Freshly back from our trip to Florida, I am staring at some old family photos my father encouraged me to take with me. In the picture, we are in a lake not far from where I live now. My mother has a 6 year old, a 5 year old, and a 1 year old that she is holding on to tightly in the water. She is 34 years old. In so many different ways, she is me; that is, the “me” that I am now.
I relate to the woman in this photo, not as my mother but almost as a friend, a peer. I know we would connect and understand many of the same challenges we each face on a day to day basis. She smiles coyly in the photo, and I know she has no way of knowing (for how could she) that she gets just 30 years with that baby in her arms. No more, no less.
I feel cheated for her.
As I think of my own children, 30 years feels like it would never be enough. Of course I can’t think of a number that would be enough, enough time to feel like I had my fill of their love, their humor, their sweet and almost always mischievous, round, loving faces; all cheeks and red hair. Regardless of the number of years, no number would ever be enough.
Maybe that’s how she felt.
And now six years has gone by without her. Six is a truly peculiar length of time. You know how you’ll get in the car and start to drive and look in your side mirror and it looks like life is getting smaller and smaller and pulling away from you? This is what six feels like. It is not enough that you necessarily unlearn now fairly old habits. When something truly great or sad or frustrating happens, I still pick up the phone instinctually to call her. But it is long enough for everything else to have unfolded in a way that would be almost unrecognizable to her now. I am not a new mother. I have been a mother for 6 years. I have 3 children. She has been gone for nearly the entire span of their collective lives. This makes six feel exceptionally long.
It isn’t a decade, but it isn’t yesterday either. It’s just far enough away that you almost can’t remember certain idiosyncrasies and sounds and subtleties that pain you to let go of. Yet it’s just close enough that you can still touch and feel all of that and more in your mind’s eye. You know what it feels like to press her cheek against yours. You know when someone has on her perfume.
Six is so funny and in between like that. I don’t feel sad. I don’t feel happy. I don’t feel whole. I feel incomplete, as if with each passing year I am unraveling another layer of a mother I didn’t know, of a woman I’m still mourning, of the daughter and woman and mother I’m evolving into through all of this.
And the thing about time is that it pushes you forward whether you like it or not. My father, whose brothers and sister died sooner than they should have, assumed that he would never make it past his 65th birthday. Today, my father turns 71. I know that he continues to not understand why he is here, and why she is not. Why all of this has to get mixed up on one stupid date. The day he came into this world colliding with the day she left.
But such is life. Much like that woman at the lake, no moment, no person is ever all one thing. Like her I am the mother in the water with her babies, and a woman in her thirties struggling to stay afloat. But I am also still that baby in the lake looking for her mother’s arms six years later. I am grateful and sad and blessed and uncomfortable which I suppose is about right for what it is. Grief is a process. All these years later, all the parts of me continues to be an unwilling traveler on this journey.