receive a satisfactory answer as to why.
- I was curious to read that author Hope Edelman used a similar reference, although obliquely, in describing her own mother’s death: “When my mother died, I remember feeling as if a tornado had blown through town and carried my roof away.” (Motherless Daughters, p. 235).
2. Motherless Daughters, p. 80