My mom died two years ago this month, a week after Mother’s Day. I am grateful whenever someone—usually a close friend, usually someone who has also experienced a life-changing loss—will say something like, Tell me a story about her. It’s a gracious, open-ended invitation, letting me know that whether I talk for one minute or 30, whether I share too much or just the rough outline of a recollection, they earnestly want to hear it. Sometimes, though, I find that I don’t know how to talk about her. Most of the people in my life didn’t know her well, and I often feel as though I’d need to explain so much before they could even begin to imagine her or understand who she was. I worry that I am about to burden someone with a long story for which they have no point of reference. I worry that I won’t do her justice.
If I have sometimes struggled to talk about her, for a long time after she died, I found it even harder to write about her. It would be wrong to say that I avoided it because I didn’t want to be reminded of my grief—I felt it with every breath I took; there was no need for reminders. Still, to write about a person you miss, to make them come alive on the page, requires a deep, active form of remembering. You cannot shy away from recalling their features, the timbre of their voice, their movements and gestures, the way they expressed love and anger and sorrow and self-doubt. You have to remember how they were, what they said to you, in their worst moments and their best. You cannot look away in order to protect yourself.
When my father died suddenly in January 2018, I was wrapping up revisions on a memoir about my adoption and my search for my birth family. I remember asking my editor if she thought my dad’s death should be part of the book—I didn’t feel ready to write about it yet, but was it dishonest, somehow, to leave it out? In the end, we couldn’t see a way to include it, as the publication timeline was moving too quickly. After the book came out and I went on the road to talk about it, I shifted from a state of private grief, at home, to a public-facing existence that required me to field questions about my family every day. Most readers did not know that my father was dead. Only several weeks into my tour did I realize that I kept referencing my parents, plural, in the present tense, as though he were still living—Yes, my parents have read my book. Yes, they’ve been very supportive. Perhaps I did this because I was not yet used to him being gone. But I think it was also because, in the book I had written, he was alive, and this was oddly comforting in a way I would not have expected.