24 hours after learning my mom had terminal cancer I climbed into my childhood bed at my parents house, wailing. My younger brother and I had gotten the news late the night before and spent the morning steering his '93 Camry out of New York City, through Connecticut to our home outside Boston, ignoring the Red Sox game that came in and out on the radio. At the hospital my mom let me curl up beside her in her bed, tucking her one arm without an IV around my back. I remember the sun stirring everything in the room up into this ethereal white light. She was only 55.
That night my dad unfolded the chair in the corner of the hospital room into a tiny bed, and my brother and I landed back together at the place where we'd grown up. Our bedrooms were uncharacteristically neat; sheets tucked firm under mattresses, floors clean, cigarette butts no longer hidden in random dresser drawers. It was there that I climbed into my bed and cried, exhausted and in shock. Minutes later my brother joined me, awkwardly teetering his 6 foot 4 frame on the bed next to me. Yesterday our mom had been alive, today she was dying.
"I want her to be at my wedding!" I screamed into my pillow. He patted my arm gently. "She's supposed to be here when I have kids! Who is going to help me when I have kids?"
It is an awful feeling when the life you expected to have is suddenly snatched away from you. I was certain my adulthood would mirror my mom's: I would get married and have kids and they would know and love my parents. My mom would be at the birth of my children and she'd brag about her unmedicated births and show me how to do...everything. She'd sleep on the couch of our one-bedroom apartment for two weeks after we brought the baby home, and make me lentil soup, and at some point we'd get in a huge fight because I'd be exhausted and she'd be my mom but then it would be fine because, above all, she was my best friend. She would teach my kids about art and history and nature just like her mom, who was still alive, did with my brother and me. She and my dad would spend winters in Florida, and we'd visit and drink wine and paint watercolors and make fun of the people on NPR. They would grow old but without any serious health problems and they'd still do yoga and swim every day. "Boy," we'd all say. "Look how lucky we are."
My mom died 9 months later.
All the things I thought she'd teach me, all the secrets she'd share and advice she'd give, it was all gone. I still think about those things every day. I'm still mad I never got them, even though I know the anger is pointless.
Living without my mom as a mother myself has been an endless learning experience. I am someone who is terrified of asking for help, and have had to work on how and when to do it, to push myself to ask when I need something. I've called my mother-in-law to ask how to boil corn, gone to an aunt when my daughter was struggling in preschool, cried to my best friends about the things you only cry about when you're a mom. It took me years before I could lean on people they way I leaned on my mom. Even now it still feels scary and uncomfortable to do it.
There was a time when I felt very angry that my mom would not be present to help me when my kids were born. So many people with their parents shacked up at their homes for weeks, cooking and cleaning and comforting. I ached for her in those dark and sleepless early months. I raged at people who had what I did not. But you begin to see how many other people are eager to help and give of themselves when you bring a baby home. Losing my mom opened me to truly see the generosity of others. And I finally realized that no one - not even your own mom - can teach you how to be a parent. You could have all the help in the world or none at all; you still have to forge your own way. It is clumsy and awkward and sometimes you do everything wrong, but that's the only way to get it right.
But my mom's diagnosis and death did teach me that nothing is constant. It helped me feel a lot less attached to milestones and moments. I never got too proud of a baby sleeping for eight hours because I knew it could all change in an instant. Parenting, like life, is fluid and ever-changing. Attachment is meaningless. Loving and living in the present is everything (though I still find it really hard to do).
I think often about what mattered to my mom in the months following her diagnosis to her death. All she cared about was being with her family. My brother and I quit our jobs to move home and be with her, and our dad was a fearless and selfless caregiver to all of us. In our darkest times, we were each other's light. I remind myself of this when my kids make me so furious that I need to hide in the closet, or I'm staring at a work email instead of watching them go down the slide. When you think about it, there aren't too many truly important things in the world. Really it's just the ones you love and who love you that matter. I think my mom would agree.