February 9 is a day I’ll always remember. It’s the day my mom died, the day that signaled the end of a life and the beginning of my rocky journey into life without a mom. I’ve learned a lot in the past 12 years since my mom died, but I still struggle to understand why lives have to be taken so soon, why life is so unfair at times.
Every year I recount the events that led to my mom’s death, maybe as a way of making sure I don’t forget the memories of that day, painful as they are. The night before Mom died, my grandma suggested I sleep at her house. It wasn’t right, she said, to see my mother in so much pain.
I thought all along my mom would survive. At least, that’s what everyone had been telling me. As an 11-year-old, I didn’t want to believe otherwise. I didn’t want to face the “essential female tragedy,” as poet Adrienne Rich calls it, the loss of a mother to a daughter, a daughter to a mother. Even as a 2-year-old watching Bambi, this loss seemed so real.
On the day Mom died, I was in her childhood bedroom, sitting on her bed. The phone rang. My grandma answered.
“Yes? Oh my God …”
My grandma rushed upstairs, sat on the bed next to me and said, “Mal, your mom’s passed away.” So final, so hurtful, so terse.
We piled into my grandparent’s blue Buick and headed toward my house. I lay across the backseat, resting my head on my grandma’s lap, holding onto the “Rosie Red” lipstick Mom had bought me. Nervously, I twisted the cap back and forth, crushing the stick. Then I started to cry.
I spent a few minutes at my mother’s side but I wasn’t ready to let go when the men in black came and took her away.
Tell me why, Mommy, tell me why you had to leave me, I thought. Why did you desert me? Why did you promise you would stay?
Twelve years later, I still don’t know the answers to those questions. What I do know, though, is that death’s sting softens with time. While February 9 is usually a difficult day for me, I found it to be easier this year. I made a point to talk with friends and I had my new cat, Clara, to come home to.
One of the most difficult parts about losing my mom was coming home to an empty house after she died. When I’d come home from school, I always expected to see her on the couch where she slept when she was sick, but instead I would turn the lock, open the door and feel engulfed by emptiness and loneliness.
Tonight when I came home, Clara greeted me with a loud meow and cuddled up next to me throughout the night. No, she’s clearly not mom, but she’s company nonetheless. Sometimes, even pets can make us feel loved and less alone. They’re little gifts we give ourselves, gifts that reassure us that we are cared for and loved, and that we are needed. As much as I seem to need Clara, she seems to need me, too. She relentlessly follows me wherever I go and meows when I don’t give her attention. She purrs when she’s happy, which is just about every time she’s near me.
The day after I got Clara, I heard Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You” on the radio. It’s the song my mom dedicated to me before she died. I hadn’t heard it in a while, so I considered it a sign that Mom is with me and that she’s happy I have a new furry little friend. As much as I’ll remember February 9, 1997, I’ll also remember February 9, 2009 as the anniversary that wasn’t easy, but that was better than expected. Sometimes, that’s all you can ask for.