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What I'm Still Learning From My Mom, 20 Years After Losing Her

05/27/2015 10:18 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016

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"Do you still miss your mother?"

The question caught me off guard. My friend and I had ventured out to the park with our children to enjoy a rare sunny February day in Portland. It was one of those deceptively clear days, one of those days that gets you excited for spring, before realizing the sun is still too far away to give off much warmth. We stood huddled together as we watched our children run around the park. I wrapped my arms tighter around my 11-month-old, cozy in the Ergo, trying to capture some of his warmth.

Do I still miss my mother? I paused, longer than seemed appropriate.

My mom died of brain cancer when I was in high school, 20 years ago now. And for many years, I missed her vividly. I missed the smell of cold air on her long wool coat when she came home from work. I missed the sound of her pouring a glass of bourbon over ice. I missed seeing her crossword puzzles, done in felt tip pen, covered with splotches where she had fallen asleep mid-answer. I missed the sound of her voice. Later, I missed remembering what her voice sounded like. I missed her.

With time, the rawness of her loss faded. Although her absence was felt, I no longer felt in danger of falling into the hole her absence created. I could see the edges of it. I learned not to get too close.

Do I still miss my mother? Because I lost her so young, I find that I don't miss her as much because of the experiences we shared or the conversations we had. I miss her for those we didn't.

When I got pregnant with my first child, my mother's absence loomed larger. There were so many questions I wanted to ask her. Did she get morning sickness? Did she worry like I did about the little life growing inside her she couldn't see? What was labor like for her?

After my son was born, I wondered what she felt as a new mother experiencing the exhilaration and monotony of motherhood. I wondered what advice she would have given me. I wondered if I would have called her for reassurance with milk streaming down my chest and tears streaming down my face. I wondered what she would have said when I told her my son's first word -- cat -- the same as mine.

Although I felt lost at times that first year, I didn't feel as lost as I thought I would. I am fortunate that my father married a wonderful woman after my mother died, and I know that if I need expert mothering advice I can turn to her. But I also know that although my mother isn't here to guide me physically through motherhood, she has equipped me with the skills I use every day as a parent.

She taught me the importance of humor and to be generous with laughter. She taught me about forgiveness and acceptance. She taught me how to live with grace and grit even when everything falls apart. She taught me that life is short, way too short, and that I cannot let a day go by without telling my children how much I love them and why.

She also taught me about selflessness: I think about how sad she must have been to leave us so young, knowing that she would never get to see her grandchildren or experience motherhood with me. And yet she hid that sadness, protecting me and my brother even as cancer left her defenseless.

Do I still miss my mother? I felt fresh sadness as I thought about this question. Sad for her that she never got to meet my children or my brother's son, so alive and warm and full of personality. So uniquely human. But I also felt solid in the knowledge that she was and is a part of me, and part of my children too.

I looked at my daughter, all of two years old, climbing out onto a branch, dangerously close to tipping into the pond. She thought better of it and got onto her knees, shuffling back to the safety of shore. She came running over to me in that high-knees, toddler way of running that seems to take longer than walking would. She gave my legs a quick nuzzle, taking comfort in my presence, and then shot off for another adventure.

"Yes." I finally said.

This piece originally appeared on runknitlove. Follow runknitlove on Facebook and Twitter.

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