As we pull away from my makeshift viewing, my dad announces we’ll be stopping briefly at the liquor store on our way home. A steady stream of friends and neighbors will surely be filing through the house in the coming days offering condolences, casseroles, and awkward conversation. Liquor will help. Liquor will be required. That tonight is New Year’s Eve has escaped us.
“Do you want to come in or stay out here?” my dad asks me. Staying out here in the frozen front seat of his truck, wallowing in the suffocating permanence of her absence, feels overwhelming. Going inside seems like the only choice if I want to keep breathing.
We trudge together through the dirty, snow-packed parking lot amidst rows of idling trucks and SUVs, engines running to keep the heat flowing. Billows of exhaust mix with the frozen breath of would-be revelers preparing for the pre-packaged promise of the night’s festivities.
I walk into the stark liquor store from the dark void of a jet-black Alaskan winter, the rhythmic jangling of overused holiday bells slamming against the glass door as it opens and shuts, opens and shuts. Cold to my bones, exposed and hollowed out by the relentless stinging of fluorescent lights, I feel the chill of so many strangers moving with frantic purpose toward the beer or tequila—but with no regard for me, the fully grown-up girl with the newly dead mother.
The viewing of her casket, if you can call it that, only twenty minutes before, had been arranged just for me. We all knew my mom wanted to be cremated. But because I was the only one of the five adult siblings who hadn’t made it home in time, my dad asked the funeral home to set up an after-hours viewing for one. It was to be my own private farewell.
Every other member of my family and most of her close friends, even some second-string acquaintances, had been with her at the very end. I envisioned them huddled over her, holding her hand while it still had life coursing through it. I imagined them whispering their goodbyes, their secrets, even their regrets. But I can’t say for certain. I was on a plane.
I had missed it, the chance for one last hug, one last crawling into her bed, underneath her covers absorbing her slowly fading sparkle. I had missed holding her pensive face in my hands, or perhaps mine in hers, reassuring each other that everything would be okay. I had missed seeing the corners of her mouth turn up slightly upon the rambunctious arrival of my twin toddlers. I was a wobbly new mother not at all done being mothered.
Despite almost a decade of outsmarting the cancer, my mom’s death had been any-day-now-imminent for the last arduous five months, locking my siblings and me into a constant state of high alert from our faraway homes and making it nearly impossible to orchestrate the perfect goodbye. Her cancer had been an unwanted intruder in our family’s plans for the duration of our 20s. We all recognized its rhythm and reluctantly learned to keep time with its unpleasant cadence. It came as no surprise that cancer would also worm its way into one of the hardest decisions I would soon be making as a new mother.
I wasn’t beside my mom when she died because I was 1500 miles away in Seattle doing the uncontainable work of being a mother myself—desperately trying to be in two places at once, failing to show up as my full self in either. My twin boys were 18 months old, the exact worst age for anything related to solemnity, reverence, or grief.
After a brutal touch-and-go pregnancy, my babies had come into the world eight weeks prematurely—yet precisely—on my mom’s birthday. Gemini twins, born on the summer solstice, in the year 2000, on the exact day of my terminally ill mother’s birth. I still theorize that this timing must be some sort of astrological marvel, but I’ve never found the energy or courage to actually confirm. Probably because the first year-and-a-half of my boys’ life nearly broke all of us. They were hospitalized for weeks. They never soothed easily. Their first steps came concerningly late, then quickly morphed into an all-out sprint. Their decibel level was set to an ear-piercing shriek, whether in a show of delight or righteous rage. Sleep was a mythical creature we each had a vague, passing acquaintance with. My husband and I eventually figured out a tenuous system to make it sort of work at home, but all bets were off if we dared to venture out.
Jumping on an airplane in December 2001, only four months after 9/11, was not something we just did. We had flown with the babies two times before, but never without each other and well before the world barricaded itself off from the ease and kindness of strangers with its newly erected blockades guarded by newly empowered officers in blue uniforms who herded us into long, anxious lines and made us empty our secrets and our pockets. Everything now was suspect. Everything now was a threat. Everything now took longer and more from us.
Trapped in the middle of my grungy hometown liquor store, I obscure myself among the low-brow spirits and tattered cardboard cut-outs hoping I look as invisible as I feel. I can’t be bothered to summon the right synapses to focus on anything. I am standing here solely in an effort not to have to stand anywhere else.
Amidst this deafening discordance, I hear the familiar chords of acoustic guitar from overhead. I can’t quite place it. Is it “Dust in the Wind?” Or maybe Neil Young? Enter the unmistakable bass line and the commanding interjection of a single drumbeat. I involuntarily match my voice to the familiar falsetto, and I’m snapped to attention by the screechy guitar. I know this song as well as I know anything. I spent Friday nights of my youth lip-synching it into a hairbrush on my best friend’s bed.
