A couple of years after Mum died, Hope Edelman’s book Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss was published. She wrote the book after her mum passed away when she was 17 and had searched bookstores and libraries for some kind of guidance to cope with the loss. She never found anything satisfactory so she wrote her own book. And that’s when I found it and finally felt like I was reading something that just ‘got me’ and validated how I was feeling.
There was one particular passage in the book that made such complete sense to me. It’s an often quoted part so I don’t think it just resonates me. Edelman (p. xix) writes about finding a column in the Chicago Observer by the columnist and author Anna Quindlen about her own mother’s early death.
My mother died when I was nineteen. For a long time it was all you needed to know about me. A kind of vest-pocket description of my emotional complexion: “Meet you in the lobby in ten minutes — I have long brown hair, am on the short side, have on a red coat, and my mother died when I was nineteen.”
It is such a fitting description. When meeting new people or making new friends in the past, I brought up my mother’s death too soon because I felt like it helped explain who I was. Bringing up your mother’s death can obviously be a bit awkward and sometimes it’s not at the most appropriate times. But to me that kind of proves my point about why I’m bringing it up because if I had a mother I wouldn’t be this person being awkward because she would have taught me how to behave and what to say. More importantly, we wouldn’t need to have this conversation because she wouldn’t be dead. You can see how this is a bit of a Catch-22 situation.
Since mum died, I definitely feel like there are two distinct phases and Marnies. There is ‘Before Mum Died Barbie’ and ‘After Mum Died Barbie’. Oops, I meant Marnie. This is not a ‘woe is me, my life has been awful, please feel sorry for me’ statement. Life is just different. I think. I can’t compare it properly to tell you what my life would be like if Mum hadn’t died. There’s no Sliding Doors moment for me. Now I’m wondering if I’m entering a new phase: ‘Older than Mum Barbie’.
Mum’s death is a defining moment that has made me the person I am today. It has shaped the decisions I have made or failed to make in my life. It influences the way I treat other people and my relationships with others. It has moulded the way I think about things.
As Edelman writes in the introduction to her book:
As I slowly l learned to share information about my mother’s death, I began to meet other women who’d lost mothers during their childhood or teens. Through frank and detailed conversations, we found similarities among ourselves we’d never noticed in other female friends: a keen sense of isolation from family; a sharp awareness of our own mortality; the overall feeling of being “stuck” in our emotional development, as if we’ve never completely matured beyond the age we were when our mothers died; the tendency to look for nurturing relationships with partners who can’t possibly meet our needs; and the awareness that early loss has shaped, toughened, and even freed us, helping us make changes and decisions we might not have had made otherwise. (pp. xix-xx)
Mum’s death may have made me a better person. There is evidence to suggest that women who lose their mothers at a young age can be very successful because of the loss. I’m not advocating for it as a career move that you should consider. I’m just saying what other people have said. As Edelman writes in her book ‘… early adversity gave them a toughness, a resilience, a power of will that came from facing a profound loss and nevertheless finding the desire and the hope to press on. They’re saying, in effect, that they’ve acquired the kind of personal strength and indomitability our culture normally ascribes to men’. (pp. 180-181)
Successful women who lost their mothers early include the Bronte sisters, Marie Curie, Dorothy Parker, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell and Marilyn Monroe. There’s also a whole lot of people who have been seriously screwed up because their mother died when they were young. You could say some of those people on that ‘success’ list could also be seen as a bit messed up.
I should also add, for those of you don’t already know, that my mother didn’t die of breast cancer or any type of cancer for that matter. If I was reading this as a stranger, I probably would assume this was the most likely cause of her death because there is so much information out there about genetics and breast cancer. The percentage of people with ‘inherited’ breast cancer is much smaller than what most people think. About 90-95 per cent of breast cancers have nothing to do with family history. Although, as my caring GP in Sydney told me when we were discussing my family history when I was diagnosed: ‘Well, she may have had breast cancer when she died and she didn’t know.’
Mum died of a brain aneurysm. It was sudden and unexpected. There was a small bleed on her brain that made her sick and put her in hospital, but the doctors didn’t find the small bleed so they couldn’t work out the cause of her headache. They said she had kidney failure so I guess the bleed started to shut down her internal organs. A larger bleed a week later ended her life. When Dad called us and told us to get to the hospital, I drove from Brisbane to Nambour preparing to give her one of my kidneys so she would survive. She didn’t need my kidney.
I’m not the first person in the world to lose their mother. Some lose them before they even get a chance to get to know them. I don’t want to cheapen other people’s experiences of loss and grief. Mum’s loss was felt by many: my father, my brother, her parents, siblings, in-laws, friends, work colleagues. I’m not sure our dog Rosie ever got over it.
I know I am lucky to have so many memories of her and a pretty good idea of the person she was. It can be helpful to channel that when you’re thinking, ‘but what would Mum tell me to do?’ Also, helpful to not know for sure so you just do whatever you want to do anyway. Eat that dessert. For the record, she probably would have told me to resist the dessert more often than I have.