I Have Reached The Age She Was When She Died

by Nina Collins
Originally Published: 

In a few days I’ll turn 46, the age my mother was when she died of premenopausal breast cancer. I was 19, the eldest of her two children and her only daughter.

All these years I’ve lived without her, and the milestone moments have flown by: my wedding at 23 and the births of my four children before I turned 30. I started businesses, created homes and got divorced, all of this without my mother to watch me, advise me, love me or show me the way. My father was pretty much gone from the start. Despite feeling the loss every day, I did nevertheless have a model in my head, a sort of North Star image, of the woman I knew who guided me along the way.

When my mother was alive, she was quite an extraordinary person: a filmmaker and writer; a bright, vivid personality; strong as hell. Black, intellectual and sexy. A trailblazer in many ways. My mother taught me by example that I should never let fear get in my way (even though depression would sometimes fell her, as it does me); that I could do, and handle, pretty much anything and do it with a real kind of screw-you, independent, often-funny bravado. It’s the only way I know, and I see so much of her in who I’ve become as a mother and as a woman, for good and bad. Feeling like her has in many ways been a comfort that I’ve relied on. A paltry comfort perhaps, but nonetheless a warm mold that I’ve always been able to nestle into.

It’s an odd time in my life right now: I’m newly remarried after a divorce in my 30s. The many teenagers in our blended family are in various stages of growing up and leaving home. They need us, and yet they don’t. I’m here for money and emergencies and often unwelcome but (actually sound) guidance. It’s a phase in parenting that at times feels uniquely unrewarding. My menstrual cycle is no longer something I can set my watch by. I’m euphoric when I get my period and feel a sexy bounce for a few days in its wake. I’m still pretty, but for how much longer? My new husband, a widower who himself was single for many years, is definitely not acclimated to his new life. He consistently says “I” and “me” and “mine” when I wish he’d say “we” and “us” and “ours.” We fight about this. I adore him, I feel deeply in love, and at the same time, it’s unbelievably consuming to try to create a whole new life with someone when we both already have many whole lives behind us.

I feel lucky, and I feel exhausted. I’m deeply grateful for all that I have and, yet, profoundly unmoored and not sure what to do next. Grounded by my responsibilities to the often mundane here and now (college applications, Costco, dinner dates with other couples), but a little lost in my head. I crave meditation, the simple beauty of nature and bed. I stave off anxiety: Will all these children actually become adults with careers? Will this be the marriage I so hope for? Will I live long enough to enjoy grandchildren? Mostly, it’s an existential feeling around the enervating notion of time: How have we all gotten to this place?

Turning the age someone we loved was when they died is a clichéd moment that many of us can reflect on in one way or another. I read somewhere that in the case of a parent, it can be a startling revelation, a moment of immense freedom that washes over you. Somehow that strikes me as BS, like a greeting card concept; something that sounds good but is actually hollow. While I doubt I’ll feel a cathartic lightning-rod moment of release when my birthday comes, I have started wondering if my sense of being lost right now, of unease and uncertainty, has something to do with this fact. After all, I don’t have any idea what things look like around this next corner.

The model that I had–memories, at least, of my mother in her 30s and 40s–is no longer relevant. At 46, I’m on a path with no guide. Until now, she was dead, but she was still ahead of me. Soon, she’ll be dead and behind me. She taught me how to drive a stick shift, curse like a sailor, hang curtains, clean wood floors and light a mean fire. From her I learned everything I know about being a mother, running a household, living with mild depression and being glamorous. She taught me all that. But she can’t teach me about what’s next, because she never got there.

Just like me, my mother remarried at age 45. Then she died. How would that second marriage have worked out? Would it have remained the sparkling love affair it seemed at the time? I didn’t get a chance to learn from her how to build this new chapter in my life. But in many ways, not having her as a model could actually be a good thing, if only I could actually internalize that notion. The sad truth is that after she died, I think I needed so badly to identify with her that it probably crippled me. In my marriage to the father of my children, a part of me always knew that I’d get divorced, just like she did. There was always a voice in my head that said, She did it alone, and so will you. Being like her was a way of not losing her.

I was 19 when she died and still in college, like my eldest daughter Violet is now. My rhythm with Violet is familiar; it’s not unlike the way my mother was with me. We’re close, and I take enormous joy in seeing her move toward adulthood, but there’s also a distance, a respect I feel, in knowing that we are separate and that she needs to fly on her own. I’m here to help and to love. But I can’t for the life of me imagine what our relationship will look like when she’s 25, or 30, or 35, and somehow not knowing feels paralyzing. Will she call me often? Will she come to me when she’s sad? How many times have I reached for the phone, all these years later, wishing that I could call my mother?

All I’ve known is the lack, the having to do it alone, so it’s very hard for me to imagine how this will go. Will I be there when Violet gets married? Will I hold her children? I never saw my mother go gray. Will I become a graceful old woman or an ugly one? I see here in my questions the way I’m still locked in and can’t quite find the freedom to just paint my own picture. But I’m looking.

I imagine that to some readers, my questions sound trite, but that may be easy to say if you have parental models yourself, people who allow you to feel safely in the middle still. You can look up, and you can look down. I look ahead, and it’s just me there. Sure, I can do this all on my own. I’ve come this far, after all. But this moment does feel like another loss–that she has to stay frozen in this place that I am now leaving, that I have to go on again, without her.

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