Learning to heal from the loss of my mom, struggles with food

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

I’ve been writing personal essays about my mom for three and a half years now and am constantly reminded of how much I love to keep her memory alive through writing. Now, I’ve taken all of those essays and strung them together. I plan to build on the narrative so that I can eventually turn it into a memoir about how my mom’s death has affected my relationships in life, particularly my relationship with food.

Given that my mom died 14 years ago today, it seemed like as good a time as any to publish this narrative and solicit your feedback. As you read through the narrative, what strikes you about it? What parts do you like/dislike? What unanswered questions do you have? (I plan to write more about the eating part that I write about at the end, but need some time.)

Here’s what I’ve mustered up the courage to write so far …

*****

When I was younger, my mom always called me beautiful.

“I’m so lucky to have such a beautiful little girl,” she would tell me, holding me tight.

I’d take the compliment, believing her words to be true. I never had reason to doubt my mom because as a little girl, I thought she always knew best. Mom knew how to take care of the many scrapes I got whenever I fell off my bike; she knew how to satisfy my hunger with her home-cooked meals, and she always had an answer to my questions: Mom, why does our cat always bring dead mice to our doorstep? How do caterpillars turn into butterflies? Will you play pretend with me, pretty please?

Mom and me in front of our house in Massachusetts after a snowstorm. Brrr.

Sometimes Mom would get frustrated with me when I asked too many questions. Her frustration mounted into a raging temper whenever I lost something. I would do everything I could to fill the void and ignore the loss, never mentioning the pair of earrings I lost or the $10 bill I misplaced in the school cafeteria one day.

Loss and I never got along well.

One time, I lost my bottom retainer and tried to smile with my mouth closed so Mom wouldn’t see. I had accidentally thrown it away, maybe in the middle school cafeteria where all retainers go to die. I was convinced at one point that the lunch ladies at Holliston Middle School must have been hired for the sole purpose of digging kids’ retainers out of the trash. “I had my retainer in a napkin … and I think I threw it away,’ was all it took for the gloves to come out and the search to begin.

Somewhere nestled between half-eaten bologna and mustard sandwiches and mac and cheese was my bottom retainer. Maybe the janitor will find it and be nice enough to return it to the lost and found at school, I thought. But no.

“Mal, where’s your bottom retainer?” Mom asked one afternoon. I had smiled too wide when I came home from school.

“Um, I don’t know. I think it’s somewhere in my room.”

“When was the last time you saw it?”

“I think the other day.”

“You think?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was the other day.”

My retainer might as well have been a missing child.

“You’re not going to bed,” Mom quipped, “until you find your retainer.”

My room became the cafeteria garbage can. Every corner, every crevice, every old tissue under my bed had so much potential. Six hours passed. 11:00 p.m. Still nothing.

“Robin,” my dad said, “just let her go to bed.”

“Andy, those retainers cost $900,” she said turning to me. “And you’re paying for your new one.” That might have been OK if I had more than $75 in my piggy bank. Maybe if along with my lemonade stand I started selling bookmarks and handmade glitter disks I called Refwingems, I could make enough money …

The replacement retainer only cost $80. Mom and dad paid for it.

Days later, Mom wrote in her diary: “I got so mad at Mallary the other day for losing her retainers. But things are better now.”

*****

No matter how much Mom yelled, I still idolized her and sided with her when she and my dad got into fights. My dad was, and still is, one of the most kind-hearted men I know. I always knew he’d forgive me and love me no matter what. Sometimes I feared that Mom would love me less if I didn’t side with her, and I wasn’t willing to risk the loss. Usually after she’d yell, Mom would try to make up for it. She’d hug me and tell me I was beautiful, or she’d buy me a snack.

Even when I was really little, I always loved to eat (and play with) the meals and snacks Mom gave me. Cheerios were clearly my favorite breakfast food.

Mom always used to surprise me with a snack when I came home from school. I remember looking forward to the treats, which were different every day. For whatever reason, though, I can’t remember the majority of them anymore. All I remember are the cookies. Chocolate chip cookies. Butterscotch cookies. Girl Scout cookies. My favorite were the gingerbread men that Mom would buy from Market Basket. They were the sinfully soft kind, loaded with unhealthy frosting and a head made of solid sugar; the kind of snack that lures adults into indulging in calories and fat they don’t need but secretly want. To me, they tasted like home.

