One summer night I had a dream, and my late mother was there.
She’s been gone almost 20 years, but in my dream she was very much alive, her hair the same reddish-brown tint I remembered growing up. I was hosting a party and noticed that someone had spilled red wine on the carpet. A white carpet.
My dream self stared at the stain, annoyed at this problem I now needed to solve. I felt my throat tighten and the blood in my veins speeding up. But before I could get too flustered, my mom took me aside and calmly explained how to fix the stain. Relief flooded through me as I realized I didn’t need to figure this out on my own: My mom had the answer.
I wanted to keep talking to her, get more advice, feel her soothing words wash over me again. I told her that ever since she’d been gone, worries about cancer had plagued me. “Mom, I think about it every day. As soon as I wake up, it’s the first thing on my mind. It’s the last thought I have before I fall asleep.”
How could I make this situation more bearable? I had to know. Could I somehow banish the fears from my mind? Certainly she had a hack, some clever trick she’d gleaned from her own experience.
My mother listened but said nothing. Her silence weighed on my soul.
In that moment I realized there was, in fact, nothing she could do to shield me from sadness, anxiety, or pain. I’d have to walk my path — whatever it turned out to be — just as she had walked hers.
I woke up with a hollow feeling in my chest. Even in dreams, the time I had with my mother felt too meager, leaving me wishing for more. She’s not here for the little things, like errant wine on the carpet, or the big things, like helping me grapple with my own mortality. I know this; for nearly two decades, I’ve known this. And yet I still can’t fully accept it.
When the dog is destroying the couch, the kids are bickering and I’m exhausted and ready to explode, I long to be able to call my mom, drink coffee with her and laugh. When I’m dealing with another round of medical crapola, my sanity teetering on the edge of a cliff, I try to conjure up my mom’s comforting voice, her sage perspective. But she exists only in my memories, as a ghost whose words play on a loop in my brain, growing fainter and more crackly with the passage of time.
Losing a mother has a specific, lasting impact on mothers. One study of motherless mothers found that they tended to describe themselves more negatively, felt different than other mothers, and were often overprotective and perfectionistic. I can relate: My kids always tease me about being a helicopter parent, and I find myself looking for reassurance in the decisions I make. Parenting without my mother left me wobbly and searching for something to bolster me, to make me feel as rock-solid and capable as I imagine a good mother must be. Over the years, I’ve outsourced my mother’s role somewhat to other people: aunts, older female friends, my therapist.
The irony is that if my mom was here, I think she’d tell me to find that self-assurance on my own. She’d probably chide me a bit for doubting myself, and remind me of all the reasons I have to feel confident.
She’d be right to say these things.
But I don’t think I’ll ever stop needing my mom.
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