by Erika Paget
My mom’s birthday is in five days. She would be forty-five. She would be encouraging everyone not to make a big deal of it. She would be planning which restaurant she wanted to have dinner at. She might be happy. At the very least, she would be alive.
I grew up with a lot of single-parent friends, mostly by divorce, but some by fate. In high school, I had a friend whose mother had died years prior from cancer. We were at the mall, as teenagers are wont to do, one afternoon in August, and I wrinkled my nose at the Father’s Day banners and advertisements, remarking that it was ridiculous because some of us didn’t have fathers—I did, but only in the case that half the genes swirling around under my epidermis had his name on them. I had been prepared for most of my life to readily give them back if he ever asked politely—and she paused, saying, Just reverse it and that’s Mother’s Day for me.
Many people mock the gravity of suicide, I assume, from their disconnect with it. It’s a horrific experience, one that sticks with you the rest of your life, which is the complete opposite effect you’d like a tragedy to have on you. There are times when I can’t remember why I entered a room or what I was doing two hours earlier, or what I wore to a party, but I will never forget September 21st; it lingers with me like a darkly nostalgic ghost, hazed out from the fog of memory, but loyal to the source material like an old tape recording of a much younger you in a school play. No one ever assumes when they get a phone call from the uncle at work that it’s the news that her mother has taken her own life. No one ever expects any goodbye to be her last, much less some half-assed hug in her mother’s garage a week prior, one she pulls away from anxiously because she wants to get back to the city where her friends and her cigarettes and her drugs and alcohol and independence are. These are things I’m done blaming myself for; like all regrets, they’re unchangeable.
The aftermath of a life event that huge usually comes in waves. First it’s condolences from anyone you tell, and explanations, and forced hugs and check-up calls to make sure you won’t ride that same horse into the sunset. Then it’s financial obligations, funeral planning, estate settling. Taking only the small things from your mother’s home that are closest to your heart and sending the rest of to Goodwill or neighbors that you’d never seen until then. You’re an only child and that was wonderful when you were twelve and didn’t have to share your Christmas bounty with anyone else, but now it’s whip-panned back and smacked you in the face like an apathetic boomerang. Everything is up to you to do. No one cares that you’ve barely squeaked into your twenties. Or that you’ve never in your life heard some of the words you read in 2ND REQUEST-emblazoned letters. It’s just one faceless string of numbers picking up the slack another faceless string of numbers couldn’t handle. Once that frenzy has settled down, it’s nudges from relatives for counseling and support groups and topical books and sending you envelopes of $20 bills because they don’t think you can buy the same soul-crushing amount of Lean Cuisines you once could.
I often thought the scariest part about my mom’s suicide was not having her around anymore, but I soon realized it was the fact that I couldn’t also do it. I had somehow been fortunate enough to have a mother who fostered all of my dreams and given me so much to look forward to in life. I had too much to live for and now that worked against me. I would have to keep going on without her, left to be my own rock, my own best friend, my own reliability, my own cheerleader.
One of the big things that people don’t often acknowledge about growing up with a single parent is how close the two of you get. Since it was just my mom and I for almost twenty years, we shared inside jokes, memories, tiny bits of fluff that blew through your life’s ether; things you would classify as “dumb” if you tried to relay them to someone outside of it, but ultimately meant everything to you. These were silly objects both relevant and irrelevant. They were me digging through a box of Legos and trying to convince you this slightly dented green one was more special to me than the rest of them. When my mom died, I lost the only person in the world who would believe me. I lost my truest best friend.
A few days after it first happened, my aunt and uncle came down from Sacramento to help me sort it all out. They took me to dinner and we talked about life after my grandmother died. Like a morbid-spoof on an iconic Ed Ruscha painting, Brave Women Die Young in my Family. My uncle told us a story about how he saw his mother in a dream: he was on a sunny beach and she came close to him, said, It’s alright, and then walked away. He looked off as he told it, as if he could place himself in that dream forever.
Some nights I see my mother in my dreams. Sometimes it’s to nag me, like the one I had where we were at Target. I couldn’t afford to buy a mirror so I asked her for money and she yelled at me for not budgeting well and I stormed off. Other times, she’ll be sitting off away from whatever fun exists within that moment and if I try to get her to join, she’ll say she doesn’t really feel like being happy right now. In one of my dreams she was a dog that only talked to me and she refused to look out of our house’s kitchen window because there was “too much happiness in the distance.” But the dream that stuck with me most—the one that is not a dream really at all, more than it’s a nightmare or a message or a glimpse into something I don’t think I have the emotional strength to explore—was one where I was leaving her place, an old apartment we lived in back in the 90s, and we were both just standing in the doorway crying. She hugged me and asked me why I was crying and I said, Because I’ll never see you again, and she released me and shut the door and I woke up.
There are times when I am so wrapped up in the mind-numbing nuances of being in Los Angeles in your twenties in this day and age that I rarely think of anyone, but there are also times when I see her name stamped onto a letter, or catalogue, or the Starbucks free birthday latte gift card that came for her in the mail, and I break down and cry for hours because the realest thing she left behind—not debt, or grief, or a job, or a now ex-boyfriend—is the emptiness I can never fill. The cognizance that no one can ever take that place.
But here’s your daughter, mom, a human being in their prime trying to keep going and live fully anyway. Here she is, happy, fulfilled, determined. Here she is, already knowing she has your approval, and thinking of it, and beaming a smile so bright it rivals the sun. She thanks you, for everything.