I’d savor the sugar, then jump on the couch and give Mom a hug. I’d rest my head on her shoulder and she’d ask me to tell her all about my day.

“What’d you learn today?” she’d ask.

Weeelllllll ….”

I would go on and on, letting her know about the journal entries I wrote, the jump roping contest I competed in at recess, the A+ I’d gotten on my reading quiz. I’d always “forget” to tell her about the big word I stumbled over when reading out loud, or the math problem I pretended to know how to solve but got wrong.

Mom never went to college, but she wanted her only child to have the best education and get the best grades. Actually, she wanted me to be the best at everything, so I tried as hard as I could to be the A+ student — the perfect, beautiful little girl.

We used to stand in front of the bathroom mirror together and be beautiful. I’d try to make my hair look like Mom’s, and then she’d soon take charge, putting my hair in braids, pigtails, or in a topsy-turvy ponytail. She studied cosmetology in high school and wanted to cut my hair to save money. One time, she cut my bangs so short I looked like Frankenstein.

“Oh Mal, it’s not thaaaat bad,” she said, laughing.

I tilted my head and put my little hands on my little hips.

Just like it wasn’t thaaaat bad when Mom was curling my hair for my aunt’s wedding and accidentally burnt my right ear.

“Mooooooom-ah!”

“It hurts to be beautiful!” she said.

One way to look beautiful, Mom always thought, was to wear mascara. “Always do your eyes up,” she told me.

When we weren’t doing hair and makeup on weekends, we bargain hunted. We spent nearly every Friday night at the kitchen table, drawing big circles around yard sale ads.

“Mallary, rise and shine. It’s yard-sale time,” Mom would say at 6:30 the next morning. We’d hop into our banana boat, the pet name for our yellow Grand Marquis, and cruise around town in search of treasures. Jewel-studded pins. Trinkets. Trolls. I didn’t mind getting up early with Mom, but I hated going to bed. Dad worked days and Mom worked nights, so she wasn’t usually there to kiss me goodnight. That changed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

*****

Here I am pretending to be asleep on the living room couch.

Mom became too sick to go to work, so we started to spend as much time as we could together in the evenings. Going to bed got even harder. I’d curl up on the couch with her and we’d watch all the “grown-up shows” that made me the envy of my 8-year-old friends  — “90210,” “Married with Children,” “In Living Color,” and yes, even “Melrose Place.”

Dad would pay bills or read his car magazines for a while and then get up to make us a snack. Jiffy Pop popcorn. Frozen green grapes. Mocha almond chip ice cream with chocolate sprinkles.

“Mallary, it’s time to go to bed,” Mom would say after we had finished eating. I found multiple excuses to stay by her side.

“But Mom, I’m not tired.”

“But Mom, just 5 more minutes.”

“But Mommy, I don’t want to say goodnight.”

Really, I didn’t want to say goodbye.

I tried to stay by her side as much as I could and complied whenever she asked for help. One day, she asked me to clean the toilet bowl. Double ew, I thought.

“You mean I have to stick my hands in the toilet?” I asked.

“No, Mal, just use the brush.”

The brush. The brush. Maybe she meant the old toothbrush that she sometimes used to clean in between the crevices in the faucet. I didn’t want to ask for clarification. Mom was in one of those moods, when it was just better to do as you were told, when even asking a question could illicit a scream.

So I took the tattered toothbrush out from under the sink and scrubbed. And scrubbed. And scrubbed, my eyes half shut, my head turned to the side. Ewwness all around. I took a bar of Dove soap and rubbed it along the edge of the water until it looked like a bubble bath in a bowl.

“WHAT are you doing?” my mom asked, yanking the toothbrush out of my hand. “God, Mallary, I didn’t say use a toothbrush. I said use the brush — this brush,” she said, pointing to the big white toilet bowl brush peeking from behind the toilet. It should have been a funny mistake. We should have been laughing. Instead, I cried while mom huffed and puffed, and flushed the toilet, washing my 8-year-old innocence down the lonely drain.

