The day after my mother’s funeral I awoke to a gigantic hole in the sky. Relief should have emerged with the dawn—at least according to the prediction of a friend’s mother whose husband had also died of a lengthy illness—but it didn’t. On the one hand, her suffering was over, and my family’s helpless witnessing of her suffering was also over. On the other hand, I was little prepared for the overwhelming door-is-closed, chapter-is-over feeling of her departure. My mother was Gone, vanished from the earth. The dark, jagged-edged hole in the sky represented a singular puzzle that all people who survive loved ones struggle with: coming to terms with loss, what Psychologist Martin Lunghi describes as the “transition from existence to non-existence.”
How does the mind make sense of such an epic transformation? In the 1970s there were no hospice workers to explain what was happening, nor outpatient clinics for bereavement support. There were no school psychologists, and my family was not the kind to seek private help. Instead we avoided discussing my mother’s death whenever possible and resumed our lives from before, almost as if her illness had never happened. With no neutral party to turn to for support, my grief was locked in a holding pattern, cycling around and around on itself like a wayward pinball as I restlessly searched for answers. If only I could grasp the meaning behind what had happened, maybe I could deal with the unbearable pain. My mother had been a huge part of my fourteen years on Earth. Where did she go? Where? Where? Where? My brain turned over the question incessantly.
With all of our interactions in life, an organic network takes shape wherein every conversation, every feeling, every event is transformed to invisible, interconnected nodes stored in a vast memory grid. When we interact in real time, the network is activated, and every new experience is incorporated into it like an ever-expanding tapestry. My mother’s death had blown a hole in the tapestry, and I didn’t know how to mend it. The proposition itself was too painful to bear. I couldn’t fix it; it was an impossible task. You may have heard of cognitive dissonance—the internal conflict someone experiences when they perceive a mismatch between outer events and inner thoughts or feelings. With my mother gone, I experienced cognitive dissonance on steroids. An over-the-top incongruity mixed with profound grief produces a correspondingly unrealistic rationale. As a way to cope, I found myself manifesting a peculiar belief— a secret hope that my mother might come back. Joan Didion speaks of something similar in her book The Year of Magical Thinking. In the months after her husband’s sudden death from a heart attack, she describes not being able to give away his shoes, just in case. “There was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible,” she recalled.1 (p. 32)
I, too, experienced a fervent wish of reversibility. My need for my mother was so great that I simply could not accept her absence as permanent. And so I struck a bargain with myself. On some Fairy Tale thought plane it was easier to accept that my mother was in the deep, suspended sleep of a Rip Van Winkle or Sleeping Beauty rather than actually deceased. If so, I could then commit to the following logic: As long as the world didn’t change too much after her death, my mother might be able to come back and resume her former role within our family. This tantalizing possibility provided a temporary patch to the tapestry and immediate relief to my soul. The material facts told me that my mother was dead; I had seen her cancer-diminished form in the hospital bed. I had attended the funeral mass and burial with the rest of my family, and the upbeat party afterwards where relatives extolled her virtues and sang her favorite Irish songs. Nevertheless, the enticing prospect that my mother could return pulsed expectantly in the background of my mind like a hummingbird on a spring day. If hope is the thing with feathers, it surely has wings as well.
The trick was to monitor current events to ensure that the world she had known was not too different from the world that marched on without her. As long as that congruity held, she might be able to come back. And so I developed a kind of double awareness, in which one part followed the trajectory of the typical teenager while the other monitored major news stories like a seasoned journalist, combing through them for outlying details. The Bicentennial had occurred a few months after my mother died. Could my mother come back to celebrate it? The answer was yes. Her illness had only begun in earnest in the winter months of 1975, at which time plans for the 200th anniversary of the country had been well advertised and well underway. Deductive validity held. Later that fall I entered high school. Could she take that in stride? Absolutely; there were three older siblings who had already gone through the same. Births, deaths, national kidnappings, a royal wedding: Though unique and sometimes surprising, each major news event passed muster, leaving open the possibility that my mother could reenter Earth through some celestial portal. How precisely this miraculous reification would work I could not articulate, but that didn’t matter. The hummingbird’s wings beat brightly.
It didn’t help matters that my grief went unattended. By the early 1980s I was enrolled in college. Looking back, I was probably one of the sorriest characters ever to wash ashore on a university campus. I had anticipated that getting away from family and the friends I had grown up would provide a fresh start, but it only served to emphasize the cracks in my paltry emotional support system. In reality I had barely scratched the surface of my grief. Within the first semester I stumbled upon a modicum of warmth and kindness in, of all places, the health services facilities, where nurses simply doing their jobs were the first adults in years to show care as they attended to me and other suitemates who had contracted a stomach flu. Given that my mother and I had last seen each other when I was thirteen, these facts might have been a jolt. But no, I reasoned, because at least regarding campus life there was precedent: my brother Bill had gone through his first year of college during most of her illness. My illogical premise thus remained unchallenged, and I drifted through academic majors and friend groups for the next few years.
Things changed in my junior year. The campus was abuzz with the new concept of personal computing and how it could revolutionize society. I enrolled in an Introduction to C++ Computer Programming course to see what all the fuss was about. A few weeks of intriguing yet challenging classes passed before logic tripped me up. Not the logic of C++, but the secret, carefully tended premise about my mother. I realized that the advances in computer technology I was learning about would possibly upset her mid-1970s worldview. If she had miraculously reappeared on Earth in 1983, the idea of a computer would have baffled her or even frightened her; what’s worse, such advanced technology might cause her to realize she had missed out on a significant chunk of time. I didn’t wish my mother to experience any more discomfort than she already had been through during her illness. With a heavy heart I dropped both the C++ course and my preposterous premise of her return.
Joan Didion reports that the magical thinking she experienced after her husband died lasted one year. Mine lasted seven. Only after then, as a reluctant 20-year-old college student, did the dual awarenesses I had cultivated crash back into each other and fuse forever. I was forced to accept fully, squarely, and with profound sorrow that my mother was never coming back.
1 Didion, J., The Year of Magical Thinking (p. 32).