I feel the sting of my mother’s absence most acutely at the milestones. In some ways, the milestones, no matter how many years separate them from her death in 2010, make me feel like I’ve just lost her. But in other ways, the milestones that I’ve experienced without my mother bring a new richness, too—just because my mother is gone doesn’t mean that a joyous milestone must be tragic.
Before my mother died, her terminal illness made me think about future milestones that would come without her. I remember the day my mother and I were driving back from a chemo appointment and talking about my boyfriend at the time. I knew I wanted to marry him, but marriage was far off for us. My mother started crying. She would never hear a man ask for my hand in marriage, and she would never walk me down the aisle. I took hold of her hand as I pulled the car into our garage and was silent. Any words of comfort felt false at the time. So we sat in silence together, acknowledging the pain of it. And then we let it go. Because we both knew that my mother wouldn’t be there for one of the most important days of my life, and there was nothing either of us could do about it.
My mother wasn’t around last year when I planned my wedding. I remember standing in a bridal salon looking at myself in the mirror and aching for my mother’s opinion on a wedding dress. She wasn’t at my bridal shower, she didn’t walk me down the aisle, and she didn’t give a toast at the reception.
After I got married, I heard that a family friend had referred to my wedding as “heartbreaking” because my mother wasn’t there. My knee-jerk reaction was to chastise her. I wanted to tell her that though my mother’s death was heartbreaking, there was nothing heartbreaking about my wedding. In fact, on May 19, 2012, there wasn’t a single drop of sadness as I held back tears of pure joy and married my husband. I celebrated our marriage, my new loving in-laws, and my utter elation at winning the brother and sister-in-law lottery.
Not once on my wedding day did I mourn for my mother—not because I didn’t miss her, but because my loss does not define my gains.
When the trauma of my mother’s impending death hit me, I felt like my world was collapsing. I had trouble breathing, unable to imagine my life (or any hopeful, rosy version of it) without her. I believed that this cataclysmic loss would forever define my life; I couldn’t see another way. But then my life continued, without my mother. I began to learn what it felt like to have experiences without her, and I began to understand that my achievements are not solely defined by my loss, just as I am not solely defined by it.
And in a very real way, I’ve been able to feel my mother’s presence at my milestones. At my wedding, I felt her through her family and friends who watched me walked down the aisle and marry my husband. Seeing the delight on their faces was just a small window into what might have been, the overflowing joy that would have radiated from my mother, watching me on my wedding day.