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  • Written on February 29th:

    Twenty-eight years ago today, my mother died, on leap year. Today is the sixth anniversary. Those who don’t like to think about death might want to stop reading here.

    I was three and three quarter years old (unfortunately such details matter in these instances). My reaction wasn’t really documented and I don’t remember the event or many of my feelings about it. I know I went from saying things that were heart-breaking: “Are we sure everyone’s here?” to disturbingly practical, “Daddy, you seem sad - I think you need to find a new Mommy.” What I do know and regret is that I still know so little about my mother, almost three decades after her death.

    She was killed suddenly, violently, by a drunk driver – she was a pedestrian. This probably isn’t so much worse than any other way of dying in your early 30s, but the unexpected nature of her death left everybody close to her immediately traumatized, with the effect that they can’t or won’t talk about her to me. All people seem to remember is how they felt after she died, which has the unfortunate consequence that most conversations about my mother neatly transition into conversations about her into her relationship with the person in question and their feelings about her life and death, mostly death.

    What I’d like to know about my mother are the descriptive things you learn about people on first dates: what’s your favorite music? favorite color? coffee or tea? favorite modernist poet? If you could live in any city? Did you like going out or staying in? What does she dream about? Did she cry at night? (I don’t know if she liked Herzog, but I have gleaned she liked Fassbinder and Cassavetes and her notes in her poetry books are quite revealing about the poems in question.) I want to know this information precisely because people can’t bear to talk about it. These are the details that bring somebody to life and make their character salient.

    Whenever I have gotten on the topic, the selection of information is driven first and foremost by the emotional self-preservation of whomever I’m speaking with. This may take the form of complete silence, very limited information repeated time after time, or a reconstructed history designed to advance some emotional agenda.

    Let me be more specific: For most of my life my father could barely discuss my mother without crying about her, although years have softened his grief. The low point was when he set a holiday table for her by accident a couple years after she died. To this day, he still keeps everything she owned, which is becoming a treasure trove for me. I recently found her passport and now know her birthday, September 24th, 1951. Just last night he told me something humanizing about her that I’ve been waiting to hear my entire life; she like everybody in my family, occasionally drank too much.

    My grandfather, who was her academic mentor in English literature and loved her as much as anything, can’t speak about her at all. But talking to him, the critic, professor, and PhD, I get a clue of why my mother chose to follow his vocation and what it would have been like growing up with her editing my English papers and giving me reading lists of classic novels (which my dear grandfather did for me).

    My grandmother, who was raised in pretty much the most bare-knuckle Boston Irish community you could imagine is made of strong stuff. She’s given me gems like: “Catherine hated arugula!” “When I saw you sleeping in bed after Catherine died, I said to the room, ‘This is going to be a motherless child!’” “You only got into Harvard because your mother and we both went there,” “Never apologize, never explain.” I could go on for pages. She also told me: “I think about your mother every day.” My grandmother may be dramatic, but she’s hardly sentimental, so I knew she was telling the truth. There was something liberating hearing that people thought of her even though they rarely discussed it.

    Then there are my aunts, the two surviving sisters. As their cousins have told me, when my mom died, it really fucked them up. Not only because they were losing a sister, which is traumatic enough, but now that the eldest child-genius was gone, the top spot in their parents affection was up for grabs. My mom apparently was a bit of a young Stalin with her sisters; once confined for a full year to a back-cast, she would terrorize the sisters wheeling herself around with one hand while smacking them with a cane with the other, all while being completely dependent on them for everything she needed. Naturally shy, she was quietly dominating. She kept the peace and balance of power, Bismark style, by just grabbing all of it. Or so I’ve heard.

    My mother’s death, instead of bringing the sisters together, inexplicably tore them apart. Allegedly, the first words spoken post-accident were, “I bet you wish it was me.” (Ouch. Tellingly, this quote is still used almost 30 years later to bludgeon the other as self-absorbed.) At this point, I think my aunts have published anywhere between 4-6 short stories, novels, and plays between them concerning their reaction to my mother’s death, with one being performed next week and several more in the works. Naturally, my mother has a part to play until or even after she dies, which I appreciate, but my father and I rarely make an appearance. I’m not germane to the personal grief narrative, at best I’m a prop. Sadly for me, her life is never the focus, it’s about coping with death, survivor guilt, the personal emotional voyage entailed.

