My mother was always present in my life, literally and figuratively. She was like a floating head—every time my sister and I turned around, there she was. She was in all of our business; snooping through our rooms and finding things she didn’t want to find—but that’s a story for another day. She was room mother, a volunteer in our school, and chauffeur to us and all of the other neighborhood kids. She chaperoned field trips and fed the softball team after games. She was everywhere we were.
It was this need to be present in all facets of our lives that made my decision to study abroad in England for my junior year in college so painful for my mother. At the time, being a naive and self-absorbed 20-year-old, I never considered how hard my time abroad was going to be for her. I was scared for me. This was my big journey. I never saw it from her eyes, from her heart.
This was a woman who had been there for every single event throughout my entire 20 years of existence, and I was leaving—going to another continent.
She would not move me into my dorm room, as she had when I began my freshman year. She would not help me unpack and neatly fold my clothes into my new dresser. She would not take me shopping to fill my kitchen with easy-to-prepare meals.
I of course knew that my mother would miss me. And worry about me—who would care for me when I was sick? Would I be safe? Would I be scared? But prior to becoming a mother myself, I couldn’t fathom the impact this journey of mine would have on her as she had to learn to endure the hole in her heart of having her daughter live a life without her for the first time.
There could be only one way to soothe this ache: she would need to come to England and see my life there. I know now that she needed to feel her body in the place where I was living; where I was sleeping, eating, laughing, learning, and experiencing. She needed to see my life with her own eyes and touch it with her own hands.
My parents booked a trip to visit me that March. By then I’d been gone 5 months – 4 1/2 months longer than I had ever gone without seeing her. I could hear it in her voice on the phone, as the date neared—she could barely eat, or sit, or speak in coherent sentences due to her anticipation. Neither she nor my father had never been out of the country and they were flying to England to visit their baby girl. I remember the excitement in her voice as we discussed our plans.
What I did not hear, as she hid it so well, was pain and fear. You see, what my mother so unselfishly hid from me while I was off experiencing life abroad, was that her own mother was dying. My grandmother—the matriarch who had raised her daughter to be my unselfish, hard-working mom—was dying.
At a time in my mother’s life when she was facing one of her greatest fears—letting her child go and be in a place where she was not, she was also saying goodbye to her own mom. While I was missing mine, her mother was slipping away.
My mother had to make a choice. Due to their circumstances, this was the only time my parents could visit. But my grandmother could possibly die while they were gone. The doctors did not know if she would make it until my mother’s return. Her decline was happening very quickly, as death often does not follow the rules of a predictable timeline.
Now that I am a mother, I can imagine this struggle, this tug-of-war that was pulling her into opposite directions. She wanted to be there with her own mother, holding her hand, comforting her, in her final days. But she desperately needed to see her daughter.
In the end, she and my father did come to England. I’ll never forget the image of her tearing around the corner at the train station. In my 20 years, I’d never seen the woman run, and she was in a full-on sprint, trying to get to me. She had left my father in the dust with the luggage, back at platform 9. Having me that close—she couldn’t wait any longer.
When she finally told me the truth of my grandmother’s health, I asked her why she came. “I had to see it,” she said.”I’d never be able to live with myself if I didn’t see your life over here.” And she did. She brought her presence, her eyes, her hands, to my life in England, so that for the rest of her life, she would be a part of it.
We spent a couple of days together in England, and then my parents and I rushed home to say goodbye. My mother was able to hold her own mother’s hand, in her final days. She was able to have a presence there too, in another place where she so desperately needed to be.