The last time I saw my mother alive she was drunk. So drunk, in fact, that when I pulled the car over to where she waiting on the sidewalk for me to pick her up she didn’t react, just kept swaying gently back and forth with her eyes closed. My anger, quick and eager to rise by then, clouded my vision. I let the car idle next to her for a minute while I blinked and tried to assess how bad it was.

I could see she had tried, but her expensive cashmere sweater was buttoned one button off all the way down, and her hair–cropped and dyed golden blonde to hide the grey–was perfectly styled in the front but unkempt and matted in the back as if she had been sleeping on it for days. One set of her false eyelashes had started to fall away and dangled precariously above her overly-rouged cheekbone.

“Mom,” I spat,  with enough force to blow her eyes open. She blinked slow, squinted, and tried to focus, climbing into my car with exaggerated care and looking for a second quite a bit older than her 62 years. I hated myself for the hard lump of contempt in my throat, hated who I became around her, hated the ugliness that sat tangible in between us there in the car.

How does that happen? 

When I was a little girl I adored my mother. It seemed easy to love her then, maybe because of the optimism of childhood, or maybe because she didn’t drink that much yet, or not that we saw, anyway.  In restaurants she would order a glass of white wine and leave it mostly untouched, looking past it the same way she looked past the temptation of the perfect desserts in the glass case. Or maybe it was because everyone else loved her too, the mailmen and the handymen and each one of her four husbands, sure, but also anyone lucky enough to be in the same place at the same time with her. She would smile at you and it was like you had been given a gift that you would then spend the rest of your life chasing after. Like heroin.

I don’t know when any of that shifted, really, and whether it was a gradual descent into the depth of the hole we ended up in or if it had happened all at once. What I do know is the first time I saw her drunk–years later, when I was a mother myself–I was stunned silent, staring at her open mouthed with my head cocked to one side while I tried to figure out what was different, like walking into a room in your house where all of the furniture had been rearranged and you don’t know anymore where to step without bumping into something and getting hurt.

For years after that first time I kept trying arrogantly to fix it, staging catastrophic interventions and pouring out liquor bottles, sucking up promises of recovery like an overeager child. There wasn’t contempt in me then, not at first anyway, just sadness and pain and a growing sense of helplessness. But a decade of disappointments and lies went by and I went mostly numb with it all, slowly distancing myself from the first relationship I ever had with the most tentative of baby steps, always looking over my shoulder in hopes that she would be following. She never was.

So I dismantled my past. One by one, I took the pictures of us smiling and happy together down from my walls. I threw out the greeting cards sent on birthdays, then the Christmas gifts and mementos and eventually, anything that reminded me of my childhood at all. Like vodka down the sink I poured my mother out of my heart, thinking in doing so I was protecting myself from her.

And I did a good job. When my sister called me to tell me she’d died, my hands flew instinctively to my mouth to stop a rush of grief that wasn’t there. “Mom’s gone,” she said, and I sat and waited to feel something. Nothing came. It was like that through the funeral and the weeks that followed too, an emptiness that sat in my chest where the heartbreak should have been. I wondered if I had insulated myself so much against the pain that I would never find my way to grief again. And further, was my ability to do so an achievement or an abomination?

Then one evening at dinner my daughter tilted her head just so and smiled at me and I was struck with the force of memory. “Your grandmother always did that,” I said without thinking, realizing it was the first time I had mentioned her name with ease in a decade. Other small stirrings of memory started to bubble around inside of me like carbonation, things I had shoved down now occasionally rising to the surface and popping. All at once I would see us around a dinner table, laughing, or her hand on my back after a nightmare. Her cheering for me while I raced around the track in high school, or shopping together for my ball gown senior year. I would hear a song in the car and remember us singing together on our way to summer vacation. I’d smell her shampoo on a crowded elevator and be ten again, climbing into her bed, resting my head in the warm space she’d made on her pillow.

What was happening to me, I wondered, nursing the ache in my heart that was familiar in the way that any muscle will ache when you try to use it for the first time after years of atrophy. Was it possible to fall in love with someone who wasn’t even here to love anymore? It seemed ridiculous, really, until I remembered how much I had loved Jim Morrison and Janice Joplin when I was in high school, both long dead before I was even born. And neither of them had ever brushed the tangles out of my hair or the tears from my eyes the way she had, before.

Still, I proceeded with caution, opening to her the way I would ease myself into a cold lake: one inch of soft flesh at a time, protective, ready to recoil and run at the slightest provocation.  But of course, none came. The worst had already happened, which meant there were no more disappoints to protect myself from. Emboldened, I disappeared into the attic for hours, searching through a decade of castoffs until I found it: the picture of her in a small frame that I wasn’t even sure I had anymore. I carried it downstairs pointed away from me like a small child carrying scissors and put it on a shelf in the back corner of a dark room where I was sure to rarely see it. A few days later I moved it more into the light, and again a few days after that, until it sat on the dresser next to my bed and was the first thing I saw in the morning when the sun came through the blinds to wake me up and I would remember, my breath catching in my throat where the lump of contempt no longer sat. There was something else there now in its place. Grief? Maybe. Maybe love. I’d started to see how the two are really just different flavors of the same thing.

