The weirdness of motherless birthdays, with sneak attacks of grief

I don’t know whether I started having a stronger association between birthdays and mothers because I finally had a kid myself, and thus understand precisely what’s involved with bringing a human being into the world; or because I lost my mother shortly before my first post-Lily birthday. Either way, the end result is the same.

Not that I walk around in a melancholy stupor in February, or sit down for a good cry now and then – that’s just not me. No, I’m much more likely to be taken aback by a strange confluence of things that suddenly put my mother in my mind at this time of year.

Last Tuesday, for instance, two days before my 39th birthday, I’d agreed to review the touring production of “August: Osage County.” Though it had a longer run in Detroit, it opened in Southeast Michigan in East Lansing, so I had to haul myself there from Ann Arbor after work.

Now, family pretty much has to be on your mind after watching the wildly dysfunctional crew in “August” go at it for three and a half hours. But it wasn’t until I decided I couldn’t risk making the hour-plus drive home with the gas gauge on “E” at midnight, and I was listening to music on my iPod (having failed to find anything good on the radio), that everything suddenly clicked together for one of those rare moments.

For I’d stopped for gas in my hometown (Brighton) since it was close to the halfway point, and I knew precisely where a station near the highway was. The song “Winthrop,” by Indigo Girls, came up on my iPod as I got out of the car; and although the song is about little more than someone hanging out with a friend who lives near both an airport and the ocean, it has, since my mom’s death, become a kind of soundtrack of loss for me.

This is largely because the last place I saw my mother alive was an airport, and late in the song, the lyrics offer this refrain:

I hear the dim roar 
of the last flight out
and for someone there is someone
never coming back

Generally, the song simply makes me somber. I remember my mother crying a little as I hugged her goodbye, with seven month old Lily in my arms.

But standing alone at a gas pump on this dark midnight, with thick snowflakes falling on me, and this song playing softly in my ears, I had a “life flashing before my eyes” moment – where I thought of the succession of cars I’d brought to that gas station.

From the used, sky blue Chevette that was my first car (I bought it with my father months before getting my license, so anxious were they to stop taxiing me around town constantly); to the diesel red Tempo (yes, they made them) that I overheated and ruined well before its time because I didn’t realize that you needed to get the oil changed every few thousand miles; to the navy blue, used Probe that I drove around Ann Arbor and loved for its bad-ass (to my mind) sportiness; to the silver Chevy Lumina that I reluctantly inherited from my grandfather after he died; I drove it a few years before it just stopped, for good, in the middle of drive back to grad school in Pennsylvania from a weekend trip in New York City. And then I bought my first-ever new car, my current car, a 2002 green Escort that feels exactly right for who I am.

But my parents moved to North Carolina in the late 90s, so my reasons for driving to Brighton left, too. Consequently, this was my first visit to this gas station in my Escort – but every other car of mine had been at that gas station where I stood that night, more than once, back in the time when my mother’s presence in my life was taken for granted: as an ambitious high school student, running between pom practice and band rehearsals, yet anxious to get out of that town; then college, when I always wanted to get back to my friends in Ann Arbor; after college, when I had various crummy jobs in Ann Arbor while figuring out what I would do next; after two years of grad school in Georgia, living with Joe in downtown Detroit and coming to my parents’ to clean the house once a week, when my mother was weakened by chemotherapy; and when I helped my parents pack up the house and move toward a fresh start in North Carolina.

This sudden onslaught of memory overwhelmed me, and for a passing moment, I was surprised by tears. But the pump clicked, indicating a full tank, so I replaced it and got in my car, listening to the Indigo Girls’ song while allowing myself a quiet moment to remember my mother.

We weren’t the kind of “Gilmore Girls” mother and daughter that talked by phone every day and shared everything – far from it; and although there was occasional overlap (we were both suckers for movie musicals and adored Anne Tyler’s “The Accidental Tourist”), we generally had markedly different taste in books, movies and music (she like Celine Dion, for instance, who drives me batty). But we didn’t quarrel, nor was my mother a hyper-critical, nit-picky mom who made a habit of cutting me down at the knees. 

No, she respected my privacy, trusted my judgment, and encouraged my natural independent streak. That, combined with the fact that I think I began mentally preparing myself for my mother’s death 14 years before it happened, when she was first diagnosed with cancer, made me seem fairly zen in the face of her sudden loss.

Indeed, when we returned home from traveling to North Carolina and Indiana for her memorial services, I stood in Lily’s room, watching her sleep in her crib and thought, “Part of my job as your mother is to make sure you can live without me. I want you to miss me, but you have to be able to keep going.” And I realized that this was one gift my mother gave me.

So when an occasional moment of grief hits me, as it did at that Brighton gas station, I let it come, and then let it pass. I didn’t sit there weeping in my car, or cry the rest of the way home on the highway. I just let the song finish, wiped my eyes, and got back on the highway to head home – where I would celebrate my birthday, and my mother, with the family I’ve helped to create and now can call my own.

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4 thoughts on “The weirdness of motherless birthdays, with sneak attacks of grief

  1. Kathy Waugh says:

    So touching and so true. Love this thought: Part of my job as your mother is to make sure you can live without me. I want you to miss me, but you have to be able to keep going.

  2. Lloyd says:

    It’s kind of a sweet feeling to have that come over me. I still dream about dad, 17 years after he died; it feels like he’s visiting me.

    • Jenn McKee says:

      Yes, in a way, it felt nice to be jolted out of the busy day-to-day world, where we’re all too busy to think about someone we’ve lost for more than a passing instant. It was as if I could finally give myself permission to pull back from it all for a moment, think about my mom, and take a breath.
      We don’t allow ourselves such luxuries often, it seems.

  3. […] In my February post about “sneak attacks of grief,” I talked about how, occasionally, something suddenly pulls you from your day-to-day life […]

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