THE DAYS AFTER
My next novel, which I began writing last year, opens with this line: ‘On the first day of autumn rain my mother died.’ The line came to me on one of California’s rare stormy days and, because my mother was in her 90s and was in declining health, it’s quite probable that I was influenced by that situation. The novel is not purely a mother-daughter story, nor is the character of the mother modeled after mine. But I did write about the aftermath of this fictional mother’s death, and the emotions buffeting the daughter.
I have to rewrite those parts now. Because I’m on the other side of my mother’s passing and, while there have been no huge emotional surprises, the waters are murkier than I imagined they would be, my emotions are more tangled than I anticipated, the journey of this time following her passing is more unpredictable.
History moves up behind me sometimes — with stunning clarity. More than it did when my father died, possibly because I didn’t have as volatile or challenging a relationship with him. Different chapters of my life with my mother are so vivid it’s as if a movie screen has dropped down in front of me. Occasionally it feels like time travel, and I’m not sure I like it. What’s also different is that when my father died I was going up to my parents’ house every day to check in on my mother, see how she was holding up. I had to compartmentalize my own feelings, deal with them later, when I wasn’t with her. There is no one to check up on now, no reason to keep my feelings at bay. I let them wash over me at their own pace.
The mother-daughter dance is a complicated one. As daughters, what our mothers think of us, whether positive or negative, nestles deep beneath the skin. It forms how we think about ourselves. Their opinions whisper in our ears, stare back at us in mirrors. I’m finding that it’s startling and unfamiliar to be without that — to not be bouncing off my mother in some way.
I saw an interview once with Rufus Wainwright who had just lost his mother. He said there was a quote he’d heard once: “Your mother gives birth to you twice — once when you’re born, and again when she dies.” He didn’t say the author of the quote and I’ve been unable to find who authored it. But I’m finding that it’s true. Life is a series of births and deaths, often intertwined. And the best we can do is allow ourselves to go on the journey that life is asking us to take — willingly, with open eyes and hearts, and more than a little faith. Here is another quote, and I do know the author — Anatole France: “We must die to one life before we can enter another.”