My ability to speak up got washed away somewhere along the way, too. Mom yelled whenever I disagreed with, or contradicted, her. When Mom and I were in a craft store buying cross-stitch patterns, Mom told the cashier that the items she bought were supposed to be on sale. The cashier told her she had picked up the wrong item, that a different item was on sale, but Mom had her mind set on getting a bargain, and she couldn’t be persuaded otherwise.

“The sign said this pattern was on sale.”

“I’m afraid it was the other pattern next to it.”

“Mom, I saw the sign,” I quietly said. “It was the other pattern that was on sale.” Mom gave me the glare and got quiet as the cashier continued to scan items. Beep. Beep. Beep. When we got out of the store Mom grabbed my arm and pulled me toward her.

“Don’t you ever talk back to me like that again,” she said.

“But Mom, I didn’t ….”

“Yes you did. You made a fool of me in there. Don’t let it happen again.”

I had only tried to help, but I didn’t try to explain. I had trained myself to keep it all inside so the screaming would subside. But I couldn’t stand Mom at that moment. I reached for a pen and scribbled on a napkin when I got home that day: “I hate mom. I wish she’d die.”

So I wouldn’t risk having Mom find the napkin, I tore it up and threw it away. One less thing to lose.

*****

Me and mom in Disney World in 1988. I was 3 years old at the time.

Everyone tried to protect me and tell me Mom would be OK and that we wouldn’t lose her. When you’re little, any kind of loss is scary. Loss is taking a wrong turn in the grocery store and losing mommy in a maze of aisles. Loss is having to say goodbye every morning at the bus stop. It’s not being able to find your favorite stuffed animal at night and fearing the monster in the closet might have gobbled it up.

Mom used to reassure me, though, that she wasn’t going anywhere. Right up until she got really sick, she went to all of my school functions. One day when she came to my class to watch me give a presentation, I turned the other way. I looked around at all of my classmates’ moms. Shiny, healthy, wavy hair. Then I looked at Mom, who had decided not to wear a wig or a hat that day. “Mallary’s mom doesn’t have any hair,” I overheard two of my classmates say with a giggle. I told Mom later that day that some girls were making fun of the two of us.

“It’s OK, Mal. Being bald isn’t a bad thing. I’m starting a new trend!” she said, giggling a little. I was mad, but secretly marveled at how Mom could go from being a sick, bald cancer patient to a hip, confident trendsetter. Mom wanted to prove to herself that she didn’t need a wig to be beautiful, even if all she got were ugly stares.

I still thought she was beautiful, and I especially loved her big blue eyes. I tried to hold on to this beauty and carry a part of my mom with me wherever I went. One day, I took her old mascara out of the trash and hid it in my purple LL Bean book bag. I brought it to school and went into the bathroom. Leaning up against the sink, I painted my lashes black. I wanted to make them look like Mom’s. Instead, they turned into little tarantula legs.

“Is that mascara you’re wearing?” one of my third grade classmates asked me. “Yes,” I sheepishly said. “It’s my mum’s.”

I kept her mascara for six years. Maybelline. A pink bottle with a lime green cap. I used that mascara until there was none left, never paying attention to the expiration date. Even after I had used it all, I kept it for years in my makeup bag. It pained me to see it there and not on my mom’s lashes. But still, I couldn’t let go. Every time I looked at the mascara, I was reminded of a mom who lost the strength to put on makeup when she was 39.

*****

Mom had a lumpectomy, but then the cancer came back in her other breast. One day, she looked in the mirror, tilted her head and asked: “Mal, do you think I’m beautiful?” She had one breast, no hair and yellow skin from the cancer, which had spread to her liver.

Me and Mom on Christmas morning. Taken about a year before she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Of course you are, Mommy.” I truly believed she was, but as I said it, I remember doubting my own beauty for the first time. Wrapped up in a package of perfection, I never realized the ugly truth about being perfect: you can’t be. I tried to control life’s blemishes and blunders, which became more prevalent in my life the sicker Mom got.

Playing pretend was one way to escape. When you’re a little girl and your mom is diagnosed with cancer, you try to tell yourself that she’ll make it, that you can wave your fairy princess magic wand and make her all better. You believe her when she tells you she’s a soldier in a battle, that she’s the Little Engine That Could, that even though she’s lost all her hair, one breast and 35 pounds, she’ll survive.

