Absence

I see my mother everywhere. I’ve seen her on a San Francisco-bound plane. I’ve seen her in a cab on a Parisian street. The last time I saw her, she was driving a Fiat Punto through Darmstadt, averting her face, her eyes so as to hide from me.

The first time I saw her, I was on a plane, returning from my first trip to Europe. It had been five years since I saw her last. I noticed her hair had grown back after all the chemo treatments. I was amazed that after years of wearing wigs, she had her hair back and she had permed it. If I had lost my hair and it had grown back, I’d swear off bad perms forever. But maybe it was just familiar and comfortable.

Her head was turned towards the window and the sunlight reflected in the auburn curls. I knew it was my mother because she wouldn’t turn her head. She was afraid I’d see her and her cover would be blown.

I imagined she had had enough of the kids and the house payments. She had had her fill of teenage daughters and young ones. She decided one night as she lay alone in the familiar hospital bed, that she would escape. She’d fly to Paris and live the life she always wanted as an artist, free of kids and husbands, parents and siblings. She would be free to live the life she was meant to live. So she did.

Throughout that flight to San Francisco, I was sure it was my mother. She had a window seat one row in front of me. I analyzed every detail available. The tilt of her wrist as she handed her wine glass to the attendant for a refill, the choice of wine, the rings on her fingers, her fingernails, the tapestry bag she kept her book in. I walked the aisle hoping for a glimpse of that preternaturally familiar face. I followed her off the plane and through customs before she finally turned. She was not my mother. She didn’t have a crooked smile or down-turned green eyes.

I had a dream the other night where I met her with the warmth and awkwardness of meeting an old friend who had become a stranger through the passage of time. We exchanged greetings and I told her I was newly married. She said it sounded like a good life. I asked her where she was living. She said she wasn’t really living anywhere at the moment. The child I would forever be in relation to my mother offered to move back to Oakland and we could live together, she and I. An old pattern I repeated in my dream. Overzealous, knowing that the greater my need, the less responsive she’d be, but unable to stop myself. My heart fell, as it had a thousand times before, when she shook her head. ‘I’m staying with the boys for now, but I appreciate the offer.’ She said with her crooked smile.

I woke up wondering why my mother had not given me a forwarding address or phone number when she left. I had the feeling that I had long ago been abandoned and was really okay with it. I had hope that maybe I could still find her. It was a full minute before I remembered my mother was dead.

My mother was as all mothers are; Mysterious in their wisdom, in their lives prior to our memories, in their humanness. My mother was the first religion I believed in. She was so unreachable and omnipotent and omniscient. She is just as unreachable in death. And yet even in death, our relationship continues to twist and turn. Truth turns to lies and lies to truth as time and the lives of those who loved her move forward. My mother remains just as complicated and her motivations just as inscrutable. She is ever present and yet it’s her absence that I feel the most. Isn’t that how believers feel about God?

I got married at almost two years ago. It was bittersweet. I adore my husband and am happy to be married now, but the whole wedding process and cyclic change from single girl to married woman is difficult for me. I keep looking for my mom to show me the way. I didn’t want a large wedding because my mother would not be coming and it would have felt hollow without her. I wanted a simple ceremony that would mark my marriage and leave room for a more extravagant event later, when she’d attend. I have never missed her more than I did the hours before I said “I do”. As I bathed in the tub I had dirtied as a teenager, I expected to hear her tell me to remove the hair from the drain. But she didn’t.

The next time I saw her, I was driving with my husband through Paris. We were lost. I looked over and saw her hand playing with her hair, the same bad perm, in a taxi as we stopped at a light. Her head was bent and her face was hidden in the shadows, but I’m pretty sure it was my mom. She wouldn’t have recognized me. She wouldn’t have expected me to be there, not having heard about my wedding and subsequent trip. My mouth was open to say something, anything to either stop the taxi or have my husband follow it until she got out. I imagined a great reunion, after she got over the shock of seeing me. She’d be happy for me of course, but would decline dinner and sadly smile as she wished me well and walked back into her new life. The taxi shot forward and my car turned left, leaving my mother lost in Paris.

I wonder if as I get older, the pain of my mother’s absence will fade, if I will ever stop seeing her in airports or taxis. I wonder if I will want to stop seeing her in these places. Its better to think of her alone with her artwork, seeing the world, children abandoned than alone in bed, afraid death will come and afraid it won’t. Maybe these sightings of mine is her way of keeping in contact and letting me know that no matter where I am, a mother never really abandons her child, that in that absence, she is still here.

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4 thoughts on “Absence

  1. Read this the other night, and came back and read it again today. Very moving, and beautifully written.

    I don’t know much about, well, about anything really. But maybe if you’re open to seeing your mom here and there, well then, maybe you’ll continue to see her…

    Started reading your blog a week or so ago, and I’ve really been enjoying it!

  2. Thanks SB. That means a lot to me. I haven’t seen her in a while, but think I probably will again.

  3. This is written so beautifully. Reading this made me cry, Jen. On a few occasions when I’ve wandered about, I think my eyes deceive me when I see the back of my dad’s head. Happened many years ago while at BART. The crowd swelled as I was getting off the train and lost site of him. Once I was driving at night and saw his face in my rear view mirror as if he were sitting in the back seat. I literally had to turn around while driving to make sure he wasn’t there.

  4. jj:
    Funny how hope never goes away. How fast it jumps into your throat and belly even though you know its impossible.
    I think it is just their way of letting us know they’re still watching out for us somehow.

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