    My aunts actually know more about my mother’s life growing up than anyone and have given me some choice anecdotes: ‘This one time your mother farted in the car and swore up and down it was me.” “When we were in France, your mother was fluent and preferred to see us suffer in French than utter a word the entire vacation.” “Your mom loved the sandpipers on the cape.” And they’ve said some wonderful things “I really wish your mother were her to deal with this,” and in the context of an inter-sister battle “Henry, you to know your mother was nothing like us. She would never be like this, she was different.” My aunts also say ‘I love you’ and even though they haven’t played major roles in my life, I can tell they mean it and it’s wonderful to hear.

    Occasionally, the role as oracle into what my mother would have wanted for me has taken a darker turn. Upon my enthusiasm at getting into college, “You should know your mother hated Harvard and all the people there.” Ok, no problem, still excited. On opening night at my restaurant, “This is nothing at all like your mother, this would be totally foreign to her, she wouldn’t have wanted this for you.” This one, which sounded a lot like, you’re not your mother’s son and she wouldn’t be proud of you, brought on tears, a bit of a breakdown actually. It also made me realize that a mother’s pride and support died with her. Or if you want to be really dark, I’m another competitor vying to take my mother’s place who should be cut down to size and reminded I’m nothing like her lest I try to grab her indelible spotlight. Tread carefully within an emotional family in which your primary advocate is dead.

    I’m not attempting to write my own self-absorbed vindictive grief narrative about the past and death. Death, after all, makes us want to look away. But I can’t help but feel that if my family had been a little bit better at processing death and getting back to life, we need not have lost so much of her. Today I wish to celebrate my mother’s life, but simply don’t have the information to do so. I wish I had it.

    I’m getting close to the age my mother was when she died and the closer I get the happier I feel about her life. The reason being, at 31, (forgive me, nonagenarians) I feel like I’ve been alive a long fucking time. In fact, I’ve felt this way since I was about 16. Obviously, one would like to live longer, but I feel that I have already learned so much and felt so many things, that by any standard it’s been long already and is just getting longer. By all accounts, my mother had a lovely if not painless life, growing up, traveling, reading books, falling in love, being married, and having a child. What she missed is everything that would have followed with our family, mid-life career, and after, but at least she got started. Maybe now I’m being self-centered here, but I think it’s are worth celebrating.

    More often that you would think, I’ve had this misguided conversation with people who have lost their parents later in life where they say, ‘what a blessing you’ve never had to go through the grief I have.’ (not joking here) I generally ask them to try to imagine growing up without their mother not knowing her at all with everybody else in your family in extended grieving, which usually ends the conversation on an awkward note.

    But actually I do know something about my mother. I spent every waking minute with her for the first 3 and 3/4th years of my life, which as they’ve discovered, is the time responsible for 90% of your character later on. And how lucky that she took the time, was incredibly intelligent and playful and not incredibly boring and disinterested. The aura of exceptionalism that surrounds descriptions of her is no substitute for a mother’s love, but it’s been a nice beacon to attach my dreams onto. And at least she lived through childbirth, not everybody does. I’m putting a brave face on untimely death, but why not? The alternative, “pathological grieving” as my grandmother calls it, hasn’t exactly shot the moon.

    Recently, I found an old Christmas story I babbled out while my mother typed it up, presumably a few months before she died. It’s incredibly cute with refrains of “And oh merry Christmas” talking about the different kind of presents until I say “and then a group of wild bears came in and ate all the food!” (What an unexpected twist, right? And 15 years before M Knight!) Out of habit, I think about how transcribing my surrealist visions might have turned into an annual Christmas tradition. And then I think about how that grief of ‘what might have been’ has been so powerfully paralyzing for 28 years. So now, today, on this strange February 29th anniversary, I’m just happy to have that document at all and I look forward to learning more about my mother and her life, however I can.
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