first person

Some Questions About My Mother

Can I make sense of her death by assuring myself of her life?

The author and her mother in 1984. Photo: Kate Ristow
The author and her mother in 1984. Photo: Kate Ristow
The author and her mother in 1984. Photo: Kate Ristow

During the last few years of her life, my mother didn’t bother with the wig she wore when I was small. Her skin was gray, and she was so thin that her ribbed cotton leggings were loose around her thighs. She wore patterned head scarves and thick sweaters and a collection of medals tangled around her neck. They were saints, mostly, but she wore other relics, too: a moonstone, a small tarnished bell. She developed an interest in professional baseball. She stayed funny and kind. She suffered from both honesty and denial. She always had a lot of respect for young people. She never told me it was all going to be okay. I wonder what she would tell me now.

As a child, I was attached to her in the physical, obsessive way that a lot of kids are to their mothers, but also maybe more so because I always understood she was dying. She had cancer for 12 years; she went into remission but the cancer came back, which meant I was always waiting for it. In fact, I’ve never been able to break the habit, even though she is gone.

When I was 6 or 7, we went to the animal shelter, where I chose a kitten that had long black fur and foggy eyes and was so sick that the staff told us she wouldn’t live longer than a couple of days. It’s easy to assume this was a lesson in mortality, but maybe that wasn’t it at all. Maybe she just couldn’t say no. Either way, she let me take the kitten home, where I fed her with an eyedropper and held her in the crook of my arm until she died. I should say I was sad, I think, though that’s not how I remember it. The kitten’s death had always been part of the plan. I buried her under the lilac tree with all of my other dead pets — a rabbit, another cat, a guinea pig, innumerable goldfish.

I was 15 when my mother died. The physical reminders of life were the cruelest at first: sweaters and sneakers and scarves, teapots, books, a stick of blush, the only makeup I ever saw her wear. Later, it was the people, her friends, who loved her so much, her sisters, the kids she worked with in the school intervention program. I was never allowed to know who they were, though I often did. We lived on an island. Our school was small. Anyway, I would have known by the way they looked at her. I found an old note from one of them while going through old photos recently. “Dear Cecily,” it says. “I’m sorry you died.”

The author’s mother when she was about 30. Photo: Kate Ristow

For a long time, I thought I might solve the puzzle of my mother’s death by assuring myself of her life. I wanted stories and proof. I typed her name into search engines, though there was never anything there. When she died, people spoke about her bravery in the way they often do of the dead. And she was brave. She chose treatments that were aggressive and experimental. She did Reiki and acupuncture and filed for bankruptcy. She visited something called a “Theosophical Center” and sought spiritual guidance while I ate a bowl of brown rice and stared boredly at the sea.

In other words, she tried to live. People said she did it for me and my brother, her children, but that is only part of the story. She wanted to live because she was good at it. She would have continued to be good at it.

When my children were born, the need to understand my mother’s life, and what it could have been, heightened. It was as if she alone could solve the mystery of early motherhood’s unmoored days. I wondered where she would be, for example, if I were to call her in the middle of the afternoon. Where would she be standing? What would she be holding? Toward the end of her life, she started painting. Would she still? What would she be reading? Where would she have been (in a day, in a year)? What would she want? Would she tell me the story of my birth? Would there still be half-full glasses of iced tea, left like a map of her path, around the house?

I am aware that imagination is limited here, driven only by a simple fact: She was my mother; I wish I could know her.

“I want you,” my 4-year-old daughter sometimes says, usually when I am tired and singing her to sleep. She puts my hand on her face and breathes in, eyes closed, mouth open so I can feel her hot breath on my palm. “I’m right here,” I tell her, my voice impatient, even though I know exactly what she means.

The last time I saw my mother, she couldn’t speak but she watched me, unblinking. I stood in a corner up against a wall. I didn’t lie beside her. I didn’t hold her hand or say good-bye. Nobody told me to do those things, and when I think about that now, I recognize their kindness.

My mother died the next day. It was March, and for a long time, the ending of winter was marked by the stagnant dread of waiting. I knew she was dead right before the phone rang. I remember that sometimes when I wake up in the night, moments before my children cry out for me. So much of life is repetitive. One long, fragile cord.

I don’t remember the date my mother died anymore. On Mother’s Day, my kids paint me pictures, and I take a long run alone. I try to tell my children what I know about their grandmother — about her Volkswagen Beetle convertible with the hole in the bottom, the pranks she used to play on us, how she learned to tap dance as an adult, how mad I was that the cats preferred to sleep on her bed instead of mine.

“Why?” my daughter asks.

I tell her how quiet my mother was, how she knew how to stay still and wait. There’s more to her than all that, of course. But it’s not for words. It’s an instinct, ingrained but barely detectable, like a scent or the sudden, private knowledge of an animal passing through the night.

Some Questions About My Mother