Now, with three years hindsight, I suppose I know better. With time, the sharpness of grief softens. It doesn't stab at you, or ambush you, or even keep you up at night.
But it does not pass.
Here's the piece.
“I’m fine,” I’d say.
Over and over, again and again. They would ask and I would answer.
A pat on the back, figurative or literal. And then the sympathy, well intended but unwanted.
“How are you, Kathleen? I know you and your mother were so close.” I’d watch their heads, their mouths. Were they shaking their heads or nodding? Smiling or frowning? Later, I’d see it as a sad sort of smile. The kind we use when something inevitable happens, despite our damnedest efforts.
Most of them knew I’d gone straight back to school after Mom died. Days after her funeral, I sat in my final semester of classes, five in all. I discussed economic game theory, Nash equilibrium, and the financial banking crisis of 2008. I told everyone it was good to be busy. It got my mind off Mom and those horrible, painful last days of taking care of her.
Of course, I lied.
The truth was I didn’t need anything to take my mind off her. In the months following my mother’s death, I hardly missed her at all. Don’t misunderstand; my mother and I were exceptionally close. Not during my childhood, as she didn’t raise me. She relinquished all custodial rights a year following her divorce from my father. Dad and my grandmother raised me.
But we became close later, like soul mates, she’d say. We felt linked, emotionally, regardless of our prior estrangement. We’d talk, daily. She’d visit frequently. And to nearly the day she died, she was my compass. She would gently direct me when I was lost, point me back to my true north when I didn’t know which way to go.
I should have missed her.
I told myself it was because I was not a person equipped for grief. I’d lost my grandmother, the strongest woman I ever knew and loved, years ago. I’d been thirty, months away from marriage and a big move. Too busy to grieve.
Three years later, I lost my father. He’d been sick his entire life yet managed to surprise us by dying. We’d had a tough few years. The guilt was breathtaking, enormous. And there just wasn’t enough room for guilt and grief. I deserved the guilt.
So, when Mom died, I thought it was the same. Maybe there was something superficial about me. Or something was missing in me. Sure, I was sad. But life went on. I was simply not built to sustain grief.
Besides, her loss felt more like an absence.
It was as if there was a blank where she’d been. I didn’t have the impulse to call her, like some people say they do. She was gone, like she hadn’t been. And I guess a part of me thought, maybe, that I’d reset to those days when she wasn’t part of my life. Maybe that was the ‘normal’ and the years since had really been the ‘exception’.
So when she was gone, she didn’t leave some throbbing, gaping hole of pain filled sorrow. Instead, there was a void. Just like the one she’d left when I was a child, she was there and then she was gone. And just like the way I adjusted as a child, I defaulted back to our ‘normal’. I was used to her being gone. I hadn’t missed her as a child and I didn’t miss her when she died.
Like I said, I was fine.
After graduation, I became a writer rather than pursuing a career in economics. If possible, people became more concerned. I suppose it made sense.
My mother, who everyone knew I’d been close to, had died.
I’d quit my job.
And now I was going to be a writer.
Here they came again.
“Are you sure you’re fine?”
“It’s okay to talk to someone. In fact, sometimes it’s stronger to say you need help.”
I’d joke. Laugh. Tell them I was fine. Over and over, again and again. Because I was.
But there was one thing, actually.
I was having these dreams. Vivid, remarkable dreams.
A friend had told me that I might dream of my mother. He’d dreamed of his father after he’d died, Technicolor fantasies that had been so real he’d felt he could touch him. They’d faded over time, but he’d enjoyed them while they lasted. They’d been so real and he’d felt close to his dad, even in sleep.
I also started having them. Dreams of my mother, in acute detail. She was beautiful and vibrant. Always animated and energetic, healthy and alive. I still remember the first. She was laughing and talking as she skipped and ran beside me. I woke myself up laughing along with her. I was disoriented, confused as my husband asked what I was chuckling about. Later he laughed about it, saying I was cranky with him. I told him to go away so I could go back to sleep.
I started sleeping a little later. My husband and I have a routine where we share espressos in the morning. Then he goes to work and so do I. But I would often dream just before waking time. He would come in, his voice snatching me away from my unconscious state, breaking into another conversation or visit with her.
I’d turn over. Another ten minutes, maybe. Try to recapture it. Or have a new and different dream. Always, always, they were these beautiful, colorful dreams of my mom.
People still asked how I was doing.
I was fine.
Which was true, goddammit.
I was feeling cranky even though I was getting more sleep. I’d taken to lying down in the afternoon for a nap, but thought that might be interfering with my morning sleep. Of course, I’d started taking naps because my morning sleep wasn’t as deep. After awhile, I tried taking some over the counter sleeping pills, but they didn’t help, really.
The dreams had started fading, as my friend had said they would.
Until one morning, I woke up crying.
My husband asked me, “Are you okay?”
Knowing I wasn’t fully awake, he thumbed away a tear to show me. “You’re crying.”
I turned into him and cried for everyone I’d lost. I cried for myself and thinking that if I never let myself go, I wouldn’t have to let them go either.
I cried because I finally knew what grief was. I’d tried so hard to run from pain. But my mother, always my compass, had led me back to my true north.
I still don’t remember the dream from that morning. But I think it must have been goodbye.