What I Learned From Losing My Mother When I Was 17

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This week, the Cut presents stories about the complex bonds of parenthood.

My mother died when I was 17. I think the hardest day for me will always be Mother’s Day. Social media makes it the worst. Everyone posts about their mom, and those who have lost them always write heartbreaking stuff. I’m reminded of her absence from morning to night.

Mom grew up in New Jersey; her mother was Italian and she had six kids, so she had to crack the whip a little. My grandmother died before my sister and I were born, but I’ve heard the stories. We suspect that she wasn’t that mentally stable. When mom was a teenager her big brother was killed crossing the street. My grandmother was devastated by his death and mom stepped in to take care of her younger siblings. I recently bumped into a childhood friend who still remembered the birthday party my mom threw for him when he was a little boy. She loved to make people happy. My parents met at a Rutgers frat party, on Valentine’s Day. I’d listen to the story imagining a classy party with satin hearts and black ties. Later, I visited the same frat, and I’m sure it wasn’t that romantic.

Back in the ‘70s women had three options when it came to work: teacher, secretary, or nurse. Mom picked nurse, but she put her entire life on hold when she had her daughters. It’s not as if she didn’t have dreams — she’d always wanted to open her own restaurant — but she was focused on working hard and caring for us. She was boisterous, loving, and loud. When she walked into a room, it came to life. Tell her a bad story and she’d tell it back to you with a positive twist. She worked four days a week and on her one day off she cooked, cleaned, and did all the gardening. She cared for people her whole life. She always wore grape, mauve, or burgundy lipstick. She had nice reading glasses, I think she died wearing Gucci frames. She loved historical fiction, she lapped up anything about revolutionary war, she read a lot of Dan Brown. She listened to rock and roll — especially AC/DC. Mom never took crap from the men at her work. She would go up to a doctor and tell him she wouldn’t do surgery with him if he spoke to her that way. That was unheard-of for a woman. She would even yell at other women if they weren’t assertive at work. She wasn’t able to freely pursue the career she wanted so she wanted that for her daughters.

When I was a tween we were either really close, or my dad would have to separate us because we were fighting. When we yelled, we could be scary. I think we clashed because of our similarities. We were both assertive. I’d get mad when she tried to mother me. Typical teenage stuff. But when we got along — oh, we really got each other. She would come home from work, exhausted, and say, “Look, I have dinner to put on the table so either you help out or go away.” Of course I stayed. I wanted to be with her. She always put us first. We never had mac and cheese from the box . Everything was homemade. Butternut-squash ravioli from scratch, almond biscotti. Every summer we’d read together — usually Harry Potter books. That was so special because my sister wasn’t involved. I’d crawl up in her bed and we’d take that time together.

In fall 2009, mom began to cough. It wasn’t terrible, but she also had a bulge in her stomach. I was in the living room doing homework and she stood there, pale, and she said, “I have cancer.” Then she explained the term metastasis. That word … I remember it so vividly.

She didn’t drink or smoke, but she had stage-IV cancer, which started in her liver and spread to her lungs. She was riddled with malignant masses. When she was diagnosed she wasn’t hopeful. That never sat very well with me. She was a nurse: She knew what her fate was. But she had always been so positive.

She tried chemo for a couple of months, but the tumors grew, so she decided to spend her last days with her family. She was sick for about seven months. Around March, we were told we would lose her in the summer. She died right before my final exams. That was a dark time.

Dad stepped up, and we developed a real partnership. Something would come in the mail and he’d ask me to take care of it. Or, “this is not my strong suit, can you do this? Can you make dessert for this?” Then it turned into this friendship, now it’s this real father-daughter relationship that we kinda didn’t get to have because he never had to do any parenting before this happened.

She died four days before her birthday. We had her repast at a country club and I spoke. Everyone cried. I felt like I had to put on a front, to be strong. I think everyone was waiting with bated breath for me to fall apart or collapse.

That speech was a big moment for me. I didn’t think that I, the youngest in the family, would be the symbol of strength, that I would be the one to speak about how much we’ll miss her.

