A Year of Aggressive Absence: A Letter to my Mom on the First Anniversary of Her Death

Mom,

Holy shit, time flies. But also, it doesn’t. This last year has seemed like five minutes and also 100 years. I have felt like the world is spinning so quickly that we might all be ripped apart and also as though I have been suspended in Jello at the same time. Similarly, the last year has been full of so many contradictions: grief and joy, hope and despair, progress and retreat.

Harlan is such a great kid, Mom. He says the funniest stuff and is so sassy that I want to pull my hair out sometimes. He is a brick shithouse and like you, he does each task with a different hand; he throws and bats right but writes left. Can you believe he will be starting kindergarten soon? We talk about you a lot. Sometimes he likes to ambush me and ask if you are ashes in a box at Papa’s house or say things like, “everyone has a mom but you, mom.” Other times he is quick to remind me that you are in our hearts when I talk about how much I miss you. I will never let him forget about his Gubby.

Speaking of Harlan, Derek is still killing this dad gig. He continues to be the best dad to your grandson and husband to me. More importantly, he will now cook with and eat onions and garlic. This is shocking news, I realize, but I thought you should be one of the first to know.

Jon and Jessica’s wedding was absolutely stunning and so many people came to celebrate. It was exactly the kind of party that you loved. You would have hated the table with your picture on it because you would have hated feeling like you were sullying their day at all, but there was no way that any of us could bear the thought of leaving you out of it. I know you got to see them get married, but I wish more than anything that you could have been there for the big day. Jon still has his beard. Actually, I think it’s bigger now. I actually kind of like it, so please do not think that I am going to pick up your crusade of trying to get him to shave it.

We finally bought a house! It’s brand new. You would love the kitchen and the back yard. I know you were intimidated by the gas stove we had in the first house we live in here, but it is seriously amazing. Everything cooks so evenly, much unlike that temperamental asshole of a stove you had. It is a true testament to your skill in the kitchen that you were able to create such masterpieces with it. Seriously…do the dials and settings even have meaning on that thing? I need you to come to me in a dream and answer this. Dad always tells me, “your mom never complained about it.” Anyway, the house is right behind where Harlan will attend elementary school and there are a ton of kids here. It’s nice to feel like this is where we were meant to end up.

People love to tell me what you would want me to do in any given situation. To this point, I haven’t had the heart to tell them that you would want them to write their opinion about my life down on a piece of paper and shove it up their own asses. It is weird to me that people try to leverage my dead mom as a way to relieve their discomfort at bearing witness to my grief, but you never tried to control me, especially with regard to matters of the heart. Truthfully, it can be disheartening to hear people indirectly tell me that the way that I am grieving is a disappointment to you. It very well may be; I know that my big feelings often made you uncomfortable. But those people don’t know you and they don’t know that you never wanted me to do things a certain way just because it made you feel better. And they don’t know me well enough to know that I wouldn’t have done something just because you wanted me to, anyway.

There are so many things that I wish we could have talked about in those last few weeks, and I wish you would have been more open to having those conversations, especially the ones about what life looks like afterward. What do you want us to do with your ashes? How do you make elk stew? How the fuck am I supposed to do life without you here?

Why didn’t you go to the doctor sooner? Why didn’t you tell us sooner? Why did you wait? What did those two or three weeks gain you? Would you make the same choice again? I know you said you truly thought it was “just a back problem” but I still don’t believe this.

I really could have used your insight on how to get through this, Mom. I guess I don’t know a ton of people who lost a parent in the same stage of life that I am in. How did you do it with two small kids dragging you through grief? I don’t remember seeing you cry when grandpa died. Maybe you made it a point to not cry in front of us. I am working on letting the tears come when they need to, even when Harlan is around, because I want him to see that feeling sad is as normal and okay as feeling any other emotion. I know that my sadness and anticipatory grief during your illness made you uncomfortable. I haven’t decided if I am sorry about that or not, but it’s also something that I wish I had never been told and may be one of the last pieces of those six weeks that eats me up inside. The other is not spending every minute of those last six weeks in Clatskanie, but we were hoping for months. Hindsight is 20/20, as it were.

I am sorry that I spent so much of the last year thinking that if I were easier to love, maybe you would have wanted to stick around. It was never about me. Thank you for staying as long as you did. I am sorry for the demons you carried that made you feel the way you felt; that prevented you from feeling like you could give up what killed you.

I am sorry that I fed you RSO with a spoonful of vanilla yogurt. Flavored yogurt would have been much more appropriate. You should probably never forgive me for this.

I am sorry that the one thing you were afraid of in all this – chemo – is what killed you. I wish you had gone to the doctor much sooner. Your body may have tolerated treatment better. You might still be here.

I am sorry that I was not a stronger, louder advocate for you.

I know that you would have hated how profoundly sad I have been about things, even the sadness or the unruly parts of grief that I keep to myself, but I can’t and I won’t apologize for that.

There is something in my life that I want to do differently from you, though, Mom: I want to care for myself. I already do a lot of the hard self-care: therapy, doctor appointments, boundaries. God knows I have worked tirelessly to come to terms with your absence. But I want to make it a point to do nice things for myself, like get my hair done, take hot baths, buy new clothes on occasion, and get massages. I have decided that I am going to honor both of us on this day every year by doing just that, because I want to change for me one thing I wish I could have changed for you.

I want to say thank you, too. Thank you for believing in me with reckless abandon and for never trying to hold me back. I can’t imagine how excruciatingly painful it is to watch your children become adults who leave you and start their own lives and their own families. Thank you for never letting that pain make decisions about how you treated me. Thank you for always being there to cheer with me in my successes.

Thank you for sending me Swingtown when you think I need to hear it. You are always right.

Thank you for being the kind of mom who has allowed me to be resolute in the knowledge that if you wanted me to do anything in all of this, you would want me to laugh and find moments of joy in the midst of my grief. If I didn’t know that about you, I am not sure I would be able to do it.

I cannot argue with the fact that this has been the most transformative 12 months of my life, but I also know that I would trade all of that growth to have you back without thinking twice. I think I know what I am supposed to do with everything this year has taught and will continue to teach me, and I hope that you will be proud of me for trusting my gut and putting myself out there and following the path that your departure from this earth has helped to lay out for me.

In love and sadness,

Sam

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