A crazy little milestone happened recently that will never come around again. I have lived half my life without my mom. She died of metastatic lung cancer when I was nineteen years old. Now, I am rounding the corner to having gone through both my twenties and thirties without her. It goes without saying, but she’s missed out on a lot.
And now that I’m on the cusp of my forties, I’ve come to realize just how young she was when she died. I mean, I knew that fifty-two was too young to die, but now I have friends and family of my generation who are her age and/or older, and I don’t consider any of these people old, not by a long shot. I mean, I could’ve met my mother now and considered her a friend, an equal.
But I’m not throwing some pity party here. In fact, I’ve come to realize that her death, in a lot of ways, probably shaped my life for the better as it has forced me to reflect on what it has meant to have her as a mother. Sure, that might sound all sorts of fucked up to say for some. But, I’m not saying I actually am glad my mom died; I’m saying that I’m doing well with the cards I’ve been dealt. It’s useless to see it any other way. I’d like to think she’d agree wholeheartedly if she could read this.
There’s no doubt I love(d) my mom. She was incomparable. I could go on and on about all the great things she’s done and how she was a unique bird, but that’s not what I’m doing here. This writing is going to be about me coming to terms with a post-mom world.
I’ve seen a lot of people die. I’ve lost both parents. My wife lost both of her parents. I’ve lost a great friend. But I’ve also held a lot of strangers hands as they passed away. Working in ICU, ER, and hospice will grant these opportunities regularly. My mom was the first person I actually saw die. I stood at her bedside next to my dad and sister as she left this plane of existence, and there was no mistaking the moment. After all the sobbing and awfulness immediately following her death, I went home. And I picked up my guitar and wrote a song for her in one of those magic songwriting moments when the whole thing just tumbles out in one sitting.
It’s still one of the best songs I’ve ever written, and that song is arguably the best thing I’ve ever done artistically. I have recordings of it, but none will ever recreate or match when I performed it at her funeral. I’ve performed in front of a lot of people over the years, but I’ve never had an experience like that, of course. But what stands out to me about that time I sang and played was that I truly reached inward and pulled out the emotion that was there.
I wasn’t doing it for anyone else, not even her. I didn’t even feel nervous. I just waited my turn, walked up, and laid bare my soul in that moment of her funeral. I tucked my scribbled lyrics into her hands and she was buried with them. I barely remember anything before or after. I don’t even necessarily remember playing the song. But I remember the feeling of being up there. In a strange sense of the word, it was perfect.
That song is called “I Hope You Are Still Listening,” and the lyrics are as follows:
This won't change, but it changes everything I feel like I left you, but I know you're the one who's gone I miss you We all miss you I saw you leave right before my eyes What finally pulled you toward the sky? Of this pain, you are undeserving I never felt it but I could see it in your eyes It's so hard to let you go I am who I am all because of you I hope you are still listening I saw you leave right before my eyes What finally pulled you toward the sky? I love you as my mother I need you as my friend I will forever hold you This will not be the end I'll tell my kids about you If you watch them, you will find I'll love them as you loved me This is not our last goodbye
Not bad for a nineteen year-old kid who literally just lost his mom, right?
And what’s more amazing to me is the fact that, double the lifetime later, the lyrics still hold up. I’m a dad now. I have two glorious little children and I am giving them the love and care that I was raised with. Honestly, I’m doing better than my mom did for me. Don’t worry; she’d agree with that statement. No need to go into details; all of our parents fuck up, and my mom was perhaps too eager to point out her own faults.
I remember doing the calculation, mostly because I was curious. I’m turning forty soon, and so I knew the “Half-My-Life-Without-A-Mom-iversary” was coming up soon, and my math brain wanted an exact date. So, I visited one of the many websites that is willing to calculate years on the calendar for you, and voila! I got my date.
Now, I’m not openly stating that date for two reasons. First, simply, that would tie up enough information to calculate my birthday, which isn’t the wisest thing to post all over the internet. It’s not the end of the world, but still, best not to put that all over the place. Second, and more importantly, as soon as I got the exact date, I gave it a good old shrug of the shoulders, because the date doesn’t mean shit. It really doesn’t.
Grieving sucks. It just sucks. We like to compartmentalize it into stages for the sake of comfort, but really the stages of grief are just a way of saying, “What you’re going through is okay.” And while that sounds like a good plan, it’s not, really. Validation of self-destructive actions while grieving is just awful and disrespectful of the person lost, and validation comes in many forms. In America, validation of poor behavior in the name of grief typically comes in the form of “Let’s just not talk about it and see what happens.” Grief easily turns the corner to self-destruction if not checked by those who are still alive and love the person grieving. That includes self-love. Everyone is responsible.
And that’s why it sucks so goddamn much that Americans are so uncomfortable talking about death. Luckily, and strangely, and much to the chagrin of the easily horrified nearby, by sister and I share a great love for gallows humor. One of our favorite back and forth jokes (that I started, being the bastard little brother I am), is to comment on any social media post that mentions something emotional regarding the death of our mother (or father, for that matter). My favorite thing to do is to wait until a few friends of my sister have commented with the typical “Hugs” or “Thinking about you,” and then disrupt the entire thing with a resounding, “WAIT, MOM’S DEAD?!”