The song, “Wheel in the Sky,” along with the entire album in which it is encased—for that matter, the entire discography of the ‘70s arena rock band Journey—played on loop in the background of my adolescence. Growing up in the Last Frontier in the ‘80s, you became accustomed to never being on the front edge of anything. Fashion, fresh produce, and music all made their way into the Alaskan zeitgeist by way of the slow barge. Classic rock was all the rage, never mind it was all there was. This was the soundtrack of home.
As I stepped into the dank room at the funeral parlor—the one clearly reserved for free, ad hoc viewings such as this— it was obvious my mother wasn’t properly prepared. Of course, nor was I. Sure, they had made her look peaceful in what was probably a loaner casket, with her always-dry hands folded neatly in her lap. Never one to notice the stubborn cracked edges of her otherwise elegant fingers, my mom was too busy putting them to use—pulling splinters out of squirming feet, churning out five different lunches for five picky eaters, guiding her paintbrush through the unwieldiness of watercolors, or setting an extra place at the table for the inevitable stray who appeared at our door.
But as I leaned over her now, everything felt wrong. Her little crop of hair lay flat and uncombed. She desperately needed a spot of lipstick. Her outfit felt too casual for the occasion, clearly a thrown-together ensemble someone had hastily grabbed from her closet. I should have been here. I would have known how to art-direct this scene. I would have known how to give her everything she was worthy of but never required. But then again, if I had been here, none of this pomp would have been necessary.
Several weeks earlier, I had somehow managed to fly up to Alaska for a quick solo trip to see her. But I knew when the end finally came, when my sweet mama actually moved from here to gone, I would need my husband and boys up there with me. I also knew if we arrived too early—or she hung on for even more unexpected weeks—our unbridled exuberance would quickly overwhelm the careful equilibrium she deserved (and one that my childless siblings had spent months crafting). My mother didn’t ask for much, but by the end she had had enough of hospitals and pleaded for her final moments to be at home. The glass coffee tables and immaculate white couches of my childhood ‘look-don’t-touch’ living room had been pushed into the corner and replaced with IV poles, bedpans, and a rented hospital bed. I—more than anyone —knew that adding two toddlers to this delicate pas de deux with death would be as subtle as scratching a record needle across pristine, unblemished vinyl.
I can definitely make this work, I told myself from Seattle. I would time my arrival, with my little family in tow, about 24 hours before she died. I was certain it could be done because, at that point, I was still convinced that if I just focused harder, planned better, anticipated every possible contingency, I could indeed bend the outcomes of my life. Despite a growing flood of evidence piling up in my wake, I still refused to believe that sometimes, for no reason at all, things just flew off the rails—no matter how tight my grip on the wheel.
While waiting for my dad to choose between the Tanqueray and the Beefeater as puddles of dripping snow form around my soggy sneakers, I burrow myself deeper into my heavy down coat in a meager attempt to avoid an unwanted run-in with some drunken former classmate from high school. My lips are mindlessly mouthing the words to a 30-year-old song I know so intimately but haven’t heard in over a decade when I realize I have no idea what the lyrics mean or what the point of the song even is.
I’ve never before needed them to mean anything.
Has he always said words like these? Winter. Trying to make it home. Hoping it’s not too late. Hoping she’s still there. Or is this version just for me? Here I am claiming to know something so well, so deeply, and then on closer inspection, I don’t recognize it at all.
Do we start paying attention to the details only once we have no choice? Once the inescapable anvil of heartache barrels down and flattens out the distractions? I can’t tell if this is grief— or just adulthood. I want to push rewind back to the unknowing.
“I’m so sorry, mom,” I muttered, crouching close enough over her blank, ashen face for my words to float down onto her stillness, but not close enough for this moment to be real. I bit down hard on my bottom lip trying to ward off an unrecognizable blackness rising in my chest. Her lack of response caught me strangely off guard, ushering in a new lonesomeness that would hang off my bones for years.
“How did I miss you, mom? Miss tucking you in and saying goodbye?”
For as far back as I could see, the women of my family took care of each other. They took care of everything. They organized, they spit-shined, and they labored to create the scenes that would house the idyllic memories. “Oh, it was no trouble at all,” was often the refrain from the front room, but just past the swinging door, into the kitchen, was where the real action was, where I increasingly wanted to be. Where the sweat and the mess and the truth and the laughs simmered along with the sisterhood.