Mom lost a lot when she was sick, but she never lost the desire to want to nourish me with food and love. When I’d come home from school, I always knew she’d be there to feed my hungry heart with hugs and kisses and fill my empty tummy.

Then one day she wasn’t there. Well, she was, but in a frightening kind of way. I could tell that something was wrong when I came home from school and saw her on the couch. Mom’s face was painted with pain, her forehead a road map of wrinkles, her cheeks a waterfall of tears.

Seeing Mom so weak made me long for some sense of normalcy and nourishment — a hug, a kiss, a cookie. “Mom, what’s wrong?” I asked when I came in the door after getting off the bus.

“Maaaaaal,” she softly screamed. “Call your father. I can’t get up.”

I tried to lift her.

“C’mon mom, c’mon mom, move. Move!”

I called Dad because he always knew how to fix stuff. He rushed home from work but was too afraid to pick her up for fear that he’d hurt her even more. It was the first time I remember thinking of my dad as being helpless.

He called 911 and we soon heard the sound of sirens. The EMTs couldn’t lift her either. “It hurts,” Mom said, shutting her eyes. “It hurts.” So they scooped Mom up in the blanket she was resting on and carried her onto a stretcher. BamBam! They shut her inside the ambulance and drove away.

Dad and I drove to the hospital. Mom was hooked up to an IV and was getting platelets. I was only 8 when she started going to the hospital regularly, but big words like mastectomy, platelets, radiation, transplant and chemotherapy soon became a regular part of my vocabulary.

That afternoon, she asked me to look inside her purse and take out her lipstick. It was Rosie Red lipstick, the kind Mom and I had been wanting to get ever since we heard Rosie O’Donnell talk about it on her show.

“Now, don’t put a lot of it on,” she said, handing me the Rosie Red lipstick. “You only need a little bit.” I only wore a little, if I wore it at all. I wanted to save it.

Me and Dad.

By the time we got home it was late, and I hadn’t eaten dinner, let alone my afternoon snack. Dad made “the usual” — the ever-so-simple spaghetti and peas. I liked the meal the first five times we ate it, but after a while the spaghetti seemed to get harder, the peas mushier.

“Daaaaad. Again? Why can’t we have Mom’s pasta primavera? Or her macaroni and cheese?”

Mealtimes were a constant reminder that Mom was too sick to cook and that hard as he tried, Dad just didn’t know how to nourish me in quite the same way.

“Maybe tomorrow, Mal,” Dad would say. “C’mon, you love spaghetti.” He worked full-time and was trying to take care of an ailing wife and a young daughter who craved the kind of care that only moms can give.

“I used to like spaghetti,” I said. “But it doesn’t taste good anymore.”

Dinnertime felt so lonely without Mom. Something was missing, and food wasn’t filling the void. It never really does. I missed Mom’s meals and my after-school cookies. I was tired of coming home to an empty house. I was tired of the hideous hats Mom wore to hide her baldness or to “make a fashion statement,” as she preferred to say. I was tired of seeing Mom confined to a bed when everyone else’s mom seemed healthy enough to attend school functions and cheer for their sons and daughters at soccer games.

Mom was just busy, I told myself. She was fighting in a battle and hiking up a hill. She was living out metaphors that, depending on whether or not you were playing pretend, suggested an ascension toward recovery or, more realistically, toward Heaven.

*****

Me and mom in Disney World, 1988.

Sunday, February 9, 1997. All I wanted that afternoon was a mother to comfort me. But the one person who I wanted to console me couldn’t. Her body was frail, her skin yellow, her eyes shut. The cancer had spread not just to her liver, but to her bone marrow and her brain.

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.

Throughout the three years that my mom was sick, I thought she would survive. At least, that’s what everyone had been telling me. As an 11-year-old, I didn’t want to believe otherwise, 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.

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 given me. Nervously, I twisted the cap back and forth, crushing the stick. Then I started to cry. Are you OK, Bob?” my grandma asked my grandpa. He was crying too hard to speak and all he could do was raise his hand. Still today, I remember how much it shook.

