I tried calling my mother last month. I sat in the press box at Gillette Stadium before the Patriots-Texans playoff game, eating lunch at a table with two other journalists and vaguely listening to their conversation about a failed relationship. And I thought of my mom.
I wondered if I still had her number in my phone, scrolled through my contacts and found that I did. I wondered what would happen if I called her. Would I hear her voice again in that message where she always sounded so awkward and uncomfortable? Would a robot tell me this number was not in service anymore? Would the line simply go dead?
My mother’s been dead for over two years now. I dialed her number and the phone rang.
In a space of time that lasted less than a minute in reality but much longer in my mind, a part of me wished that she would pick up, confirmation of what I had thought so many times since she died — that this had all been a bad dream.
I’d call, and she’d be there, and we could talk and I’d be left with something more than the final phone call I put off making until it was too late and the ‘Thinking of You’ card I bought but never sent, the one that still sits on my desk. Some small irrational part of me wished for that. For a magic phone or a hole in time like the one in “Donnie Darko” that could bring us back to before Nov. 17, 2010, when I got the call from her older brother — the uncle I’m least close to, the one who supposedly shook her out of a tree and onto broken glass when she was a teenager — telling me she was dead. I hoped for that. But the real world doesn’t have worm holes and portals back to some better past. It just has voicemail.
A robot picked up and repeated the phone number I had called, then a perky girl named Allison greeted me and suggested I leave a message. Embarrassed, I hung up and my eyes filled with tears. I felt small and alone. Like a child forgotten at a crowded park. Except the park was the universe and I wasn’t small anymore, just a grown woman sitting in a room full of writers whose lives revolve around wins and losses, realizing that the phone number that used to belong to my mother now belongs to a happy girl named Allison and my mother is gone. Even the phone company has moved on.
That my mother is gone is no surprise. It was made abundantly clear when I had to pick out the clothes she would wear in her coffin and then saw those clothes on her rigid body, her eyes closed, her hair normally so perfectly coiffed now frizzy and straw-like, the makeup that would have been expertly applied had she applied it now making her skin look waxy and green. That she’s gone was made abundantly clear every time I called a credit card company to cancel a credit card or called a magazine to cancel a subscription and repeated the phrase “my mother has passed away” until I barely felt the reality of those words when I spoke them. It was made abundantly clear when I sold her house and her car and her clothes and jewelry, took the last of everything she had claimed in this world and gave it to someone else.
I know that she is gone. But every day, a part of me forgets. It is something I keep hidden away in a drawer, like her cell phone, the one I forgot I had and stumbled upon while rummaging through my nighttable looking for something else; I picked it up in my hands, recalled the last time I saw her holding it and began to sob.
Since she died, the grief has come in waves and I have ridden them all. There was the resurgence a few months after her death, when I’d wrapped up the affairs of her estate and felt I could conquer the world. There were the months after that false resurgence when I stopped answering text messages and phone calls and sat and stared through the TV and wished I was dead, too, because that was how I felt. There was the reluctant acceptance that she was gone, and the attempt to move on with life in a world where she no longer existed. That’s where I have been for the past year and a half, my mother’s death in the background, everyday life in the foreground, a place I can no longer find her.
I’m a writer who processes things through writing, but I have not written about her death; I have written around it. I tell myself it’s too dark and depressing, that people don’t want to read about death and it’s something I should keep for myself, but really I don’t think it has to do with anyone else. I think it has to do with me, that I haven’t been ready to fully examine and accept what her death means to my life.
Maybe that is changing. Maybe when I called my dead mother in a room full of strangers, I wasn’t trying to reach her so much as I was trying to reach the part of myself that grieves for her and needs to express that grief instead of pushing it into some dark space as part of a misguided strategy to “move on.” Maybe this is just the next stage of trying to process the loss of the most pivotal figure in my life — the person who was not just my mother but my best friend in the world for so many years before everything went wrong.
So I tried calling my mother last month. She was not there. I could not reach her. And the reality of that fact made me feel like I had disappeared, too.