Losing Your Parents, Finding Your Self

--Excerpted from Losing Your Parents, Finding Your Self

My mother did not open her eyes, and after a couple of hours, my husband and I went home. I later learned that she got up once in the night, with my sister's help, to go to the bathroom--stalwart to the last--then went back to bed. At 11:07 PM, February 13, 1993, she died peacefully in her sleep. She was eighty-two.

I had been preparing for this event my whole life; as a child, I had recurring nightmares that she would die and leave me. And when it finally happened, for one day I felt some melancholy. Still, there was no big bang of grief--I had already done my grieving, years before.

And so I did not go to her funeral, a ceremony designed for those who would want to pay mournful homage--her other children, her grandchildren, her loyal friends--because I would have been out of place and because I had said all my good-byes. Instead I stayed home, feeling, more than anything, a sad sense of relief. We would never again disappoint each other.

What caught me by surprise, and was far more wrenching than the death itself, was the ripple effect of her dying. What I never saw coming--this is the part no one warned me about; what can happen long after the funeral is over--was the impact her demise would have on the grown children who survived her. For my siblings and I had not simply suffered a death in the family but, in a sense, a death of the family, at least as we had known it.

My mother's death blew a hole in our midst, and when the smoke cleared, nothing was familiar. It was as though I never really saw my siblings before. Always there had been our larger- than-life mother--the center of family gravity--in our line of vision, holding us together. All our dealings somehow were mediated by Mom. Like spokes in a wheel, we couldn't reach each other without in some way going through her, the hub. She was the prism through which we viewed each other and ourselves: Who was in, who was out, what Mother said or hadn't said this week, who was going to visit, who wasn't, who had met her expectations, who had fallen short.

Now we were on uncharted ground. She had been the common denominator that defined us as a family. What, literally, would we do without her? What would we have to say to one another in the breach?

In my brother's case, and to my utter astonishment, nothing. Suddenly, and without explanation, my only full sibling, who for most of our lives had relied on me for sisterly affection--I was his role model, he once said--closed the door on me and all our history together. My phone calls and letters to him went unanswered.

I cannot express how dreadful it was to realize that my mother's rancor toward me lived on in him. It was one thing to have lost my mother ages earlier; to lose my brother now was devastating. From his point of view, this rupture was, and remains, nonnegotiable.

In becoming my mother's last best child, my brother could not sustain a tandem love for me. Of her several children, it might be, in the all and all, that he was the most undone by our difficult beginnings, unable thereafter to put all the pieces back together. Or perhaps we never shared anything but blood--not enough, at all events, to allow for a real bond.

My husband says that in my youthful yearnings to have a sense of family, I never really saw my brother in my mother's long shadow. I never saw how completely opposite, how differently constructed we are. Now I see him. I have come to accept his need to keep a separate peace, far away from the family and any reminders of our origins.

In my sister's case, however, and to my great delight, the outcome has been extraordinary: The silver lining in all this has been our relationship--she and I are closer than we have ever been.

This did not happen overnight. While Nancy had understood, up to a point, my feelings about my mother, she did not share them. Indeed, in nearly every sense we had sprung from entirely separate contexts. I was born into my mother's wretchedly unhappy second marriage; Nancy was born over a decade later into my mother's contented third marriage, the one that took.

In the months after my mother's death, Nancy laid down a single ground rule between us: She would not discuss our mother. I've lost my reference point, she said, shaken, bereft. I'm trying to remember more of the good things so I can have a mother to mourn. And I was not about to deny her. Because she is the sibling to whom I was always closest, I did not, do not, want to do anything to fray the single strand of affectionate kinship left to me from my childhood.

Nancy and I have rediscovered each other over the chasm left by my mother's death. We have fashioned an entirely new bridge of affection and mutual regard. She is now the relative to whom I turn first with good news or bad. She has become the family switchboard, keeping tabs on and dispensing bulletins to all the members of our immediate and extended clan.

And I have stopped treating her as the kid. Recently, I called her for advice on my balky computer--she is a whiz--and she said, chuckling, You know, this is the first time you've ever asked my opinion about anything. I was always the little sister.

For my part, I have become, by virtue of birth order alone, the nominal head of the family. Each year at Thanksgiving, my husband and I serve a twenty-five-pound turkey to our assorted relatives; Nancy is always there, my family anchor.

The six years since my mother's death have been the best years between my sister and me. When we talk, we almost never revisit the past. Instead we talk about politics, movies, her cats, our overlapping menopause, aging. We talk as old friends do, but with the added bonus of genetic connection.

This was not possible while my mother lived.

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