As the eldest daughter, I knew it was almost genetically predetermined that I would, of course, be on hand to manage the Big Life moment of my mother’s death, along with the inevitable onslaught of Big Emotions, Big Decisions, and even Bigger Logistics. People were counting on me. I was counting on me—or at least some previous iteration of me, the pre-child version that I had perfected in my head. The unflappable one who could order the flowers, line up the caterer, and sit patiently with other grieving adults, playing gracious hostess to their misplaced discomfort. The one who was not chronically exhausted and hiding her irritability behind high-pitched half-smiles. The one who would never allow herself to feel, let alone admit to, a growing resentment toward her own children for pulling her out of the scenes of her life. Especially at a time when the world was telling her to be grateful, to hold them even closer.
I didn’t dare wonder if my mom ever felt this way about me, whether the daily demands of my mere existence prevented her from feeling the fullness and rawness of her own self. My gut told me this unsavoriness might be something we women just keep to ourselves, keep under the lid.
It would take me many more years to realize that—in reality—there would have been no room for me to crawl in among the wires and tubes and lifelessness of her rented hospital bed. In reality, the morphine had so fully eclipsed her gentle visage that there could be no hope for recognition, connection, or joy. None of that mattered though. The roots of regret were firmly planted. I would soon become a maestro at tilling and twisting those four short hours into an eternal landscape of remorse.
To be clear, this gnawing did not germinate from some unresolved rot in our relationship. I’ve always known I was one of the lucky ones, one of the few with that kind of mother, the kind that doesn’t make for good essays. A woman who genuinely saw me, relished all my contradictory parts, stayed curious about me as I meandered and stumbled and evolved and dug in. She was incapable of reducing me—or anyone—to past mistakes or missed opportunities. No, this facet of my sorrow stemmed from a simpler place—the almost primal need to bestow on this woman the attentive care that she had always poured over me.
My mom had been the person who had uprooted her life, transferring her cancer treatments to Seattle and temporarily making a home on my lumpy couch so she could be there when our fragile babies finally arrived home after their extended NICU stay. My mom had been the person who pushed her own pain and nausea to the side as she swaddled all four of us, nourishing us with food and wisdom and her reassuring presence. My mom had been the person who weakly climbed my stairs in the middle of the night, her bald head tucked into her hated chemo cap, to warn us that our new babies’ endless screaming was not normal.
“Something’s just not right with them,” she whispered gently over their wails, her skinny arms outstretched and ready to embrace an inconsolable baby. “This is a different kind of crying, you guys. I think they are in real pain.”
Not surprisingly, she was right. Her midnight insight would mark the beginning of several health investigations in my children’s early lives. She knew. She always knew when someone was in a deeper, more hidden struggle than they could express themselves.
Having emerged from a childhood where her worth was measured in productivity and precision and where every parental love gift was wrapped in the ragged paper of criticism, my mom managed to cultivate a capacity for empathy that predated even the earliest parenting book on the subject. In turn, the brokenhearted and latch-keyed from every cranny of our neighborhood clung to her like a magnet. Mother Hen to Generation X, she could always spot that someone, particularly a child, in need of extra attention or protection from pain, as evidenced by the more than 500 attendees at her funeral, including a well-worn trail of wounded childhood birds, loved and mended by my mother.
Years later, I would see that my mom’s readiness to take on other people’s suffering came at a cost. Eventually these individual threads of transferred anguish would tangle themselves into a solid knot of worry that became impossible to excise. Her selflessness sat front and center, shoulder-to-shoulder with her anxiousness, sometimes stealing focus— often even erasing—her actual self. In the early days of my own motherhood, however, I didn’t notice. I was more than happy to pass her a crying baby. Many times, I was the crying baby. I needed my mom to be at the top of those stairs.
Now that she’s gone, who would be there to help me when the next hard thing comes? Who would forewarn me when my kids were in pain or in danger or even in love? How would I see any of it without my mom showing me where to look?
When we reach the final chorus, my lips stop moving. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. I can’t find the rhythm or the words. The once-familiar now itchy and disorienting. I can’t stop shivering. I can’t shake the memory of the emptiness of her cold forehead against my lips.
If I have to be here—in this town, in this liquor store, in this moment—I need things to be as they were. I am aching for the missing piece that made everything fit. The piece that made this cold, faraway place feel like home. Without it, it’s just a place. Without her, I am forever a motherless mother, alone and adrift, white-knuckling it behind the wheel.
Originally from Alaska, Mary Dittrich Orth is an emerging writer living in Seattle. Throughout her life, she has worked with other people and organizations, helping tell their stories. She has recently begun exploring her own.
© 2022, Mary Dittrich Orth