Unraveling A Mystery // Musings On The Mother I Never Knew

“When your mom dies you’re the best memory of her.  Everything you do is a memory of her.”  
— Alice Oswalt, Age 7, daughter of Patton Oswalt and Michelle McNamara, May 1, 2016

In the last week of April in 1983, at age thirty-one, a woman got sick. She thought it was a cold and went about her life. By the end of that week it was clear something more was wrong, so she went to the hospital. Her husband sat by her side as she quickly declined, perplexing her doctors as they flooded her system with medication in an attempt to get ahead of the mysterious illness. Less than seven days later, on May 1st, her husband walked out of the hospital into the cloudy drizzle, alone.

Having lost her when I was only 13 months and 13 days old, I have no memory of my mother. As a child, I saw a baby picture in a family album of an adult holding my tiny hands as I tottered down a neighbor's driveway. I could only see a portion of the woman's profile and a swath of dark hair and inquired if it was my cousin. "No," my stepmother gently replied, "that's your mother."

As a teenager, I developed an insatiable, burning curiosity about this stranger. My father had collected items of hers such as jewelry and clothing, as well as journals from her college days, from when she was pregnant with me, and after I was born. I now had a glimpse into the mind of this intelligent, complex, poetic and occasionally melancholy creature. She had a playful sense of humor, loved deeply, was a fan of Gershwin, and was - like me - quite stubborn. As a newborn, I'd apparently been a difficult sleeper and I read that she eventually had a night where she was so battered from exhaustion that she would have gladly "sold me for a gypsy's song."

In 2001, I experienced my first relationship, and shortly thereafter my first break up. I took it harder than anyone, including me, thought I should. I didn't love him and I didn't want to be with him, so why did I feel like I was dying inside? After weeks of being unable to eat, I was wasting away from depression and knew I needed help.

At our first appointment, my therapist encouraged me to relate my personal history. She wanted to know everything; my childhood, my adolescence, my entire life. I started by explaining in routine fashion that my mother passed away when I was a baby and that it didn't bother me. Contrary to that belief, we spent the next few years digging through buried emotions I didn't even know I had within me. Her death had interrupted the natural process of how a child learns to form, and eventually break, all kinds of human relationships. Subsequently, any beginning felt like oxygen, but every ending was as though someone dying all over again. With her help, I learned how to set boundaries, tear down walls, face fears, and love with healthy senses of both companionship and mutual independence.

In 2009, a dear friend reached out. She'd fought and survived lymphoma as a teenager but had recently been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She tentatively asked if I would mind discussing things that I would have liked of my mother's. She had two young boys, and she wanted to be prepared to leave them meaningful keepsakes if it came to that. "Video," I said immediately. I didn't have any and, "I would have liked to see her the way she was, how she moved and her mannerisms." I told her that I adored the old perfume bottles my father had kept because scent is so evocative and personal and that even seemingly inconsequential writings were as gold. (She survived, thankfully, and added a daughter to her family.)

By the end of the day on May 1st, 2013, at age thirty-one, I'd lived a life longer than my mother's. It was one of the most profoundly painful days of my existence. I realized just how short her life had been. I mourned the things she'd never experienced and realized that despite being a parent, she was in many ways still a child herself when she died.

There is one more vitally important keepsake that I need to include, a gift my family gave me for Christmas when I was twenty-one years old. Amidst a collection of other items were audio tapes of my mother speaking. I got to hear her talk about day to day things and heard her order a pizza, but I also got to hear her discuss her baby; the funny things she did, and the annoying things that sometimes accompany having an infant. For the first time in over twenty years, I got to hear my mother's voice. And much to my surprise and immense joy, I remembered it.

Elizabeth Collins is a doctor of acupuncture, herbalist, and chemist. She is the founder of both Balance Acupuncture and Infinity Apothecary, located in Providence, Rhode Island.