Today is the anniversary of the death of my mother, Susan Mills. She was 50 when she passed away. I was just shy of 16 at the time, beginning my sophomore year in high school. It came as a shock and not at all as a surprise when it happened, like death so often does. She had been sick for two years, in the ICU at the hospital in Chicago for the past two months straight. Surgeries, brain damage, recovery, relapse, surgery, infection, and now, finally, almost mercifully, an aneurysm.
I was daydreaming in Algebra class when the school office sent someone to get me. It was a beautiful day outside. Sunny and warm but smelling of autumn. I knew immediately what had happened, without being told. I remember glancing at a friend as I walked out of the room. I remember the look in her eyes, which must have been reflecting back the dread in my own.
That moment is crystal clear and yet there's a lot about that period that is incredibly fuzzy when I actually try to dredge it up. That is, I can only guess, how the brain tries to protect itself from psychic damage after something so disruptive occurs. It's like a scab and then scar tissue over a wound, or bricks in the door to a room you don't want to go into anymore. But the thing is, so many years later now, I want to remember. Every second. Because now I find that I can't recall the sound of her voice, and sometimes even her face goes blurry, and I only have old, time worn photos of her to bring things into some semblance of focus again.
She has been gone from my life now for longer than she was in it. So this all makes sense, is all logical, is how time and memory tend to work. Time doesn't make something like this less sad, but it does give you more context, more experiences to hold against or next to it. Time makes the Terrible Thing one of many important life experiences, not The Main One. And that helps.
So I'm not looking to re-experience or wallow in her death. What I want, more than anything, is to be able to more fully celebrate her life. I suppose it's a little morbid to take the anniversary of her passing as a good time to do that, but I'd rather use the date for that than to mourn all over again.
My fellow members of the club will understand. We are an organization founded on both dark humor and hope, after all.
What I remember of my mother is a warm heart, a stubborn nature, a love of teaching, singing, casual piano playing that was limited to about three or four regular songs ("Theme From Love Story" was a particular favorite). She liked Neil Diamond and Mannheim Steamroller and Kevin Costner and thought Lars from Metallica was cute. "Gone With the Wind" was one of her all-time favorite movies. She wore sweaters with Scottie Dogs on them and was the most adorably stereotypical elementary school teacher you can imagine, in a lot of ways. She drank too much Coca Cola. She wanted to lose weight. For Halloween one year she dressed up as Sonny to my father's Cher and they sang "I Got You Babe" at a church talent show. She held me in her lap while I cried angrily over getting my first period. She liked to bake, and made incredible desserts. I blame her for my insatiable sweet tooth. When she was little she used to help her older sister sneak booze into her dorm by hiding it inside her doll house. She didn't punish me when I pushed my older brother down the stairs one day (he had it coming). She did punish me when she caught me canoodling with the neighbor boy. She and our shih tzu, Mitzi, were best friends. She made her own greeting cards. She sewed her own outfit so she could accompany me on my Civil War reenacting weekends. She always wanted to put me in dresses but generally let me choose my own, tomboy-tastic outfits anyway.
This is all a drop in the bucket, of course. I know almost nothing about her life before I was born, about what she was like as a friend, as a human outside the context of being Mom. That is my biggest regret, really--that I never got to know her once I'd grown up and become a little less self-absorbed. I think we would have had lots of differences, but many things in common, and that she and I would have gotten along pretty well even when she didn't entirely understand the shenanigans I was getting up to. I think she would have made a delightful and stubborn old woman.
But anyway, I've learned not to spend too much time on "what ifs." Unless you're writing speculative fiction, they're generally no good.
If my memory is a building with many rooms, I think of it like the Winchester Mystery House. Some of it connects, makes sense, has a clear through-line and plot. In other places there are staircases and doors that lead nowhere, and entire hidden rooms with no way to access them, no light inside. Maybe, like Sarah Winchester, we build these rooms as a way to run from restless memories, guilt, depression, sadness, all the things we're afraid to confront because we fear they will consume us entirely.
As the years go by, I find myself more and more interested in taking a sledgehammer to the walls. Creating an open floor plan. Opening windows to air out any stagnation. Letting more light in, having it all mix together. Even when it hurts.
It's going to take considerable work, I know. But I have to try. She would have wanted that for me. We have that in common.