What do you tell her? If you have five years to say good-bye or no time at all, the most important thing to do is to tell your mother you love her.
Even though I told my mother I loved her before hanging up every phone call – except the last one – it’s what I seek to tell her with an urgent desperation when she visits my dreams. She knows I love her, she knew I love her, yet it’s the one thing that I can’t stop wanting to tell her, the urgency I can’t let go.
Tell her you love her, in every form of the word. You write it, feed it, squeeze it. You telepathically send it. Convey it when you hold her hand. But you must say it. Aloud. I know how you are with words, how they choke you like they choke me. It’s as much for you, as it is for her. She needs to hear it, but it’s more important you say it.
Because this love that you share with your Mom – this mother/daughter bond that happens when she starts nurturing you in her belly and giving you life/blood/breath – this is the only person you will ever love in this way. You will love your children, yes, but even then, it will be different. Your mother is your first love, the person you loved before you even existed. So tell her you love her. But know that it will never be enough. It was never enough.
Let her know that you’ll be fine without her. That you will be sad when she leaves, yes. But you will be a responsible human being who will be capable of putting a roof over your head and food on your plate. You will eat, you will exercise, you will take care of yourself. Tell her not to worry about you being unmarried, that you have found someone, and if doesn’t work, you may find someone else. Tell her you’ll have babies – whether yours or adopted or your siblings’ children, that there will be babies to carry on the legacy, and be loved and cared for. Our mothers want us to have babies in a way I only tangentially understand after having lost my mother.
Comfort her with thoughts that you’ll be cared for. Convey to her that she did a fantastic job raising you, and that she doesn’t need to die worried about you or siblings. You take care of her in a way that will let her know your father will be taken care of after she is gone.
Even if you feel like you won’t be fine, that the future is uncertain, that marriage and babies, and forever love, and steady careers and financial stability are beyond reach – we never are completely fine, are we? – she needs to die with the security of knowing that her children will be fine without her. You need to give her permission to let go, without any guilt and with confidence. Let her spirit come back to visit you willingly, not visit you wracked with guilt.
Tell her you’re proud of how she fought to survive and battled cancer for five years. That you admire her perseverance. That she tried her hardest and it’s not a show of weakness. That it’s okay to let go.
I miss her voice and have cold-sweat filled dreams that I will forget what it sounds like. I checked my voicemail soon after she died to see if I had saved any old messages she may have left me. I hadn’t. It broke me. I know you’ve said she doesn’t want to be video recorded or photographed in these late stages of her battle, but record your Mom’s voice. Have her tell you a story, the stories you’ll never hear after she leaves. Such as the story of your birth. Ask her for stories of you as a kid, your quirks, your personality. Things that will drive her to say, “You’ll see when you have your own child.” Ask her how you got along with your siblings. Ask her for pregnancy advice, wedding advice, engagement advice, child-rearing advice.
You won’t remember any of it if you just ask her now when you are too emotional to process it. But then something will happen in the future – you’ll get pregnant or engaged – and you’ll try to remember all the things she said. So just record it, even if it’s on a cassette tape with a boombox. It may feel silly now, but the future version of you will be grateful for it.
Collect a story from this experience and your mother that will remind you why you fight for social justice and why you do the work that you do. And hold on to it, tight. Because when you lose your Mom, and you lose the reason to fight, your whole purpose starts to unravel. So find it, and hold it tight. Find your reason to keep fighting. Find your reason to live.
Ask her about where she buried the gold. Even if it’s metaphorical gold. Finding pawn shop receipts for her gold bangles in my mother’s purse after her death was a terrible feeling. Finding a diary entry about how she discovered she was pregnant with me and didn’t want me was a terrible feeling. Finding letters between my parents from when they were younger that shifted my simple narrative of their relationship into a complex one is a confusing thing. Ask her about those secrets. Don’t let her die with secrets that may come to haunt you. There will always be secrets, I know, some that will be buried with her. But you try to get the secrets, anyways, particularly the ones that affect you.
In October, I canned 55 jars of guava jam in eight different batches all because I was trying to capture the flavor of my Nani’s jam. I’d never made it before, but I wanted to remember. My dad has never made it and my aunt had vague advice to give on the recipe. There were numerous times I felt compelled to pick up the phone to ask Mom what to do next or if I was doing it right. The thought that she was gone was devastating.
There are tears in those jars of guava jam. Recipes and flavors in our cultures carry on history and legacy. Asking someone, “Did you eat?” or “Eat more!” is conveying love and care. So you get all those recipes of your Mom’s you love so much. Learn from her. Have her sit in the kitchen as she teaches you. Write them and make them, often, so you won’t feel that urge to make 10 batches of the same recipe just to get the flavor right. It’s never right. But maybe it will be close.
Tell her you’ll pray, and that you’ll be a good person. You tell her you believe in God and that He will take care of her. You tell her you will be spiritual and have faith and you’ll try your hardest so that you’ll meet her in heaven. That this life here is just a blip in this larger spectrum of universal being and that you’ll do everything possible so that you two can meet again.
You make sure that finances are in order, now. And that you are informed about it. With five years of planning, I’m sure they are. But that was the largest downfall to the time immediately after my Mom’s death – knowing that all the bills were in the red and the family finance were not in order. This meant that the days after her death were spent sorting and shredding unopened bills and worrying about money when we should have been grieving. Make sure that finance, medical bills, life insurance, burial plans – all the logistics that come with death are sorted out beforehand. Because it is sloppy and confusing, no matter how much you’ve prepared. You are the oldest so this will inevitably fall on you, as it did on me. You will hate this. As did I.
And you will hate losing her and you will hate her for leaving you. You will hate everybody, everything. But eventually, you’ll forgive her too. For now, only let her see the forgiveness. Forgive her, for everything. Don’t let grudges go to the grave.
But in the end, this advice letter just boils down to one thing. Everything else is just a variation of the first. You tell her you love her. You tell her you loved her. You tell her you will, always. Collect the stories. And try to never forget.
Originally posted on the Say What? blog.
Tanzila Ahmed is a writer, community organizer and policy researcher based in Southern California. She founded South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), and is a contributing blogger at Sepia Mutiny.com where she writes about pop, music, politics, and anything tied to a Desi identity. Her writing has been featured on The Nation, Left Turn Magazine, Angry Asian Man, MTV Iggy, Taqwacore Webzine, Wiretap Magazine, Alternet, PopandPolitics and has been published in the books Mirror on America and Storming the Polls. She also has two self-published chapbooks of poetry, Secret Confessions and Diamond in the Rough. She is currently working on a memoir about her journey on finding purpose, love, poetry and familial revolutionary history.