So now, safe,  I willed myself to remember. I reveled in it. I stared at myself for hours in my bathroom mirror. Did I have her eyes? Her smile? Her hands? I remembered her laugh, how it used to tumble forth at the most inopportune moments and everyone else couldn’t help but laugh too, even when they were the punch line. I cooked her dinner recipes and put on her diamonds and smelled the remnants of her perfume on the clothes she had handed down to me years before and eventually, in a relief that felt like exhaling a breath I had been holding for a decade, I cried the sea of tears I had held inside for ten years.

Today I don’t remember her at all like she was that last day, swaying and sad and sick. I remember her the way she looks in that picture from the attic that now sits next to my bed: her head tilted up towards the camera or the sun or the person taking the picture, which probably wasn’t me but could have been. If I squint my eyes just right and let the sepia-toned edges blur, she is my daughter. A little more, and she is me. Like the picture itself, it took her dying for me to find her again, but I have. She is right here. In us.

Want a regular dose of inspiration? Subscribe here, or join Liz on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

10 thoughts to “It’s Never Too Late to Fall Back in Love

  • Jodie Utter

    Liz, good on you, so good, for facing that fear and laying siege to it with your words. When you heal and then you tell us about it, we all heal. What a gift you just gave us. How lucky we are. You know, I think hindsight is either a terrible trickster or a kind and benevolent friend, let’s go with the latter in your case. The thing about hindsight is that we’re always older, changed, wiser, softer, more pliable and packing more life experience when we use it. Sometimes hindsight does us more good than sight. I love the love story you just told. Yes, of course it was filled with some heartache and grief, hopelessness and anger, the best ones always are, but it ended with hope and heart and a glimmer of joy. The VERY best ones always do. I am looking at YOUR photo, in the upper left corner of the screen, as I type this. And I’m looking you right in the eye, as I tell you, Liz, you are strong, you are love, you are the best.

    Reply
  • The Mom at Law

    Liz, thanks for sharing your story. Your writing is always so vivid and beautiful! I’m sure this will give hope to others who may have experienced something similar with their parent or loved one. It’s so wonderful that your daughter is a reminder of something that was comforting about your mom!

    Reply
  • Gabby

    Liz this is beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing. Thank you for your vulnerability.
    I lost my dad to alcohol and narcotics. I love what you said about being able to remember good things about her. I do that with my dad too, most of the time. I have a sweet picture of him being his silly self that sits on a shelf above my bed. Thank you again for sharing

    Reply
  • Joan

    Wonderful writing, thank you.

    Reply
  • Shelby Spear

    Liz,
    Every line of this pushed me into a stillness, your words painting each scene with profound clarity–and drawing me into your heart at the same time. God do you have a gift, girl. Then this: “There was something else there now in its place. Grief? Maybe. Maybe love. I’d started to see how the two are really just different flavors of the same thing.” Beautiful. I once heard that grief is the raw pain of having love to give for someone who is no longer able to receive it. A plug with no outlet. Yet, here you are sharing the possibility of “falling in love again” despite being apart. Finding space to still ‘give the love’ and also feel like ‘it’s being received’, perhaps in your own reflection and your daughter’s. Honestly, the whole idea leaves me breathless. You are a special one. You are changing the world, friend.

    Reply
  • Heather

    This is beautiful. I’m so sorry for what happened to your mom. We have a close family member struggling with alcohol and are at a loss to know how to help. It is so special that you are able to let all of that go and remember your mom and see her in your daughter now.

    Reply
  • Valli

    Those pearls. Are they the ones you wore at the bus spot that day with your child?

    Thank you for sharing your heart with us. Those of us that have experienced grief are there, right with you, even if our stories are different. We see you.

    I am happy you were able to fall in love again!

    Reply
  • yvette putter

    I’ve been a follower of your writing for about a year now, and you’ve always really touched me as a reader and as a fellow writer. Your storytelling is so honest and heartfelt. I appreciate it every time I see it.

    Reply
  • Anne | Like the morning sun

    It must have been so hard to have had to deal with this. And it’s so beautiful you can remember her in love. You write beautifully. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  • Vickie

    I had an experience similar to yours, although my mother wasn’t there through my teen years, I waited each night for her to come home from the bar, worried for that time she wouldn’t make it and I believe that brought choices I may have made differently. Throughout my adult years as i would speak with therapists and I would say, her death will only bring me relief. Prior to her death though I realized she did the best she could, truly. But I kept my distance from her. When she died, it was not relief I felt, rather regret. At the time of her passing, my life was changing— my daughter off to college and I was moving to Europe. Her funeral was the same day as my daughter’s graduation and I stayed with my daughter for her events. I’m working through the regrets, my mind is full of the good memories of her and I have several pictures of her including one at my office. I see her in my youngest daughter and my handwriting mimics hers. I can see that and smile. There are days my heart aches and the tears that i think should have been there when she passed, trickle down. My inner little girl misses her mom.

    Reply

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *