On March 2, 2002, I was playing with toys that fart in a Spencer Gifts when my mom called me. She just wanted to say hi and tell me she loved me. At the time, we’d been fighting quite a bit. I was 14, and she was addicted to prescription painkillers. Both of us were hard to deal with.
She claimed to be sober but wasn’t. The summer before, when I’d broken my foot, she stole my Vicodin. She said she wanted to keep it safe so I wouldn’t take too much and become an addict like her. But I didn’t believe her. I counted how many were in the bottle when she took it away, and then counted again several hours later. Four were missing. Duh. But I didn’t confront her. I didn’t know how to.
That phone call was the last time we ever spoke.
The next day, I was at my dad’s house, and we had just stuffed ourselves stupid with a breakfast of lox and bagels. As we were clearing the table, the phone rang. It was Joe, my mom’s boyfriend. I wasn’t sure he’d ever called here before; clearly something was wrong. My dad told Joe to calm down. Then suddenly his face changed. I started to cry in ignorant terror.
My dad hugged me and kissed me and began to weep before he told me what happened. Joe had left my mom’s house that morning and thought she was asleep. When he returned that afternoon, she hadn’t woken up.
My mom was 48.
She had many faults. Some of them, I’m certain, were associated with her addiction. She had a nasty side, especially during any interaction with my dad’s new girlfriends. She got arrested for doctor shopping in order to find one who would give her painkillers. She was, at times, tremendously lazy, letting me miss doctors’ appointments and stay home from school whenever I wanted. She spent way too much money on clothes and makeup and plastic surgery. She had far too many cats (four) that she didn’t take care of. She smoked cigarettes in the house. She had a real thing for young men in AA.
Still, my mother loved me intensely, and she showed it. There were endearing nicknames (Munchkie, Matzoh Ball, Mollsie); a million kisses and head rubs (“Let me pet your keppe”); birthday presents weeks in advance because she just couldn’t wait; her meal in a second if I liked it better than mine; bragging to all her friends when I did anything halfway noteworthy; hundreds of childhood photos put into dozens of photo albums; detailed and fantastically sweet and proud baby books (my “notable accomplishment” at one week old was “being the most beautiful little girl ever born”). If I hated a new boyfriend, he’d be gone in an instant.
I never doubted that my brothers and I were the most important beings in her life. Though she deployed Yiddish from time to time, my mom wasn’t religious. So during her “recovery” in AA, she called me her “higher power.” She was funny and dirty and loved sex and cursed a s—load. She was a gorgeous, loving, broken mess, and I’m lucky to have had her at all.
This never feels more true than when female friends tell me about mothers who criticize them for everything, who pick on them for their weight or their hairstyles or their boyfriends or their careers, who never instilled self-esteem in their children. Their moms are alive, but my mom never put me down. Even when I was a chubby, awkward tween, she told me that my body was perfect, that I was beautiful, that I was sweet, that I was smart, that I was a good person. I couldn’t see it then, but even while she was losing control of her life, she was giving me the things I’d need to persevere in the wake of her death and through all the awful experiences that would follow.
Fourteen years later, my mom has been dead longer than I knew her. But the missing hasn’t stopped. I wish I could introduce her to my boyfriend (she would adore him) and tell her about my journey through med school (she’d be stupid proud). I wish she could be there to watch me get married (she’d cry and smile the whole time) and be the world’s No. 1 grandma (she’d have a mug to prove it).
Sometimes, I get bitter. A recipe website start-up once sent me a stock email telling me that my mom told them all about my favorite foods. The email cheekily suggested that I call her. I wrote back to some poor marketing manager that I couldn’t call my mom because she was dead. (He apologized and said they’d rethink the message.)
Mother’s Day is the worst. I go days without thinking about my mom, weeks even. And then Mother’s Day arrives, with its millions of #mom hashtags. Sometimes co-workers or acquaintances ask me if I’m doing anything special with my mom. These exchanges end with a couple of “Oh, I’m sorry”s. Womp womp, y’all. Sometimes when I’m feeling angsty, I’ll reply to promotional emails with: “My mom’s dead, please remove me from your email list.” Sometimes I want other people to feel bad, too. Just a little.
It’s usually around this time of year that I have dreams about my mom. They’re always similar: She’s been gone for however long and comes back very casually, unlovingly, avoids my calls, acts very apathetic toward me — completely out of character. I’m always hurt and upset, angry that she left me or faked her death without telling me. These seem like straightforward resentment dreams, some translated anger at her abandonment due to her addiction.
But I don’t feel that way. I’m not angry; I don’t resent her. I feel terrible for her that things got so bad. I try to imagine what different kinds of dreams I could have about her. She comes back and is thrilled to see me? Was in rehab all this time and is now in real recovery? Just wants to hang out and make me a tuna sandwich and scratch my back and watch “Montel”?
Maybe my brain can’t process this. Maybe waking up from a dream like that, where my mother is back and perfect and wonderful, would be too devastating for me. At least waking up from my current dreams of her is in a way, a relief. “Oh, good,” I get to say to myself, “my mother was still the most loving mother in the world.”