I spent my 40th birthday on the floor of my dead mother's closet. It's not where I expected to be, and I certainly had other places I should have been. There were work deadlines looming over my head, additional planning to be done for my upcoming birthday party and several friends had offered to take me out to lunch. The day should have been as busy as every day had been for the last 10 years since my mother died. I liked them that way. A busy day for me always translated into a good day. I told a close friend of my mother's shortly after her death that keeping busy would help me get through the pain. The friend's worried look flashed before my eyes as I sat in the closet.
The smell of mothballs and fine leather brought me back to my childhood, when I sat in her closet, a giant room to me at the time, and watched my mother get ready for wherever she was going -- off to teach at her school, out to dinner with my father or to an extended family party. She liked to keep busy too, especially while fighting her cancer for so many years. Keeping busy made her feel healthy, even though, towards the end, I could see the tumors popping out of her on the back of her neck while I watched her try on her clothes.
My father's loafers and sneakers now rested on her shoe shelves, but they didn't look quite at home there. For one thing, his shoes were too big for the shelves once built for my mother's narrow ones, and they were nowhere near as colorful or interesting as hers were. She had a pair of lace-up brown suede boots with tiny red, blue and yellow flowers embroidered up above the ankle. I always wished my grown-up feet were as small as hers so I could have worn those boots and so many others.
I wondered how many pairs of boots would line those shelves now if only she had lived. She died before Uggs made their way into mainstream footwear fashion. I couldn't imagine what she would have done with Uggs and so many more recent brands and trends -- like skinny jeans, tunics and indoor scarves.
I was reminded of other things that she would never know of, things and people that all of us in the land of the living know about like iPhones and Facebook and Barack Obama. Not to mention my children and my adult life. How did I get to be 40 without her? She was diagnosed with the cancer at age 50. Back then, I thought she had seen a lot. I was so wrong.
Back then, I thought I was going through the motions appropriately. I went with her to many of her treatments at the hospital, held her hand when she was under hospice care at home and couldn't speak and then gave the eulogy at her funeral just like she wanted me to. Everyone was so impressed.
"She'd be so proud," they told me. "You really have it all together."
Then what was I doing on her closet floor that day weeping out loud and yelling at my father's sport jackets, which had taken over the space where her colorful cashmere sweater sets once hung? These emotions felt foreign to me. I was so angry. Angry that she got sick so young and left me to replace her. Rationally speaking, I knew she didn't want to get sick and die, but that didn't change the fact that she did.
And like the good daughter that she raised me to be, I coped appropriately. I did everything she would have wanted me to do. I made sure we had enough food at the reception after her funeral. I wrote the thank-you notes for the charitable contributions made in her memory. I helped to clean out the very same closet that I sat in that day.
I actually ended up giving away so many of her colorful and beautiful clothes to other people. I did keep a few special items like the purple pashmina that she loved to wrap herself up in after a return home from a treatment, and the navy blue ribbed turtleneck that somehow never pilled all these years later and still smelled like her -- a combination of Jean Nate powder and Nexxus hair spray. Most of her clothes were too small for me, and I didn't want to walk around dressed up as her. Yet, even disguised as me in my own funkier, modern and not quite as cute clothes, people expected me to be her.
I had become my father's personal shopper, cooked way too many dinners for him and sat in as the second set of ears on more doctors' appointments then I cared to remember. Everyone else just assumed I'd host all of the holidays and, out of guilt or not wanting to break traditions, I did. I tried as hard as I could to be the glue that held our extended family together, with my mother not there to help me out or, at the very least, say thank you.
In the years since my mother died, I watched my friends rely on their own mothers to help care for their young children, seek advice and tell them every once in a while that they were doing a good job. I don't think anyone ever told me that. I knew my mother would have, but where the hell was she?
This overwhelming anger never came to me in the reality of the daytime like it did then on the closet floor. I only felt it during recurring and disturbing dreams like the one where I can't get a hold of my mother. She's locked up in some kind of foreign prison and everyone else can speak to her except me. I scream her name, but she can't hear me, and no one will tell me the exact location of the prison as I search frantically through books and books of phone numbers hoping to find hers. I don't need a psychologist to translate for me. There is some part of me that feels abandoned and cheated too.
Only once did we have a discussion about the inevitability of her dying and leaving me. It was on that very same closet floor. For all the years that she was sick, she thought she could beat the cancer. It's not so much that she was in denial, but she was very focused on keeping a positive attitude, hoping that her upbeat sprit could help along with the experimental medication injected into her liver to kill off the cancer cells.
We sat in the closet one day just a few weeks before she died as I helped her put away some of the new spring clothing we had just bought for her. New clothes meant new hope for the future -- at least to her. She was never one to share her clothes with me (yes, she was smaller than me, but even so, she was particular about taking care of her clothes and rarely lent them out to anyone -- even her own daughter.) There were many fights on that closet floor because of this. One in particular was the night before I left for college years ago, when I begged to take that treasured forest green oversized V-neck sweater with me. I left for school the next day with warm wishes and too many hugs to count from my mother, but no sweater.
On that day however, when she was too weak to even carry a shopping bag into the closet, she told me to take some of the flowy skirts she knew I loved.
"Have them let out for the length and they'll look cute on you."
"Mom, no -- I have plenty of skirts of my own," I said, not wanting to think about why she was started to clean out her own closet. It was too soon.
"You are too young to go through this," she told me and I knew what she meant through the sadness in her yellowing eyes. I didn't know what to do. Admitting that she was right would be giving into the disease and the very real possibility that she was leaving me. So, I hugged her tired little body and threw the skirts in shopping bags strewn across the closet floor.
Maybe I should have said more that day then and not done so much for the rest of my family after she died. Maybe then the anger wouldn't have festered so much and for so long. Before I could figure that one out, I heard a bang and turned to see the lid on the linen chest in the closet slam shut. It must have been the wind from the side door in the bedroom that I had left open.
Whatever it was, the noise jolted me and brought me back to my reality -- my 40th birthday. I had a busy life to get back to. It was time to step out of the closet.
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