Today is my mother's 59th birthday. I usually begin her birthdays like any other devoted son would: with a wake-up call to make sure I was the first person to wish her well. Later, I’d call again to make sure she liked the flowers and whatever gift I sent her and we’d have conversation that was at best only marginally reflective of her yearly milestone, because it’s difficult to reflect on even a life well-spent with someone not given to either navel or mirror gazing. Mothers who do yeoman’s work—surviving the poverty of growing up with eight siblings to a single mother, ascending from the projects to a home she owned, cobbling together a bachelors and two masters degrees while herself a single parent—don’t grant themselves the luxury of living live in the rear-view. They live in the present and look forward as time and circumstances afford, leaving the optimism and fretting over legacies up to their children. Her concerns mostly hinged on two things: how are her grandsons and, of course, when am I finding a wife (the latter was usually the beginning of the end of the call).
We didn’t share that banter this morning because breast cancer finished its work four months ago, permanently extinguishing my mother’s voice and our special conversations. Witnessing her decline, holding her hand through her final hours, kissing her forehead after she took her final breath—those things won’t ever leave my memory. But perhaps because she was never one for much outward reflection, I decided early on not to dwell in my sadness over her loss. Until this writing, I’ve never even used the word “died” in reference to her passing, because her spirit remains very much alive. That, however, doesn’t mean my world hasn’t been turned upside down. I’ve heard it said that sisters don’t become fully grown women until they lose their mothers. However true that holds, it’s surely no different for men. Being the oldest living person in your bloodline (especially if it happens, as it did for me, in your mid 30s), is a different kind of adulthood that none of us wants to think about but which we all need to prepare for.
Losing your mother means becoming a different kind of man.
Three months before she left us, my mother called with the grim news that her doctors had determined nothing further could be done to treat her condition. “He said I need to get my affairs in order. Basically, I’m dying,” she told me. In hindsight, I should have taken that admonition to tighten up ship personally, given how dramatically every part of my life was about to change. Understanding how significant that shift is means having a perspective on the space your mother occupies in your world, a contextual that’s rare while someone is still alive. No matter how appreciative you are for her presence, you learn best how crucial a role your mother plays when she can no longer play it. Because she was a single parent, my mother was my only parent, the only rudder to keep my ship sailing in the right direction. But because I’m also a single parent, she was also my most effective co-parent. When decisions needed to be made about career moves, relocations, how best to discipline or motivate my sons, she was the first, if not the only phone call. She was also my only adult heir: In case of some unforeseen tragedy, any assets that would have eventually gone to my children when they grew up would instead have gone to her. She’s still listed as the beneficiary for my life insurance and retirement funds, and as the emergency contact at my sons’ schools, even though she lived 400 miles from us. There’s no other name to list. These are things that need to be thought through before the time comes.
All of that only speaks of the roles my mother played directly in my life. She had another set of responsibilities that she took on as an adviser and caretaker in our extended family that now rest of my shoulders. I support her older brother, locked up since 1985 and who has lost a brother, sister, mother and father in that span. Another two of her siblings, along with my cousin and her daughter now live in the house she worked so hard to buy. That house is now my responsibility. As a coworker who similarly lost a parent years ago put it, “You’re the patriach of your family now. That’s a totally new place to be.”
He couldn’t be more right. I just wish I’d have had more time to get prepared for it.