HAVING A CHILD
RAISED THE GHOST
OF MY MOTHER
a short story
by Vanessa Green
A week before Halloween 25 years ago, I walked into my mother’s hospital room bursting with excitement.
I couldn’t wait for her to see my old lady costume.
My best friend and I had spent weeks trawling second-hand shops for the perfect get up. I’d picked up some buckled shoes, a long, collared dress, and a weathered cardigan. I’d even managed to snag some sweet Sally Jessy Raphael glasses. And we’d topped it all off with grey spray-painted wigs.
I marched proudly into her room all but proclaiming ‘ta-dah’!
“Who is this?” my mother said.
At first, I had assumed my costume was so convincing she couldn’t recognize me. Then I realized she actually didn’t know who I was.
“It’s OK sweetheart,” my aunt said to me. “Your mom’s on a lot of medication right now and it’s making her a bit confused.”
Moments later she snapped out of it, clapped her hands together and marveled at this most excellent geriatric child before her.
But I was shaken. How could she not know who I was? Even for a second?
I knew my mother was sick. Terminally ill. I knew it was only a matter of months.
Once, a teacher at school had asked me how she was doing.
“She’s dying,” I said.
The teacher was taken aback. I had felt bad for making her uncomfortable, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with this truth. Keep it to myself? Say she was fine even though she wasn’t? It was too much for my 10-year-old mind to comprehend.
“Jenny’s going to be an old lady too.” I said to my mom, testing her to see if she remembered who my best friend was.
“Oh, that’s nice dear,” my mom said. She was half-conscious, eyes fluttering in and out of sleep. She seemed almost permanently attached to her hospital bed. This was not her first rodeo. She’d had cancer before, in her breasts, and after a double mastectomy everyone had hoped that was it.
But hope is a gamble that can set you up for pain and disappointment.
A few months earlier my parents had sat us kids down – me and my two brothers – and explained that this time the sickness was different. There were no more treatments available. Maybe some experimental procedures in Mexico, but we should prepare for the worst.
I didn’t really understand what this meant. What happened after sickness if you couldn’t get better? Where would my mom go? What happened to us? Surely it wouldn’t be just me and three boys living in our house.
That wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair.
For so many years, I thought about myself in the hospital room that day. How oblivious a child could be to their own reality. How happy they could feel in the face of impending pain and anguish. Completely engrossed in something as trivial as a Halloween costume. I thought about little me – how I wish I could have given my younger self a warm embrace, tell her everything would be OK. That she would be alright.
Last year, I gave birth to my son. And now, I look back on that moment through the eyes of my mother. Despite her highly medicated state, I think about how painful it must have been to watch your little girl play pretend as an old woman, knowing you would never even see her as a young woman. Or a teenager, or a high school graduate, or a wife, or a mother. You wouldn’t be there through all her highs and lows. You would never hold your grandchildren.
Having a child after losing a parent is one of life’s more bittersweet experiences, where the miracle of life feels joyous but also opens old wounds, reviving the cycle of grief all over again.
Now I think of big me, traversing the absolute chaotic waters of motherhood without a lifeboat. I have no mother to ask about mothering me – what was I like as a baby? What did you do when I was gassy? Screaming? Waking in the night? Going on a nursing strike?
How does any mother do this without her own mother’s love and guidance?
With support I’ve made it through the first year, but during every hurdle, every breakdown, every heartbreaking moment I think of her and wish, selfishly, she could be here for me.
I don’t really remember much about that Halloween. Jenny and I probably paraded our costumes around school by day and filled a pillowcase with candy by night. I don’t have any pictures of us and I’m not even sure where we went trick or treating.
Two weeks later, my mother died.
Over the past 25 years, I’ve thought about her constantly, but never more than since becoming a parent. Knowing what I know now, I can’t imagine what she went through – saying goodbye to her husband and three children – to her entire world – at 47.
As I’ve moved through the stages of grief – past denial and anger and bargaining – I’m just left with an unending sadness (I never quite reached that nirvana of ‘acceptance’).
And I realize now that I am sad for all versions of both of us, young and old, living, and dead.
And though she’s been gone from the corporeal world for almost three decades, I know her ghost has always been with me, guiding me to where I am, helping me to get to where I need to be.
But having a child has in some ways helped her live on. He has her auburn hair, her blue eyes. And I hope he grows up to be as tenacious and spirited as his grandmother. The hole in your heart left by grief is never filled, but when a motherless child gives birth, it certainly becomes a little bit smaller.
Vanessa Green is the owner of Greenlight Content, a content marketing consultancy located in Hamilton, Ontario. She graduated from the University of King’s College with a combined honours degree in journalism and history. She has worked as an editor and a content marketer for brands like Bell, Rogers, HubSpot, Yahoo and British Airways. She has taken several writing classes at Ryerson University and with noted Canadian book editor and creative writing instructor, Brian Henry. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario with her husband, son, and mini-goldendoodle.