When I got home, I held on tight to my dad and for the first time in my life, saw him cry. I spent a few minutes at my mother’s side but wasn’t ready to let go when the men in black came and took her away.

That night, all I wanted to do was go to bed. The hospice workers and family friends were gone by 7:30 p.m., leaving me and Dad in a house that no longer seemed like home. He turned on the TV just in time for the start of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Canned laughter ensued. I wondered how people could be happy when it seemed the whole world should be sad.

Skipping dinner, I went to bed feeling empty. I pulled the covers over my head and stared into the darkness, hoping I’d wake up to find that what had happened that night was nothing but a bad dream. In denial, I pretended things were fine and told myself not to cry.

“Erase it from my mind, erase it from my mind,” I whispered, scratching my head and repeating a refrain that I often said when something bad happened. I didn’t know that, years later, everything I had temporarily erased would leave such a lasting mark.

“Do you want to talk, Mal?” Dad asked.

“No. I just want to be alone.”

Dad turned off the light. I peered out from under the covers, hoping he’d still be there. He kissed me on the forehead and stayed by my bed in silence.

*****

Mom used to read to me to help me fall asleep.

Even after Mom died, I kept trying to pretend everything was fine. Mom wasn’t there to tell me she’d be OK, so I tried to be OK for her. I went to school the day after she died and told my sixth-grade teachers that I was fine and ready to move on. I wanted to be strong.

“Dad,” I said the day after she died. “I want to write a eulogy for Mom’s funeral.” “Eulogy” was one of those big words that I had heard Dad talk about behind closed doors. I remember looking it up in the dictionary, hoping I’d never have to hear one about my mother.

And yet, I wrote one about Mom and read it at her funeral, composed and without tears. The eulogy, all 480 words of it, was my attempt to comfort everyone else and perhaps convince myself that all would be well. Part of it read:

“Everything happens for a reason, although, that reason is often hard to find. But believe me, sooner or later in life you will find that reason. Now we should all still cry, and we should always keep Robin in our hearts, but we cannot let it bother us for the rest of our lives. We can’t keep going back to that old chapter, but look forward to the new chapter in our lives, and just hope that it brings us the best of luck and much happiness.

“This is hard to do, I know, to find that new chapter, but we can all do it if we try. Just think, my mother, Robin Jo Tenore, is walking along the streets of gold, she’s having the time of her life. She no longer suffers from pain. She is now in the hands of God, she is now in Heaven. A place where she truly belongs.”

I remember feeling disconnected when I read the piece, confused as to why I felt the need to write about my mom’s death in a Hallmark card kind of way.

At the time, I thought I was strong. And I was, but I didn’t realize that being weak when we need to be can make us strong later on. When we cry, when we make ourselves vulnerable. When we readily admit that something as devastating as losing a mom just plain sucks, we’re being true to ourselves. Hiding these realities only delays the grieving process, making us surrender to sadness later instead of embracing it in the moment.

But try telling that to an 11-year-old.

*****

When you’re that age and your mom dies, you fear you’ll forget her. So you hold onto everything that is hers and look for ways to keep her memory alive. You write stories about her. You ask family members for details about her life. You dig up old home videos and tapes that help you make better sense of the woman she was — and the woman you may or may not want to become. For years after my mom died, I felt as though I had lost all control, so I searched for ways to hold onto whatever memory of her I could, even memories that didn’t make sense for a little girl to hold on to.

Me and Mom all dolled up. Note the pink puffy sleeves and the silver flats.

I asked my dad, for instance, to keep Mom’s clothes in the closet so I could wear them — oversized as they were — to school. I kept Mom’s wigs in a Ziploc freezer bag in one of my dresser drawers. Mom had two of them. One was dark brown and shoulder length. The other was lighter and shorter. She wore them with hats. Purple hats. Striped hats. Straw hats with sunflowers. I’d try on her wigs and her hats, then tear them off when memories of Mom’s chemo treatments got in the way. I held onto Mom’s shoes, her nail polish, her eyelash curler.

