One of the students in my memoir class writes about the death of her mother. My student was sixty-one when her mother passed away. Her mother had lived to the enviable age of ninety-three. A death not unexpected. And yet, in my student’s piece, she writes about the sudden feeling of aloneness. “I no longer have a mother,” she writes. “I am a motherless person in the world.” She writes of confusion, of unknowing, of isolation. How does one who has always had a mother learn to live in a world as a motherless person?
I can’t help but think of my own daughter. But my daughter isn’t motherless now. I’m her mother. Aren’t I?
Today is the first anniversary of the death of my daughter’s biological mother. One breath, then nothing, and my daughter’s life changed.
My daughter had been living with us for over a year. She’d already become a part of our family. The big sister. The eldest. Ours. Her daily life wasn’t going to change much after her mother’s death, at least on the outside. The routines would be the same, the faces would be the same, the bed and the meals and the bathroom would be the same. But a voice would be missing, the most important voice in the world.
I give her extra hugs today, but I try not to say too much. I hug her when I pass her in the hallway at school, which is surely an unforgivable embarrassment for a student whose parent works at her school. I tell her I love her, but I worry that even those three words are too much. It doesn’t matter what I say. My voice is the wrong one.
I take my daughter shopping. I don’t want to try to fill the void of the day by buying things, but today is the only day in which there’s a window of time. We comb through racks of dresses, trying to select just the right one for homecoming. We chatter about which shoes would look best, about how to fix her hair, about the rainbow of nail polish she already owns.
She tells me her friend from school asked who I was, wondered why a teacher was hugging a student.
“That was Jenni. You know, my mom…person.”
“That works,” I say, handing her a dress. “I can be a mom-person. Try this one. I think it’s perfect.”
The homecoming dance is tonight. My daughter doesn’t have a date; she’s going with friends. I think that’s best for this first high school dance, but I don’t say so to her. I know she’d rather be going with her crush, a boy she couldn’t work up the nerve to ask.
I do her hair, wrapping strands around the hot barrel of a curling iron, fussing far more over a single lock of her hair than I have ever fussed over my entire head. Her friend peeks her head into the bathroom. “I want to see how your mom does your hair,” she says.
I pin the flowers into my daughter’s hair, and she disappears into her bedroom to put on her dress and slide on her shoes.
“Should I wear a necklace?” I hear her ask her friend.
“Yes,” I want to tell her. “The locket. Take your mother with you.”
I hear her bedroom door open.
And then she is there, in the living room, dazzling. She can’t stop smiling, her grin outshining the sparkle of her dress, the perfect manicure on her nails. I am speechless and teary and breathless.
“You look beautiful,” I say.
I snap photos, notice that she’s not wearing a necklace. She asks to borrow my black pashmina, just in case it’s chilly outside.
“Have fun,” I call as they hurry out the door.
One breath, then another, and oh, how my daughter’s life has changed.