My Mother Was Everything.

A life is never just one thing. It’s everything. My mother was everything.

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This is gonna be a rambler, folks. It’s her birthday, and I’m feeling it.

I am, in so many ways, my mother. Her compulsive gift-giving, her love of gardening, her call to adventure, her love of craft (regardless of outcome), her zeal for new flavors and new territories are all bits and pieces of her that I collected over time. They are the fragments of herself she imbued within me, ceaselessly — and in some ways wrecklessly. I am her tenacity and stubborn spirit. I am her all-in, head-over-heels heart. And of her many traits, I am also her deep-seated anxiety, and through that lens, I always knew my mom would die.

When I was in kindergarten, she asked me what it was like to know she’d leave me sooner. She was 42 when I was born. It worried her. Some afternoons, she would drive me through our neighborhood to say goodbye, so we could say we had if any accident parted us. We would be prepared in some small way. Years later, I would ask my sister and father how many times she had driven with them around the block to say a final goodbye. For me, it was likely hundreds. For them, never. She loved ferociously. She groomed me to say goodbye.

I knew she would die when she was diagnosed with melanoma deep in her back stemming from one tiny mole. I was 17, and I also knew she wouldn’t die yet. While I was taking messages from oncology nurses, they wouldn’t tell me anything was wrong. Her time was not spent; not before she retired, not before she and my dad a few more good years. Not before they made a new life and found peace together after decades of teaching, and building a house, and raising me and my sister would she let go. Her closest friend called her, “a dog with a bone.” She was sunk in, unchanging.

I finally knew she would die when I hugged her one last time. Her plump, pear figure was gaunt. The hands that hauled rocks miles up river banks and train tracks simply weren’t. I hugged her so I could leave, and so could she. Seven years after that initial diagnosis, the melanoma came back. It invaded her body. She fought until she couldn’t, and it was time to go. And I was left oddly calm — prepared and alone.

My mother was inimitable and triumphant and frustrating and impenetrable. Her worries usurped mine. I was adopted, diabetic, later bulimic, depressed. I became her ever-growing worry stone. She taught me to fight; she taught me I was fragile. She wanted to save and to heal me, and everything around her, so much that she repelled. Her love was so large it was suffocating. It lifted me up; it smothered me.

She met my father when she was 14. She met him at a volleyball game, and saved a the ticket, which reads, in the tightly-looped handwriting so much like her mother’s and my sister’s, “Fell in love with J.M.C. today!” She was timid and kind. She sewed herself and my dad matching pajamas and costumes for high school events that don’t exist anymore. She combed and sprayed her hair into something tall, wavy, and immobile, always topped by a gardenia, a flower that has meant love for generations of my family. She still beams in faded photos, dressed in blue satin with her white-gloved hands holding my dads’. He looks taken aback; her eyes sparkle.

In the ten years following high school, my parents lost each other and found themselves in new countries, new people, and never wholly out of love. My mom called my dad her true north, and years later, they mutually realigned. They were, in so many ways, inseparable opposites.

They made a family, after years of frustration and sorrow from fertility issues. They literally built a home, living in a tent in the shell of our home in the redwoods with my infant sister. My mom created our stained glass windows and soldered the plumbing. She stained the ceiling beams. And for years, my parents fought. They fought for each other. They fought their past. My mom was a pushover; my mom was a thunderstorm. She was ruthless and tender.

My mom and I were complicated. She taught me to be brave, to stand my ground. She also taught me I was weak, I needed saving. For years, I was her confidante, until I realized she couldn’t reciprocate my listening, my patience. She poured into a lifetime of doubt. Our relationship broke apart.

I traveled. I saw. I met. I followed in her wandering footsteps bygoing nowhere she’d ever go. In the end, my mom looked at Greg, my still-new-but-definitely-lifelong partner, and said, “ I didn’t always understand Jen, but I always loved her.”

And I always loved her. I am her.

A life is never just one thing. It’s everything. My mother was everything.

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When Jen isn't flinging herself at the horizon, she's trying to treat body well and to suffer fools with just a little more patience and bigots with much less.

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