I was living in a fantasy world, and my dad was afraid to let reality take that fantasy away. The first Christmas after Mom died, he wrote “Love Mom and Dad” on all of my gifts. He talked about her a lot, often in the present tense. He saved what was hers until three years later, when we moved to a new house across town. The memories of all that had happened in the house I grew up in were too hurtful to be reminded of every day. “Mal,” Dad told me, “we need to let go.”

I’ve since let go of a lot of what was Mom’s. I let go not because I wanted to but because in holding on to so much from the past, I couldn’t bear the weight of it all. I held on to her jewelry, her journals and her bike. I still wear her unassuming, tiny wedding ring sometimes. I keep shoe boxes containing photos of me and her. And that rusty eyelash curler? It’s in my makeup bag.

I like to think Mom responds via signs. When I’m thinking about her or am in need of a hug, I’ll sometimes hear Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You” — the song she dedicated to me before she died — on the radio. On other occasions, I’ll look at the clock and see Mom’s “special 7:24 time,” which is symbolic of her July 24 birthday.

Not long ago, for instance, I came across a sign when I read this passage from “Stuffed,” a food memoir by Patricia Volk. The passage reminded me of Mom and how she always called me “beautiful” and “gorgeous.”:

“I swore to myself that if I ever had a daughter, I’d make sure she wasn’t tyrannized by beauty. Life would be different for her. She would never wonder, Am I gorgeous? Not because she was or wasn’t, but because it wouldn’t matter. I’d devalue gorgeous. Gorgeous would be a fact of life, a nonadvantage. Brains, wit, drive and kindness, waking up every morning wondering, What’s next? — who needs gorgeous if you’ve got all that? Gorgeous would be neither a plus nor a minus, just there, like the Great Barrier Reef. My girlchik would never have good days or bad days based on makeup. She’d never enter a room less confident thanks to her hair. Beauty would be a nonissue. The plan was simple; If I never told her she looked good, she’d never wonder if she looked bad.

“Then I had a daughter. A daughter!

” ‘Look!’ I showed my husband her toes in the delivery room. ‘They’re like fringe! Did you ever in your life see anything so gorgeous?’

“Everyone who came to the apartment saw the toes. They were all the same length, straight and perfectly shaped. ‘Aren’t they like little pink piano keys?’ I said to everyone. ‘Doesn’t she look like a Sarah Bernhardt peony? Did you ever see anything so pink?’ I praised her earlobes and her navel. I praised her ankles and her chin. Her nostrils, her dark eyes, her thighs. I was out of control, couldn’t help myself. What difference did it make? She couldn’t understand.

“I called her Polly after my Gloria Swansonish grandmother. I allowed myself to revel in her beauty. I told myself when she started to speak, I’d stop. Then I couldn’t. She was too gorgeous. To test my objectivity, I invented the Looking Game. I still play it. When Polly’s back is turned, I say to myself: I am looking at this person for the first time. What do I think? And then, when she turns around, I look at her as if she’s a stranger, as if I’ve never seen that face in my life and am forming a first impression. Always I am struck by her gorgeousness. It never fails. And along with this observation comes a great, dambreaking, mother-lode of love. It’s the gorgeous-love connection, the gorgeous-love one-two. And it was realizing this recently that suddenly I understood: Gorgeousness in my family is love. Saying ‘You are gorgeous’ is saying ‘I love you.’ To love someone, no matter what they look like, is to see them as beautiful.

“I don’t love my children because they’re gorgeous, even if they’re gorgeous because I love them.”

I read this passage right before going to bed. The next morning, I woke up a little frantic, realizing I had forgotten to set my alarm. When I looked at the time on my phone, it was 7:24.

Running my finger across the time, I whispered I love you, too, Mom.

*****

Fisher Price tape recorder. Classic.

I’m reminded of Mom in other ways, too. Last year I stumbled across a tape of me singing with my mom. The night before Mother’s Day when I was 7 or 8 years old, I had asked Mom if we could have a singalong — partly because I wanted an excuse to stay up with her, but also because I wanted to play with my new, oh-so-cool Fisher Price tape recorder. It was the kind of toy that could make any little girl think she were good enough for Broadway.

I don’t remember what I told Mom, but it was probably something to the effect of, “So we’re going to make up a song together, OK? And I’m going to sing and then give you the mic and then you’re going to sing and we’ll take turns!” It’s hardly a surprise that I sang about not wanting to go to bed.

