Her death would shift my focus from her life to mine, and force me to hold my ambition and happiness more firmly than I’d ever known possible.
After she died, I could not stop dreaming about my mother. She led me through forests and across streams. We walked down dusty halls and into abandoned houses where trees grew up through dirt floors.
These dreams stunned me in their quiet clarity. In them, my mother was healthy. She could walk without a cane or crutches. She had no need for dialysis or the cocktail of immune suppressants she’d taken daily for seven years, after an organ transplant saved her life when I was just 13. I’d wanted her healthy since I was 6 and first witnessed her in the throes of a diabetic insulin reaction. Throughout my girlhood, I dreaded these episodes in which my mother became a belligerent stranger.
“Who are you?” she’d ask, while my sister or I poured Coca-Cola into a tumbler, held the glass up to her face and pleaded, Drink. Sometimes her hands thrashed against the air, threatening to collide with our faces. She smelled of blood and rotting fruit, but we’d move closer. Our mother would die if she did not drink.
She would never dream of hitting my sister or me after her blood sugar stabilized. I love you, were the first words she uttered each morning and the last ones she spoke at night, as she braided my hair and drew me to her chest. I felt safe from all harm there, protected by the constancy of her love.
Her organ transplant had been a kind of sacrifice. In 1994, she allowed surgeons to cut her body open and place the kidney and pancreas of a dead stranger inside her.
The experimental surgery suppressed the devastation of juvenile diabetes on her body until I could finish high school and start college. When her transplanted organs failed midway through my junior year of college, she went to dialysis three times a week, hoping she could make it to my and my twin sister’s graduations.
Dialysis was just one more thing she had to do, like getting a haircut or having her upper lip waxed. I drove her when I could. We read fashion magazines while the blood machines whirred. The dialysis rooms reeked of despair and rubbing alcohol, but if I closed my eyes, I could imagine we were in a laundry mat, waiting for our socks and T-shirts to tumble dry.
I was only deluding myself. Our lives were the opposite of ordinary. While her life was a candle quickly fading, mine was a flame leaping toward the darkness of a life without her. I lost her at the moment my life as a woman began.
This was why my recurring resurrected mother dreams filled me with guilt. When we reconnected in the woods or beside a stream or in an abandoned house, I felt compelled to tell my mother about the morning I’d discovered her death. I’d fallen to the floor and opened my mouth to scream. No sound came out. I was 21. I had lost my mother and my voice.
But then another feeling emerged—a lightness around my heart, as if a secret part of me were loosening. Beneath my sorrow, I felt relief break free.
Death offered reprieve, raised the flag of surrender to a brutal battle’s end. It was all over: the waiting for her to die, the watching for insulin reactions, the swift saves. I stood up and took a breath. I took a step, and then another and another. I ached with grief, but I could walk. I could breathe. I could go on without my mother.
I had one year left of college. I went back. I graduated on Mother’s Day 2003. I had adventures I never dared to dream about when she was sick and tethered to me.
At 23, I rode in a boyfriend’s Porsche across Scotland, England, and France. A year later, I visited Graceland and made my pilgrimage to Elvis Presley’s flower-topped tombstone. The next year, I danced with another boyfriend on a soggy New Orleans field, while Ani DiFranco sang “God help you if you are a phoenix and you dare to rise up from the ash,” lyrics I screamed out as anthem, while the scents of beignets and bourbon rose up to enfold me in their sweetness.
No voicemail from a mother awaited me when I returned to my apartment, but I felt more alive than I’d ever felt, as if I might burst with joy and gratitude for my own life. In my dreams, I’d beg her forgiveness. But she’d just stand there and smile. She never spoke the words I longed for: It’s OK.
I did not share my dreams with anyone. I kept them secret because they seemed unspeakable.
Women, and especially young women, are not supposed to feel relief when our mothers die. We are not supposed to finish college, go to graduate school, and plunge into our own lives. We are not supposed to scavenge our grief for joy, to search the underside of sorrow for the good that lives there.
Our mothers are the mirrors through which we learn to see our selves, the map through which our identities first find course. Without them, who are we? Who do we become?
I can’t imagine losing my mother, are the words most often spoken to me by women who learn my mother is dead. But I have now lived nearly 14 years in this unimaginable place. I have built my home here.
Had my mother died in an accident or from a terminal illness that surfaced in the middle of an otherwise healthy life, I might feel differently. But she never knew true health. Her daily routine came at the expense of toxic medication and exhaustion. Chronic illness shrunk, then stole her joy. Her only way out was to surrender.
The last month of her life, I drove her to another dialysis appointment. She had not slept the night before, and her eyes bulged from exhaustion.
“Are you afraid to die?” I asked. Hard rain crashed against the dashboard to drown the sound of my voice. I asked again, louder.
“No,” she said. “Nothing can be worse than this.”
I turned my head, so that she would not see the tears filling my eyes. I felt abandoned. I believed that by giving up on her life, she had also given up on mine.
“What will happen to me?” I asked.
“You’ll be OK,” she said, in the same sharp and certain way she’d always said, I love you.
I know now that my mother’s words meant something I could not understand at 21. She could not control her disease. She could control her own courage. Her own willingness to face the terminal point of her life.
Her death, three weeks later, freed me to forge my own path, without care of a mother’s disapproval or blessing. I couldn’t know then what wisdom she had known, nor would I allow myself to know it for many years. Her death would shift my focus from her life to mine, and force me to hold my ambition and happiness more firmly than I’d ever known possible.
That day in the car, I lifted one hand from the steering wheel and placed it on her shoulder. Ahead of us, the rain-soaked road forked and curved and unfolded without stopping. Tears fell from both our eyes, but I kept driving.
Magin LaSov Gregg teaches writing at a community college outside of D.C. and is a proud graduate of Goucher College’s Creative Nonfiction MFA program. Most recently, her writing has appeared in River Teeth’s Beautiful-Things column, The Washington Post, and Fiction Advocate.