This time of the year is a triple-decker melange of sadness and regrets for me. Within the short space of a month, I mark my mother’s birthday, Mother’s Day and then the anniversary of my mother’s death. No one wants to perpetually remind everyone else of the internal grief that swirls around the loss of someone so loved, so I try to keep my public discussion of it to a minimum or at the very least find some silver linings or humour in it all.
But this week is different, because this week marks 10 years since I was woken by a phone call from my father to tell me my mother had begun her long journey to Orion. A long-time fan of the movie Blade Runner, my mother had often talked about an afterlife spent on the shoulder of that constellation, watching the starships burn. When it became clear the cancer discovered on a scan months before would continue its devastating spread throughout her body, this pilgrimage to Orion became less a romantic fantasy and more a necessary comfort.
And so it came to pass, just as she did. She was gone, and she would be so forevermore. It is not loss that we feel when we have our mothers taken from us. As David Ferguson recently wrote for The Guardian, the reality is far more violent than that. It is an un-mothering that “feels raw and fundamental, a pain that reaches all the way down to your ligaments and bones”.
Before we are born, we swirl in the cocoon of that space in our mothers’ wombs. As Ferguson so eloquently puts it, they are “our first firmament, literally, our first homes, the universe from whose substance we were formed”.
My relationship with my mother was typical of many. As a child, I adored her. As a teenager, I hated how inescapable she was. And as a young adult, I began the process of finally understanding her. She became interesting to me not as my mother, but as the woman for whom motherhood was only a fraction of the part. If it’s true that I was formed from the substance of her universe, I was at last looking beyond to the multiverse this small part of her lived within. How cruel that fate saw fit to take her from me just as she started shifting into focus.
But I have been thinking about the oddities of biology and those strange scientific things that can connect mothers and daughters in particular to each other. One of the previously unknown things I picked up while growing a child of my own was the developmental milestones of humans-in-utero. At week 16 a fetus is roughly the size of an avocado. At week 26 it starts to practise breathing motions so it can survive outside later. (This is also around the time its mother might start feeling it hiccup.) By week 30 typical formation will see the establishment of all five senses.
One of the things that amazed me was learning that, by about week 20, forming ovaries already have all the eggs they’ll ever possess. What this means is that mothers carrying female babies (I’m sorry, I’m trying to make this language as inclusive as possible while recognising its flawed basis for trans and gender-diverse people) carry, for a portion of their pregnancy, not only their own reproductive capability but also that of the potential next generation.
This has a lot of personal resonance for me, and I remind myself of it this week when the violence of that un-mothering seems so pronounced. One of the saddest things about losing my mother was knowing she wouldn’t be there to see any children I’d have or be with me throughout the process. She would have been a fantastic Grammy – a much better and more capable one in fact than she was able to be a mother, complicated and fascinating and full of unfulfilled potential as she was.
One of my dear aunts on my father’s side emailed my siblings and me a few days ago to offer her love for this anniversary. We have grown much closer in both geography and emotional connection since my mother died, and she is always on hand for a wry, affectionate comment about the family politics both she and my mother married into. In her letter, she wrote: “We feel pain about things that matter. And the fact that it matters means that there is hope.”
For those of us lucky enough to have known the real and true love of our mothers, we understand that it can feel as enormous as a universe and its dazzling display of constellations. But it can also feel as delicate, private and unique as the tiniest of beginnings; a biological suitcase filled with everything we’ll ever need to take us everywhere we’ll ever go, even if that ends up being a one-way trip to the stars.
Thirty-six years ago, when I was still waiting to tumble out of my mother and learn what it feels like to cling to someone so fiercely, when I only knew the warm and safe world inside of her, when she was the beginning and the end of my everything, she was also holding within her half of the information needed to make the little person sitting on my lap now. For the briefest of times, my mother held my son close to her. She would never live long enough to see him in all his beautiful, chubby joy, but he nestled at some point in her universe, in the beginning, when it all began.
This is the pain that tells us our love matters. These are the connections that trace us back, back, back. And though 10 years may pass, then a hundred, though everyone we’ve ever known and loved will return to dust, maybe what it also means is that no one can ever be truly gone.