If you ran into me on the street, you’d see a gray-haired, middle-aged man in jeans and tennis shoes. You might guess that I was a father or a husband. You might think I was an architect or the owner of a foreign car. You probably wouldn’t think of me as a son.
Yet, in many ways, that was my defining role for 49 years, until my mother died last April.
I mention this because I have learned in this year of grieving that most people calibrate their sympathy to your age. People seem to assume that the further you get from looking like a son, the less painful it must be for you to lose a parent. I suppose there’s some truth to that, but no matter how old you are there’s a powerful sadness to being no one’s child. It took me by surprise.
I miss my mom every day. She visits my dreams, nagging me. I ache to tell her what each of my five kids is doing. To show her the house my wife and I just bought. To let her know whom I ran into at the store. My longing surprises me because I, too, feel like I’m old enough to be immune from needing my mother. But I have learned that we are still children, walking around inside these aging bodies.
Some days I feel like everyone is wearing costumes. I’m dressed up as a 50-year-old advertising creative director. The guy down the street, as a 65-year-old physician. Another friend is masquerading as a grandmother. Yet none of us is how we appear to the outside world. We carry our childish vulnerabilities, our secrets and hopes hidden like wallets: precious and necessary baggage for our travels.
Only our mothers, who know us better than we know ourselves, can see through our disguises. My mother never saw the middle-aged man I have become. I existed to her in a permanent state of youth and promise. And now, with her gone, the costume I’m wearing feels more real.
My mother’s parenting was a bare-knuckled kind of partisanship. Her kids could do no wrong. When my wife and I were involved in an ugly lawsuit several years ago, my mother never wavered in her support of us, even when it was inconvenient for her. She was willing to risk several long-standing relationships. I will never forget that feeling of having my mom on my side. It was as powerful a sense of safety as when, decades earlier, she chased monsters from my dreams.
My mother was a remarkable woman by any measure. Accomplished in business. Admired by a huge circle of friends. Recognized for her charitable work. Adored by her children and grandchildren. Oh, the stories I could tell. But this story is about me, about a middle-aged child, motherless and slightly off-balance.
These days, I am haunted by the feeling that I forgot something. I find myself touching my wallet or checking for my phone. On my way home from work, I turn around and drive back to retrieve my power cord, only to find I took it with me in the first place. I wake up in the middle of the night certain that I have lost all my tax documents, but there they are in the file cabinet where I left them.
You don’t need a psychology degree to figure out that I have in fact lost something — my mother. But on this Mother’s Day, I realize that I am also grieving for the loss of my mother’s son, that golden boy so full of youth and promise.
Author: Jim Sollisch is a writer in Cleveland.