I read this excellent article in The New Yorker by Ruth Margalit about being Unmothered–a term coined by Meghan O’Rourke for those of us who had a mother, but now don’t.The article is sad yet comforting because it struck a chord and overwhelmed me with memories of my mother–both happy and sad. I’d rather celebrate this day and everyday cherishing beautiful moments spent with my mother. So here’s to a wonderful day of celebrating love for and with your mother–Mothered or Unmothered is hardly of any consequence.
I have shared the article here for your reading pleasure.
POSTED BY RUTH MARGALIT
When I was growing up in Israel, there was a short-lived show on television called “Hahaverim Shel Yael” (“Yael’s Friends”), which featured a peppy girl who introduced short clips acted out by puppets. The actress who played Yael was probably in her twenties, but she was dressed up to look like a child, in flowery dresses and pigtails. I loved that program, in which the puppets occassionally crossed into real life and made a mess of Yael’s studio. Right before the opening music came on, Yael would look into the camera and fake-whisper to the viewers, “Tell your mother to turn up the volume!” Once, as my twin sister and I were settling down on the sofa to watch, my mother overheard this opening bit. “And what about those who don’t have a mother?” she asked.
I must have been seven or eight at the time. I was irritated with her for asking that question, forever ruining the show for me. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. It summed up, I now realize, her parenting philosophy. The way she didn’t baby us, but treated us like thoughtful people, capable of empathy. The way she was always fully there—registering, questioning. But mostly, I think, it showed her unyielding belief in fairness, which, years later, I would hear her define as justice played out in the private sphere. (She was a philosophy professor, preoccupied with definitions.) It was a particular kind of fairness, one that centered on a child’s sensibility. Once, when I asked her whom she loved more, my sister or me, she answered, simply, “You.” Incredulous, my sister posed the same question. “Who do you love more, Ima? Ruth or me?” “You,” my mother said. We tried again. Each time, my mother invariably told whoever asked that she loved her more. “This doesn’t make any sense,” we finally said. She smiled and told us, “Sure it does. Don’t you see? I love you more and I love you more.” This was her sense of fairness: no kid wants to hear that they are loved the same as their sister.
This Mother’s Day, three and a half years after she died, I find myself turning over her question in my mind. And what about those who don’t have a mother?
“CALL MOM” said a sign the other day, and something inside me clenched. In my inbox, at work, an email waited from the New York Times: a limited offer to “treat Mom” to a free gift. It’s nothing, I tell myself. A day for advertisers. So I shrug off the sales and the offers, the cards and the flowers. I press delete. Still, I now mark Mother’s Day on my private calendar of grief. Anyone who has experienced a loss must have one of those. There’s August 29th, my mother’s birthday—forever stopped at sixty-four. September 17th, my parents’ anniversary—a day on which I now make a point of calling my father, and we both make a point of talking about anything but. There’s June 6th, the day she was diagnosed—when a cough that she had told us was “annoying” her and a leg that she had been dragging, thinking she must have pulled a muscle, turned out to be symptoms of Stage IV lung cancer. And then there’s October 16th: the day she died, four months and ten days after the diagnosis. The year becomes a landscape filled with little mines.
Trust me, I’m too aware of the fact that my mother is gone to wish her here in any serious way on Mother’s Day. But does the holiday have to be in May, when the lilacs are in full bloom? When a gentle breeze stirs—the kind of breeze that reminds me of days when she would recline on a deck chair on our Jerusalem porch, head tilted back, urging me to “sit a while”?
Meghan O’Rourke has a wonderful word for the club of those without mothers. She calls us not motherless but unmothered. It feels right—an ontological word rather than a descriptive one. I had a mother, and now I don’t. This is not a characteristic one can affix, like being paperless, or odorless. The emphasis should be on absence.
* * *
I remember driving back to my apartment in Tel Aviv for the first time after those first agitated days in the hospital. A man was out on the street walking his dog. I stared at him, waiting for some sign of acknowledgement that the fundamentals of life had changed. He kept on strolling, of course. How stupid of me, to think that everyone knew.
They say time heals. It’s true that the pain wears off, slightly, around the edge, like a knife in need of whetting. But here’s what they’re missing: It gets harder to explain to myself why I haven’t seen her. A month can make sense. (I took a trip; she was busy with work.) Even six months is excusable. (I moved; she’s on sabbatical.) But how to make sense of more than three years worth of distance? How to comprehend that time will only drive my mother and me farther and farther apart?
I’ve learned that some mourners experience anticipatory grief, mourning their loved ones before they have died, while others experience delayed grief—a postponed reaction to the loss. It might sound strange, but I used to think that I experienced both.
I fully grieved the day we were given the diagnosis. My mother was told that she would be admitted overnight to the cardiology department, because there were no available beds yet to take her in oncology. I heard that phrase—no beds “yet” in oncology—and knew that we were entering a new universe, with its own set of rules. That night, when I finally had a moment to myself, I stood in the hospital’s darkened hallway, stared out a sullied window, and wailed in a way I never have before or since. A passing nurse, seeing me keen, brought me a tiny cup of water and made me sit down. I never told my parents or my siblings about this. I simply wiped my eyes and dutifully returned to my mother’s bedside. Every now and then, I try to recall what went through my mind as I was standing in that hallway, crying my heart out. (And if you think that the cliché can’t be real—well, then, you’re lucky.) The truth is, I was thinking, selfishly, about myself. That my mother would never see me marry. That she would not know my children. That the following summer I would turn twenty-eight—her lucky number—and she might not be there.
But there was also what I experienced as a delayed state of grief. I had begun graduate school at Columbia that August—my mother was by then on a targeted drug treatment called Tarceva that had somewhat stabilized her tumor, and she insisted that I go—when I got a call from my sister telling me that things were deteriorating rapidly, and that I should get on a plane back. I had been lying on a lawn in Central Park, reading, when she called. I hung up and couldn’t feel anything.
When I returned to New York in late October, only two days after the Shiva, I threw myself right back into school as though nothing had happened. The trees were undressing for winter, and I walked down the chilly streets of Morningside Heights squinting against a nonexistent sun. What I kept hearing from friends during that time was that I looked “good” and “strong.” That I seemed “fine.” I didn’t feel fine, but I also had no idea what to do except carry on. “I don’t know how you manage,” an old friend told me. “If it had been my mother, I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.” She thought she was paying me a compliment, not realizing that that’s about the worst thing you can say to someone in mourning—as though by merely starting my days I was betraying my mother. Am I? I started to panic. But then I came across Roland Barthes’s “Mourning Diary,” which he kept immediately following the death of his mother. In it, he writes, “No sooner has she departed than the world deafens me with its continuance.” I remember reading this and experiencing a physical spasm of recognition. He adds, “I seem to have a kind of ease of control that makes other people think I’m suffering less than they would have imagined. But it comes over me when our love for each other is torn apart once again. The most painful moment at the most abstract moment.”
Yes, I remember thinking. Yes, yes, yes. This wasn’t delayed grief, after all. It was simply this: grief keeps odd hours, the most painful moment at the most abstract moment. Strangely, I began to think of Barthes (whose relationship with his mother famously bordered on the Oedipal) as my grief buddy. Largely preferring books to people around that time, I discovered that he wasn’t the only one.
* * *
In my journal from that period, instead of writing how I felt, I sought out and copied everything that seemed to express what to me was inexpressible. From Proust, I took: “For henceforth you will always keep something broken about you.” From C. S. Lewis: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” From Joan Didion: “A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.” From O’Rourke: “Am I really she who has woken up again without a mother? Yes, I am.” From a short story by Alice Munro: “What he carried with him, all he carried with him, was a lack, something like a lack of air, of proper behavior in his lungs, a difficulty that he supposed would go on forever.” From one by David Long: “Eventually, a truck would come rattling down… a car door would chuff, and the world would go on—not where it had left off but on the other side of this nothing time. And when it did, though she couldn’t quite see it yet, [she] would begin the never-ending task of not forgetting her mother.”
Or this, from my mother’s favorite Hebrew poem, in which the poet, Natan Alterman, describes his beloved as “sudden forever.” Those two words, as well as the poem’s title—“A Meeting for Eternity”—are oxymorons that spell out the contradictions inherent in loss. What is the death of a loved one if not an oxymoron? My mother isn’t here, and yet I see her everywhere. I kept on looking for hints of her on the page, as though by retracing her beloved books and poems I would get to reclaim a part of her that was already slipping away.
Two days before she died, my father walked into the hospital room and told me to time a minute. I looked at my watch. When the minute was up, I told him. He said, “Twenty-three. Very good.” He had been counting her breaths, I realized. Willing her to stay. And she did—she waited until we were all there, flanking her bed—before letting go.
We buried her just outside of Jerusalem, on a kibbutz, facing the mountains of her youth. She adored her hometown, and ached over what it had become. The growing zealotry, the flickering lights of peace. The news coming out of Israel today—another botched round of negotiations—would have depressed her terribly. Instead, I like to think of what is immutable. The warm wind whistling past those hills. The pine needles crackling underfoot. And on the other side of the mountains, down by the coastal plain—hidden—the sea. Another memory floats by without warning: my mother and me, after a dip in the water. My teeth are chattering. My fingers are raisins. I want to rush toward my towel. But my mother tells me softly, “We don’t run to our towels; we walk.” That moment distills her essence for me: a hint of old-fashioned formality—a proper woman should know how to carry herself—combined with an implicit imperative. Hold your head high, was what she was really telling me. Take your time. Soon it won’t be this cold.
About two weeks after her death, I wrote in my diary: “The finality of it. When she was sick, at least things kept changing. She felt better, or worse. It was a good time to talk, or it wasn’t.Things happened. Now nothing is happening. This is it.”
A year later, my diary reads: “Hardest thing: overhearing colleagues tell their mothers ‘Love you’ on the phone. So casually.”
If, in the first months after losing my mother, I searched for books that made my grief echo and reverberate—that rendered it as shocking as I felt it to be—after a while I found my reading diet largely unsustainable. Part of moving on, I realized, was learning to let my grief buddies go, or at least putting them back on the shelf. That is, until I read Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild.” No, read isn’t quite right. More like ravaged. For some time after the book came out, I purposely avoided it. Something in its subhead—“From Lost to Found”—put me off, as did a few of the reviews praising the book for being “uplifting” and “spiritual.” I knew it was about the author’s hike through the Pacific Crest Trail, on which she had embarked a few years after the death of her mother, but I expected it to be an Oprahfied memoir—hopelessly positive, sentimental, diluted. I didn’t expect to gulp it down in one reading. Nor did I expect that Strayed’s experience—of watching her healthy, dominant mother beset by advanced lung cancer—would so closely mirror my own.
Strayed serves her material raw. Of receiving her mother’s diagnosis, she writes: “We went to the women’s restroom. Each of us locked in separate stalls, weeping. We didn’t exchange a word. Not because we felt so alone in our grief, but because we were so together in it, as if we were one body instead of two.” Strayed’s writing is so piercing and precise that I found myself nodding along as I was reading, as though it were a hymn. (Maybe “spiritual” wasn’t far-fetched, after all.) Her mother’s death, she writes, “had cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance. It had forced me to instantly grow up and forgive her every motherly fault at the same time that it kept me forever a child, my life both ended and begun in that premature place where we’d left off.” Nothing I’ve read has managed to describe that exact point in time, that “place where we’d left off,” as accurately as those few lines have. I always thought that literature’s draw lay in making me identify with people and situations that were as different from my lived experience as possible. But my mother’s death changed that. It made me seek out my own kind—the left-behind and the heartbroken. The unmothered.
* * *
There’s a word in Hebrew—malkosh—that means “last rain.” It’s a word that only means something in places like Israel, where there’s a clear distinction between winter and the long, dry stretch of summer. It’s a word, too, that can only be applied in retrospect. When it’s raining, you have no way of knowing that the falling drops would be the last ones of the year. But then time goes by, the clouds clear, and you realize that that rain shower was the one. Having a mother—being mothered—is similar, in a way. It’s a term that I only fully grasp now, with the thirst of hindsight: who she was, who I was for her, what she has equipped me with.
Like a last rain, my mother left behind an earthy scent that lingered long after she was gone. Like a last rain, for a fleeting moment, everything she touched seemed to glow.