Thursday, August 6, 2020

Some Thoughts on the 20th Anniversary of my Mom's Death

My daily recommended dose of Dairy Queen

My mom died 20 years ago today. It simultaneously feels like it happened yesterday and a lifetime ago.


She died while Bill Clinton was President, before 9/11, before everyone had a cell phone, before smart phones, before social media.


(My sister and I briefly shared a cell phone when our mom was sick to keep in touch with her while we were out, but I didn’t get my own cell phone until 2005. I didn’t have a smart phone until 2012. Social media as it is today was mostly unimaginable 20 years ago, although I think I got a LiveJournal around 2001.)


She died before I started grad school for the first time, before I got married, before a lot of my college students today were born, long before my nephew (her grandson) was born.


(When she died I was 23 and only a little over a year out of undergrad myself, starting my first attempt at a career as a staff member in college libraries. I had delayed starting my MA program to stay home and take care of my mom. I wish she had gotten to meet my nephew. Sometimes I wonder if I should have had children of my own. Lately I think about the fact that when she died she was only eight years older than I am now.).


Last night I was remembering the nurses who called my sister and me to come and visit late at night. “You should come now,” they said. And they were right, as nurses so often are. It was the last time we saw her alive. She was barely conscious when we got there around 11pm. She was unable to speak, but I remember seeing her blue eyes flash up to look at us as we left, a mother regarding her children for the last time. 


It’s hard to know what she was capable of thinking by that point. Her cancer had caused a rapid and devastating decline in the preceding days. But I’d like to imagine that somewhere in there she was feeling love and pride.


The next morning around 10 or 11am on Aug. 6 another nurse (or maybe the same one, I can’t remember) called to tell us our mom had died. I’m sure I thanked those nurses at the time, but I’m feeling especially thankful toward nurses for that and for everything they’re doing in this pandemic (another thing that feels like it has lasted a lifetime, but in just a few months).


After 20 years the pain of grieving is not as sharp as it first was, but it’s there. I don’t think about my mom every day anymore, but I still think about her at least once a week, sometimes more. Her birthdays and the anniversaries of her death have been part of my life since 2001.


I have a lot of course prep work to do right now, but it’s hard to see how I could have the emotional bandwidth today to do much doom-prepping for fall classes during a pandemic. I might have to take it easy while I can, realizing my immense privilege in being able to take time off.


I will be helping a friend hand out free lunches to poor and homeless people this afternoon. My mom was too busy trying to survive and raise two kids as a single mom to do much charity herself (she did what she could and before I was born started in social work before before moving to business). But I think she’d love that I’m in a position to do this myself. 


The pandemic has deepened what I’ve felt for a long time, but I’ve also grown increasingly critical of a society in which such charity is necessary, and one in which my mom struggled for decades just to get by and raise her kids is some semblance of the trappings of lower middle class suburban life. 


We were never “poor.” We always had enough to eat (maybe too much in that American paradox in which poorer people are often heavier than richer ones). At a few points we probably would have qualified for food stamps, but my mom was too proud for that, having spent most of her career as a lower-tier white collar worker, most definitely underpaid and underappreciated as a woman. At one point she took a second job at a convenience store, where she once saw a kid from my childhood hockey team shoplift but didn’t get paid enough to care about it. Even as a child I never equated hard work with economic success. The American Dream was something for Hollywood movies and the Republicans my mom detested.


It was only after I grew up and met more people who had grown up solidly middle class in families who lived in houses they owned for decades with savings and vacations on airplanes and “cabins at the lake up north,” that I came to understand my upbringing as something like “scraping the bottom of lower middle class.” It took me a long time to realize that things like grad school and international travel were things that “someone like me” could possibly do (with plenty of debt, of course, most of which I carry to this day). We most definitely could have had it a lot worse, by not being white for one thing, by not living in the relatively prosperous upper Midwest for another. But I don’t see how the fact that many people struggle even more is supposed to make me feel better about living in a wealthy country that can’t share the wealth, an uneasiness only sharpened during this pandemic.


My mom died with no savings, no life insurance, and mountains of medical debt. My sister and I got calls for her from collection agencies for years after she died. They would ask for Linda, and I’d usually say, “Nobody by that name lives here,” which was entirely true, if traumatizing. The cruelty of American society in a single phone call.


But as difficult as these experiences have been, I’ll try to think about my mom today, the person who did more to make me who I am than anyone else. Her humor, her love of reading, her emphasis on the importance of education, her determination, her basic decency, her love of food and Dairy Queen…. Because of all that and, indeed, because of my mom’s struggles, I had a pretty good childhood. And as a young adult I came to develop the sort of friendship with my mom that well-adjusted adult children can have with their parents. As I wrote in the eulogy I read at her funeral, “The debts a child owes a parent can never be repaid.”


My usual custom is to commemorate this anniversary and her birthday with a trip to Dairy Queen or enjoyment of some other ice cream treat. Throughout her life, but especially when she was sick toward the end, my mom always wanted her “recommended daily dose of Dairy Queen.”


I’ll have to go through the drive through with the pandemic and all, but this tradition will continue today.


Thanks, Mom. I miss you. I love you.


  1. I'm sorry for your loss. My family went through similar tough times but we had a lot of support from my grandparents after my parents divorced. My mom worked 7 days a week for years. It's tough to claw your way into some sort of financial stability.

  2. *hugs* I had a blizzard today and didn't even realize what day it was. Thinking of you today

    1. Every day is a good day for Dairy Queen! Thank you for the digital hugs and the comment.

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you for reading. I hope you're as okay as can be.

  4. What beautiful memories of your mother. Your loving tribute brought her back to life. Thank you for sharing.