While this might sound to be a joke in poor taste (because it is), I find it to be one of the more important parts of actual grieving. You see, my mom had a sharp sense of humor and she would make people laugh left and right. When she died, I felt enormously alone and lost. I used her death and my grief to do a lot of shit I really shouldn’t have done, like fail out of college and establish a regular drinking habit, both of which she would never have wanted to see me suffer through.
If she was/is able to watch me, as implied by the lyrics of my song, then she would have been so sad and disappointed. However, I know she would’ve cackled at the “Wait, mom’s dead” joke, because she was unrestricted in her humor, and she wanted her kids to be happy, no matter what. It was beyond her. That’s what both she and dad told us over and over. “We don’t care if you kids turn out to be gas station attendants, just as long as you’re happy.”
And man, I wasn’t happy in my twenties. Not to say that I didn’t do a lot of great things and experience a lot of happiness, but I just missed the mark too often because I wasn’t focusing my aim. I was ignoring the shit I needed to deal with. I could easily file my actions into a stage of grief, feel justified, and continue to ignore it all. But I was mostly miserable.
But then, with the careful aid of a happy marriage to a truly wonderful woman and a lot of the foundational tools given to me by both of my parents, I set to work. I used my brain, heart, and soul to start pulling myself up. I took responsibility and no longer wallowed. In fact, I thrived. And really, most of this good work finally started happening in the last seven years after my wife became pregnant with our daughter.
In my early twenties, I’d shrug off marriage and parenthood, claiming that it wasn’t particularly essential. But honestly, I was shrugging it off because I didn’t think I’d be very good at either. My relationship with my wife went through a lot of ups and downs during our long dating phase. But we stuck with things, rolled with the punches, got back up when we were knocked flat, and truly enjoyed and worked at the love underlying everything in our relationship, both good and bad.
Going through all the tough conversations with her in order to bring our relationship to the strong point it now enjoys was essential to my perspective as a father and as a human being. It’s not the easy street that makes life enjoyable. It’s carving through all the tough parts to sculpt something worthwhile—something you can’t experience without work. And man, that’s definitely a large part of parenthood. If you’re expecting anything less than one of the hardest things you’ve ever been through, then you’re not thinking about the fact that you’re going to be raising human beings and giving a great part of yourself to them always.
It’s no mistake that I’m becoming a better person because I’m a dad. I give fatherhood the appropriate credit for my best shifts in perspective. If you’re doing it right, parenthood is a systemic dose of empathy and celebration of others. I mean, you get to help little humans get up on their own feet, both literally and figuratively. It’s not about you, it’s about them. Parenthood is an amazing and awe-inspiring opportunity and honor.
And reflecting on this is what makes it such an awkward shock that I haven’t had my mom around for half my life. But what’s amazing about this is that her lessons and life are still with me. They’ve come through in my parenting to this day. My mom hasn’t really died as a mother; that’s something that has definitely lived on in both her children. It would have been damned fine to have her meet her grandchildren, though. But as the song she requested to be played at her funeral goes, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want…
…but if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need.”
It’s that second line that brings it home. Easily one of my favorite songs of all time, and it’s thanks to my mom’s (perhaps morbid to some) request. I remember not listening to the Rolling Stones much and avoiding the song entirely when she mentioned the request. But I vividly recall driving around alone the day after her death and putting that song on.
As soon as the choir started singing in the song’s opening, I wept. I ugly sobbed, somehow still controlling the car. Then I breathed. I even smiled. Then, by the fourth time the chorus rolled around I was belting the lyrics out right along with Mick Jagger. I was suddenly thankful to have had the mom I did, even though it was for such a short time. I lost that feeling somewhere in my twenties but I did get it back, and it has stayed with me. I’ll never let it go again.
Celebrating my mom is essential. Grieving the morbid anniversaries is not. I don’t feel particularly grief-stricken each year when the day of her death rolls around, as that day has nothing to do with her value as a person. I calculated the day that began these reflections, the “half my life without a mom” day, simply to satisfy a curiosity. That date rolled around and I told my wife about it. “Is there anything you need to do for it?” she asked. I shrugged, totally unsure. I knew that the day would’ve passed without any acknowledgment if I hadn’t done the calculations, so I just dove in as a father and a husband and tried my best to have a good day.
And it definitely turned out to be an amazing day. I took the lead when it came to initiating an epic squirt gun fight in the backyard. My wife took the lead when it came to taking our kids out to a park specifically so my daughter could try her hand again at riding a bike without training wheels.
She was putting her feet on the pedals that evening, but something wasn’t quite clicking. The bike was staying up and coasting, which was awesome. But as soon as those feet started pushing the pedals, she’d second guess herself and plant both feet back on the ground.
“Put your hand on her back and run alongside her,” suggested my wife.
I was more than happy to. And that was all it took. That one hand, that vote of confidence. A hand on the back that was doing nothing but saying, “Your dad is right here,” and she was off. Her face glowed with pride. She could barely be removed from her bike for the rest of the evening. SHE GOT IT. Six years old, and my daughter is off and riding a bike on two wheels. I’m a proud papa.
And that’s what the day became. Not another day of mourning for a mom lost, but a day to celebrate my daughter learning to ride a bike. That, and a reminder of how far I’ve come with my mom’s hand still on my back, even though she’s not around.
I hope you are still listening, Mom. You are missed. I tell my kids about you and I love them like you loved me.
I love you, too.