Mom remains fragmentary, incomplete.
Mom died 15 years ago. The recognition of all that has passed and all she has missed doesn’t register much. The awareness of her absence is a random and ephemeral one, wishing for her to see grandchildren huddled on a stoop with an ice cream or imagining her at the head of the table shepherding the conversation and the gravy. It passes with nothing more than a melancholic smile. Her absence, our loss, is something you learn to live with, like baldness, except Sy Sperling can’t bring her back. It is not sad, or a relief, or unfair; after 15 years it is no emotion. It just is.
What might be sad, I realized this morning, is that I remember her dying more than her living. Perhaps I remember that final part of her narrative with a profound clarity because I had full access to it: I shared it. The wretched fact of grieving is the selfishness of it. Yes, we mourn the living that the dead have missed, but we mostly mourn the living we would have had with her. To most remember her dying is lamentable, yes, but ultimately it is a choice. The act of writing has made it a choice.
I was 21 when she left, and she had been in remission twice in three years, so her illness forms my earliest and strongest memory as an adult: what is more adult than experiencing death? The death of a parent is an indelible mark regardless of age. Still, not long afterward, I wrote a novel about a young man finding his place after the death of his mother. Emotionally autobiographical fiction. It took a few years. It hasn’t been published. I’ve rewritten it a dozen times, and after each rewrite I swear that it’s done, I’m done, and I will not return. I’ve rewritten it enough that I cannot discern between the memory of the fiction and its drafts or the original memory that spawned it. I’ve rewritten a novel and a half in the past two years, scores of essays and stories, a play, a children’s book, stuff, more money-writing jobs than I’d care to remember, but every year, around either this time or in September, that old novel reappears. Talks to me. Says what if. How bout. You could. This might. Makes me drop whatever I was working on and return to it with a zeal and determination that proves this project is the most important. I fear this cycle will recur until it’s published. I fear it never getting published. I fear it getting published. The cardinal rule of Creative Writing 101 should be: thou shalt not write about thy mother. If you do it right and are honest, it will upset her; if you aim to please, you’ll fail her, the audience, and yourself.
Why persist? Duty to her memory? To my memory? To keep her alive, in her dying state and in my living memory, in this perpetually incomplete narrative? It’s pathological. It’s felt embarrassing before, to put this ahead of more pertinent and fresher projects, to sideline those when I know this is the one that needs indefinite sidelining. Yet I can’t help the compulsion. By returning to it, am I keeping her dying in my memory?
Possibly. Or maybe I’m still struggling to know the woman who was Mom. It’s a matter of perception. The old novel is more fiction than before, and it also has more true moments of her living than before. Of her life I have evocative pictures of her, the random memories, my old journals, and the stories from her sister and my siblings. And we have remembrances, like today, when my step-mom organized a family breakfast followed by our annual Catholic Mass dedicated to Mom. Despite all of this, Mom remains fragmentary, incomplete. Not just by a life cut short by numerical standards but also by the very human limitation of how well we can know someone, even if we were birthed by them. There exists a longing to piece it all together and suspend it in certain time, like a novel, and look at it whole. Keep it on my nightstand. Bookmark my favorite parts. This, I know, is an impossibility. I know, too, that she lives on in all who remember her. And that’s fine. But in the act of gathering the pieces and dredging my memory and rewriting our past and seeing how it all fits—no longer how I fit into it but how she fit into her world—if I can get to know her better, even a shade more than what I know now, it’s time well spent.