I think I had an idea for a blog post in mind this morning — I was going to write about my daughter’s upcoming travels, the semester-plus that she’s spent with us, and the bittersweet sense I have of sending her off (yet again!) into the world not fully prepared, but nonetheless ready. But right around noon I learned of a sudden death — the mother of someone Nick has been in school with since kindergarten — and whatever idea I might have had was immediately gone. While this mother and I didn’t know each other well, we’d been in each other’s houses, years ago, when the kids were small and still had play dates and birthday parties. We’d seen each other at PTA events over the years. It was that kind of relationship.
Since she had a daughter and I had a son, we’d drifted apart once the kids were out of elementary school. Gender divides become more rigid in middle and high school, and her daughter pursued dance while Nick did tae kwon do. Still, we waved to each other across crowded rooms, or chatted when we were in the same vicinity. Knowing that she died suddenly on July 4 stunned me. My heart is broken for her daughter, a girl just entering her teens, just starting to find her way — that she has to do this without her mother is beyond my imagining.
Or not quite, of course, as the human mind has an immense capacity for imagination—it’s that I don’t want to imagine her future, to imagine her life over the next few days and weeks and months as she learns to navigate in a world without her mother. I imagine my own children having to do so and I stop, appalled.
Some years ago I decided that I couldn’t die, that I was too indispensable to my family. I wrote a somewhat lighthearted column about my anxieties, focusing on the quotidian details of life: paying bills, buying groceries, that sort of thing. But the quotidian details, one way or another, get taken care of when someone dies. They can be a greater or lesser burden on the survivors, of course, but they are not the story. The story is a new developmental arc, a new way of being in the world.
As usual, I reach to literature to try to understand what I’m feeling. In fact, the novels I write about frequently—more often than not, really—feature a protagonist whose mother has died or is somehow unavailable. In children’s literature this allows for greater independence on the part of the protagonist, of course—in real life, it forces it.
And there it is, my heartbreak: that this girl will have to grow up so quickly now, have to learn so many things on her own. Her remaining family will help, of course, as will friends, counselors, teachers, perhaps even books. But the suddenness of the loss, the unexpectedness, still feels to me like a kick in the gut. For the daughter, I wish for almost exactly what I hope for my own daughter on her travels, but what is even more crucial and poignant in the face of this loss: deep tenderness from her family, friends and others to care for her in many and unexpected ways, a path into independence that acknowledges the years her mother was able to give her. And I grieve that they were so short.