On an overcast Tuesday last May, my mother left her final appointment with her oncologist and gripped my father’s hand through the long drive home. After more than two years of breast cancer treatment, there would be no more infusions, no more scans. She had less than three weeks to live. My daughter, my mom’s first grandchild, was barely 10 weeks old. The following weekend, we knew, would be our first and last Mother’s Day all together.
What do you give someone who will soon leave everything behind? How do you mark an occasion that celebrates the very relationship you are about to lose? My mother had always been reticent to speak of her illness. She would not have wanted a sentimental heart-to-heart conversation, an acknowledgment that we would soon be apart.
Even if she had — I could not imagine what to say. I’d been so consumed by the intensity of caring for a newborn; I was only just beginning to fathom what it truly meant to live my way into this new role, the one my mom had held for 35 years. Motherhood promised new ways to understand her, revelations in the years to come; but I felt desperate to know, now, everything I would want to tell my mother later, the questions I’d long to ask her in a month, in a year, in 10 years. Those words belonged to someone I had not yet become.
I’d spent so long preparing for a birth and a death. One had come to pass, the other was finally nearing, and all I could give my mother and my daughter was to be with them in the space between.
The day of my baby shower had been the last hopeful day of my mother’s life. She was overjoyed to celebrate the imminent addition to our family and spent an unseasonably warm January afternoon chatting with friends and family, posing for photographs in the sunny backyard. In those images she is radiant, her illness invisible.
A few hours after the party ended, a ferocious headache sent her to the hospital. A few hours after that, I sat on my living room couch and scoured the bleakest corners of the Internet for information about the side effects of radiation to treat metastatic breast cancer in the brain. I sobbed convulsively.
Then I began to let go. I let go of my mother someday teaching my baby how to draw. I let go of her sharing with her grandchild the magic of a tidal pool, or the joy of a favorite book. An unfathomable future loomed, stripped of these dreams.
I was raised without religion, but I prayed then, for the one thing left to lose. Please, I whispered to the empty room, just let her meet the baby.
We speak of birth as an arrival, because of course it is; a new soul joins us in the world. But later, when I described what it was like — that astonishing moment in the operating room when the weight of my daughter pulled free of me, when the presence I had carried for so long was lifted away and I was suddenly alone in my body again — I said: I felt her leave. The beginning of life, too, is separation.
Round after round of radiation left my mother so depleted she could not stay awake for more than a couple of hours at a time. When she came to our hospital room a few hours after her granddaughter was born, it was the first time I had ever seen her enter a room in a wheelchair.
She was fading then, but still luminous with my newborn in her arms. “Extraordinary,” she whispered, tracing those tiny fingers with her own.
Cradling the baby, she rose from the chair and all four grandparents posed proudly for a photograph by my bedside. It was the first and last time my mother was strong enough to hold her grandchild while standing.
I willed myself to remember everything, struggling to absorb every detail through the haze of post-op narcotics and postpartum delirium. I kept reaching for my phone, taking grainy, poorly focused pictures of my mother and daughter in their first moments together. I tried to memorize the curve of my mother’s hand cupping the weight of my infant child.
Was that how she had once held me?
Before she left, my mom came to my bedside, bending down with great effort to kiss my face. “How are you, sweetie pie?” she asked me.
I couldn’t begin to answer, to convey what it felt like to be so awash in euphoria and melancholy, every moment almost unbearably saturated with meaning.
I just hugged her and said, “I’m good.”
On our last Mother’s Day, we sat together in my mother’s living room, and she sang the same song to my daughter over and over — “Sweet Zoo,” a whimsical tune about dreaming of being magnificent creatures: a tiger, an elephant, a dancing bear. It was the song she sang to me when I was the little girl on her lap.
“Then I woke up,” she sang, “and I was only me.” The baby cooed and grinned, and my mother smiled back at her and began again, “I dreamed last night that I was a tiger . .. ”
The constant specter of loss had taught me how to live and grieve a moment at once. My eyes devoured their every movement, even as another part of me raced ahead to the time I knew was coming, when there would only be a memory of this. My heart began to pound.
Against its frantic rhythm, I pleaded with myself, be here, be here.
Three weeks later, I held the baby’s fingers to my mother’s cheek and traced them gently down, over the soft skin of her slack jaw. Her eyes were mostly closed, so I whispered: “The baby is touching you. We are both still here. We love you so much.”
And that was goodbye.
In the midst of a colossal wrong, small but sacred things went right: On her 40th wedding anniversary last year, my mom was well enough to get dressed up and go out, to walk arm-in-arm with my father, to savor a filet mignon. On the morning of my daughter’s birth, she was embraced by her grandmother, with whom she shared a middle name. We would have to learn to carry the grief and gratitude together.
I was always meant to lose my mother, I knew. Children should outlive their parents; the alternative is the true tragedy. I was paralyzed by the disconnect between my own reproachful thoughts — you’re still luckier than most — and my shattered insides.
A dear friend, herself a grandparent, wrote to me about her own late mother: I never stop wishing she were here, and that’s as it should be. A simple thought, but it felt like permission: You are allowed to miss your mother for the rest of your life. I read the words over and over until the spine of the card began to split.
We are taught to brace for grief’s intrusion at particular milestones, in locations of significance. But I began to understand that my mother’s memory was not bound in this way. I had never been without the certainty of her existence; her presence was the entire landscape of my life, the sky I had lived beneath. Now I felt her missing even in places she herself had never stood.
One morning after her death, I woke to the muted drone of a neighbor’s lawn mower, and the sound cut through me like a blade. The heavy scent of wet earth after a summer rain, the thunk of a kitchen knife against a wood cutting board, shadows of leaves dancing on the wall — all these unexpected, mundane, intangible things carried me back to my earliest recollections of childhood, to that first, visceral intuition of home, to her.
My daughter is now 14 months old. My mother is 11 months gone.
On shelves crammed with children’s books, my child, unprompted, always seems to find the ones my mother illustrated. One morning my little girl flips through a board book field guide to find the page identifying different squirrels — gray, red, flying — and squeals. She looks up at the window, where a real squirrel is clinging to our suction-cupped bird feeder. She toddles over, raising the book over her head as if to show the creature its own portrait.
Time passes, but sometimes it bends. My mom is right here, her decades-old brushstrokes immortalized in the pages clasped between my daughter’s hands.
Little details have already faded: what my daughter wore the last time my mother held her, the exact words my mother said the first time she saw the baby smile. The entirety of the loss reverberates in each small, forgotten thing.
I try to think instead in the grandest possible terms, marveling at the cosmic chance of my mother and daughter’s meeting. I imagine their lives as twin arcs tracing unknowable paths through the universe, caught in a brief, brilliant intersection — one arriving, one leaving. For 90 days, I witnessed that gift.
It is almost Mother’s Day again; the world has spun its way back around to the same date in a new reality, one I still cannot quite recognize. Sometimes I wake in the night disoriented, unmoored from a sense of time and place. When this happens, I lie in the dark and conduct a silent inventory of what I know is real: the song my mother sang, the tiny fingers pressed against a sunken cheek. The words I whispered then: We are both still here.
Here I am, in the time I always knew was coming, when I can only remember her. So I do, repeating the same words over and over to myself, no longer a prayer but a truth: My mother met my daughter. The fleeting intersection, the final mercy. The time we had, which must and can never be enough.