“Ohhhh I don’t want to go to bed! But it’s a school night you can see …  I’ll see you on Mother’s Day, today is a very nice day and today I think I’ll be a movie star, wait and see.”

Listening to the song now, 17 years later, makes me think of Mom and smile.

So many of the memories I have of her are from when she was sick. I can hear the mean kids at school say, “Look! Mallary’s mom has no hair!” I can hear Mom calling for Dad’s help when she was too weak to get off the couch on her own. I can hear her crying the night she found out that the cancer had spread to her brain.

It’s harder for me to remember what Mom sounded like when she’d dance with a broom and sing her favorite songs while cleaning the house, or when she’d come to the front door and yell, “Mallaryyyyy. Come inside, hunny. Dinner’s ready!”

The tape helps me remember. It lets me replace the deafening silence of her death with the comforting sound of her voice: “Goodnight sweet Mallary, go to bed. I love you very much.”

I still wish Mom were here to tell me to go to bed. Every night I tell myself I need to go to bed early, but I hardly ever heed my own advice. My dad and I talk about our night-owl tendencies from time to time, admitting that we wish we could go back to a time when “staying up late” meant going to bed at 8:30 p.m. Sometimes, we say, we wish Mom were here to tell us goodnight. And yet we’ve learned that sometimes, you have to settle for good enough.

So I listen to the tape to hear Mom’s voice and to remind myself that she would want me to take better care of myself by getting more rest. She’d want me to keep developing my voice, too — as a writer, as a young woman and as someone who unabashedly sings while in her apartment and her car. Recently as I was driving over the Howard Frankland bridge to Tampa, I flipped through the radio stations and stopped on “Love Shack” — one of Mom’s favorites. I belted it out and thought of me and her singing our favorite part together.

“Bang, bang, bang on the door, baby. You’re what? Tin roof … rusted!”

The next song I heard was Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You.” I could feel the goosebumps forming. Driving over the water, my hair blowing in the wind, I sang the message she wanted me to take away from the song:

“I will remember you. Will you remember me? Don’t let your life pass you by. Weep not for the memories.”

As hard as I try to search for signs from Mom, I’m sometimes too late. I’ll hear the disc jockey say he just played “I Will Remember You,” or I’ll look at the clock and it’ll be 7:25 p.m. And try as I might to hold on to what is dear to me, or what I need, I still lose a lot.

Recently, I lost my retainers again. I had put the retainers in a napkin when eating breakfast with my friends, whom I was visiting as part of a bachelorette party. I didn’t realize until the next night that I’d lost them, and even then I was afraid to admit it.

Those memories of searching through napkins in the cafeteria with the middle school lunch ladies came flooding back to me when I realized my mistake. I still expected to hear Mom yell. Instead, my friends joked with me about my efforts to keep my teeth straight.

“You seriously still wear your retainers at night? C’mon!”

The same feeling of guilt I felt when I lost my retainers as a kid resurfaced when I crashed Mom’s car a couple years ago on US 19 in Florida. There are certain things in life I can’t control, so I brace for the brakes. But sometimes, there’s just not enough time. Crash, crunch, burn. I plowed into the SUV in front of me, the hood of my car turning from a plateau to a peak. I cried. It was a ’93 bimmeny blue-colored Ford Tempo. Mom had bargained it down when it was brand new from $13,000 to $9,000. I knew when I saw it that I didn’t like that big blue hunk of metal sitting in the driveway. Really, I didn’t like that it was going to replace our old car.

Me and dad have gone through a lot together. When I was sick, he was one of the few people who believed I'd get better. He was right.

But I slowly gave the car a chance and watched as my dad regularly checked its engine, doing his best to take good care of the car that he hoped would someday be mine. Before the crash, the body of it looked good — very little rust, hardly any scratches. Whatever damage it had was concealed in places where broken beauty lies — under the hood, tucked away behind a tire, somewhere deep inside the engine.

There comes a time when we begin to realize that for as much as we try to make life work, it breaks. Things fall apart. So, we learn to mend them back together as best we can and hope the stitches don’t come undone. We learn to get new cars and accept life’s changes, realizing that just because something or someone has left our lives doesn’t mean the memories have, too.