There are adult conversations we can never have. I have very liberal views and I don’t think my mom would support them, but I think she would understand them. I’m also a huge proponent of mental-health issues and my mom was not. I’m considering renouncing my religion. I believe in evolution. My mom went to a Catholic school. I’d love to discuss that with her. I honestly think she would support it. I think that my opinions would shape hers and vice versa. I’m really proud of how I grew without her, but I wish she could see where I am now.

My mother’s death made me more positive. I went through an awful tragedy when I was 17 years old. You can keep yourself healthy and go to the gym everyday. You can eat only almonds and fruit and vegetables, and you can walk across Madison Avenue and get hit by a bus. So I learned not to put anything on hold. My mother was waiting for her daughters to finish college before she did the things she really wanted to do: travel the world, open a restaurant. She never saw my sister accept her college diploma, she never saw me get my high-school diploma. She never saw me at prom, or anything she wanted to see me achieve. She didn’t get to realize her dreams and she won’t be there to see me realize mine.

People assume that once you experience the death of a loved one it prepares you for any tragedy. It doesn’t. But it’s given me some thick skin. I don’t let little things get me down. I work as a publicist and my opinion is, it’s PR not ER. Y’all need to calm down. Everything my mother taught me guides me. Things like, don’t act out of anger. Embrace difference. My mother’s voice is always in my mind.

Right now, I don’t see myself having children for a couple of reasons. First: Women in my family die young. But we also have mental-health issues. I don’t want to pass that down. My mother made me resilient, but I know a lot of people who battle similar psychological issues and they don’t have that control. I can’t guarantee my child is going to be that way. The other thing is that my mother was very passionate about women’s rights. I  know that if I was to be a mother, I would be a fulltime mom. I would not split myself between a career and motherhood. So I would have to give up on my career goals.

I get distressed when my family fights because I know my mom would hate it. My mom always valued family. She’d apologize even when she wasn’t wrong just to salvage a relationship. My sister has all my mom’s jewelry. She says because she’s the oldest she gets to keep it. Mom would want us to share her things. But when my mom died my sister and I didn’t talk for over a year. I sent her a birthday gift a month late. That’s very rare for me. Then my great aunt told me my mom would smack both of us, my sister for not sharing, and me for not speaking to my sister over a bunch of tennis bracelets. So I just let it go. It’s hard because our physical items are sparse. I don’t have anymore sweaters with her smell on them. All my childhood memories fit in a shoe box.

When I have fights with my father, or boy troubles, or when I need to talk to someone, the first thing I do is cry out, “mom, I wish you were here.” Then I call a close woman in my life, whether it’s an aunt or a neighbor or just someone who’s been a motherly figure. It helps, and while it’s not the same, it’s what I have to do. There are so many times, so many days, when the only thing I want is my mom.

Recently I was having a bad day, and I called my dad and he yelled at me. “What are you doing? You’re really fucking everything up.” The next day I called him and said, “Dad, those are the moments when I really need a mother and you just need to listen to me and then tell me everything’s gonna be okay.” From that moment, we’ve completely transformed. I have had some very beautiful conversations with my father and I that I don’t think we would have had if my mother were still alive.

In the past few years I’ve become near-fanatical about gender equality. Mom taught me to either take action or not complain. Many times when I stand up for myself, specifically on gender issues, I wish I could share that story with my mother. I know she would give me her proud “That’s my girl” and a thumbs up. She’d be really proud of both her girls: My sister is brilliant in math and works for a top financial company. I know my mom would love to see my sister keeping up with the boys. Same with me: I’m regularly the sole female in meetings. It’s the little things: getting to tell my mom when I bested the boys, I wish I could do that.

I know mothers can cause people problems. But it’s hard to listen to people’s bellyaches about how terrible their mother is. I’m like, “Why don’t you just talk to her?” Get to know the woman who created you. You are an adult now and you have that chance. I don’t and never will.

What I Learned From Losing My Mother As a Teen