*****

I’m grateful to have so many memories of my Mom. I remember all of the good times we had, but I try not to forget that she was human. When loved ones die, there’s a tendency to put them on a pedestal and believe they were all good. But life isn’t black and white. It’s the gray areas that make us complicated and complete; it’s the flaws that make us human. Mom tried so hard to be a flawless parent with a perfect daughter — a plan that inevitably exposed the ugly side of perfection’s pied and blemished beauty.

All of this might help explain why I’m a perfectionist and why I fear failure and loss. Looking back, though, I realize that for as big of a deal as my mom made about me losing things, she almost always replaced what was missing, even when she was sick and could hardly muster the energy to drive to the store. I would hug her out of gratitude and close my eyes, not wanting to let go.

I wish Mom could replace loss with love, with great big bear hugs that only moms can give. I wish I could just throw up my hands in frustration, ask “Why couldn’t you be here right now?” and have her answer me. For as much as I’ve moved on, I still yearn for my Mom to be here, to make me feel full again.

Food just doesn’t do it for me. Looking for a way to gain control after my Mom died, I started to monitor what I ate. Nothing tasted good anymore, and it didn’t fill me up the same way Mom’s food did. Since Mom wasn’t there to make me meals or leave me snacks anymore, why even bother eating? After all, those super skinny girls in the “Seventeen” magazines that I peeked at in the library probably didn’t eat. How else would they have such perfect bodies?

It’s so much easier to focus on food and your body than it is to feel.

I figured if I stayed the same weight that I was before Mom died, then I could pretend things were still the same. If I wore my hair in pigtails and pretended I was forever young, then people would care for me. I’d be the little girl, the one without a Mom, the one who needed their love and attention.

Dad and I live 1,500 miles away from each other. I always look forward to the late summer, when he usually visits. Here we are on my front porch last year.

My battle with anorexia led to four hospitalizations, two stays in a specialized medical unit at Children’s Hospital in Boston, and a year-and-a-half-long stay at Germaine Lawrence, a residential treatment facility for troubled girls in Arlington. I’m better — so much better than I ever thought I could be, thanks in large part to the choices I’ve made and to my supportive dad. But still, I struggle.

When I went home for Christmas, I told Dad I was craving one of the gingerbread men that Mom always used to buy. I didn’t buy one, though, because I figured I didn’t really need it. Too unhealthy.

Two days later, my dad handed me a bag from Panera Bread.

“Here, Mal, this is for you.”

He had a big smile on his face. I peered inside and saw a gingerbread man.

“Thanks, dad,” I said, pretending not to want the treat. “I’m not hungry now, though. I’ll have a piece later.”

But then I changed my mind. It hurt me too much to say no. I wanted my dad to know how much his gesture meant to me, so I broke off a piece of the smiling gingerbread’s head. It was harder than I remembered, the taste of ginger wasn’t quite the same, and there wasn’t nearly as much frosting as there should have been. Not like the kind Mom used to buy. The spaghetti and peas equivalent of Mom’s pasta primavera.

You wouldn’t think eating a gingerbread man’s head would be that difficult. But when you’re used to a routine, deviations make way for chaos and temptation. I often eat the same thing every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner because it helps me feel in control. When I’m feeling lonely — because my friends are out at dinner and I’m being a workaholic, because I miss my mom — my first instinct is to sneak something from the nearest candy jar, head for the vending machine or open the refrigerator door in search of nourishment. Other days, I don’t feel like eating at all.

I’m trying to find healthier ways to feel full, and to let go.

I’ve found that when we experience loss, we have a tendency to hold on to what we’re afraid will be taken from us. It’s understandable, but in doing so we can miss the point: everything that is good is a gift, freely given. When I’ve tried to hold on too tightly to the people in my life, I’ve missed the experience of the gift of their friendship, love and nourishment. To fill this void, I too often turn to food.

I know, though, that all the cookies and gingerbread men in the world can’t satisfy me. So I’m learning to fill the emptiness with something other than food, and to eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. Mom would want me to. Sometimes, because I’m not perfect, I slip up. And that’s OK. I don’t want to keep playing pretend.

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