Lately, I’ve been wanting to call my mom.
I graduated from college in May, and even though I’ve known that I want to be a reporter since I was in grade school, getting started is not easy. So I’m fumbling my way through early adulthood, trying to figure out what exactly feels right for me.
Our 20s are a notoriously uncertain time — one in which we are encouraged to explore different jobs, travel, do away with old friends and make new ones, save money, and cultivate a rough draft of our adult identities, all at once. Particularly during the pandemic, 20-somethings have had to grapple with a lot of instability as we launch our careers amid political unrest and bleak employment statistics. The ongoing societal change has made me crave stability more than ever, in my relationships and in work.
My mom knew, though, that I wouldn’t be able to call her when I was 22. She was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer when I was 3 and died when I was 9. But she anticipated some of the questions that I might have, and resolved to handwrite me a book with some of the things she wished she had known during her short time on Earth.
“My Dearest Isabella,” it begins. “This letter is very difficult to write because there is no explanation for why your Mimi got cancer when you were only three, or why it was detected so late, or why I had to die before you even finished grade school.”
That is usually about as far as I get. Just the sight of my mother’s handwriting is too real of a reminder of her. It brings her to life for a moment, and then reality sets in and rips her away. Still, I’m desperately craving a more adult connection with my mom, and this journal is the most significant piece of her that I have left.
The desire for an adult relationship with one’s mother later in life is natural, according to grief education expert Hope Edelman, and it happens to a lot of motherless daughters. Edelman is the author of several books, including “Motherless Daughters,” a memoir that describes the death of her mother and what it means to lose a mom.
“Our 20s are typically a time when we still have one foot in adolescence and one foot in adulthood and a bridge between the two is often one that we expect to walk with a functional parent as an adviser and as a support and as a cheerleader,” Edelman said. “And when that’s missing, we can feel the absence very painfully.”
Although reading the book my mother wrote brings me pain, especially when I have a question about a line in it that I wish my mom could answer, it serves as a relic of what she thought the most important things for me to know about growing up were.
“I tried to write this book, but I found it frustrating,” my mother wrote. “Part of it was that I don’t have all of the wisdom that I wish I could pass on to you. Another part of it is that good writing requires editing, and I don’t have the patience to try to edit writing that is supposed to convey the true essence of me.”
The beginning of adulthood is hard. Suddenly the pressure to know exactly what I’m doing feels urgent. But through reading the book she left me, I realized that my mom, even when she was dying, still didn’t know all the answers. The real challenge for me lies less in not knowing what exactly I want for my life and more in my inability to ask my mom the questions I have. Now, I am starting to get some of those answers.
According to Edelman, searching for these answers is natural. “Most important, I think, is that the early to mid-20s developmentally is usually a time when a daughter starts developing a more woman to woman relationship with her mother, and they become not friends but more like peers,” she told me. “If you don’t have a mom, or you’ve lost your mom earlier and you’re watching your friends go through this, it can create a reactivated type of grief where you are mourning the loss of someone in a new and different way.”
Both of my parents fought to give me a normal childhood, particularly my mom. She walked me to school every day, even when she could barely stand up; she threw me themed birthday party sleepovers every year and let me pick out streamers and decorations at Party City; she hung up a Nerf hoop on my bedroom door when I said I wanted to become a basketball player. Still, the reality of my mother’s illness was inescapable. By the time I was in fourth grade, she was bedridden and incontinent, bald and bony, under hospice care in my parents’ bedroom. I knew only a very sick version of her.
Although I’ve always cherished the six years post-diagnosis I had with my mom, I could not understand the extent of her convictions and her personality, other than that she loved me. Through this book, I’m getting to know a new version of her, and develop that adult relationship even if she isn’t here with me. It also helps me know I am on the right track.
“Mimi wasted a lot of time worrying about bad things that might happen, and of course they usually didn’t,” she wrote. “I also spent a lot of time thinking that riches or esteem from others would make me happy. Ultimately, I came to realize that being true to myself is the ultimate contentment. For me, that was becoming a professor. For you, I would love to see what is right for you; maybe something you’ve tried before or maybe something you’ve not yet experienced. Leave yourself open to this idea, but do not rush it. It will come when the time is right.”
Over the past year, I’ve received a lot of advice from former professors, mentors, family members. They all say some version of the same thing: I’m lucky that I know what I want to do, and my 20s are a time to experiment and figure out exactly what that looks like. None of it has felt satisfactory, though, because how do I know if these people are right?
Many wise people could provide the advice my mom articulates in her writing. What matters, though, is that these thoughts come directly from her. I haven’t figured out what I want my adult life to look like, but that gives me the courage and confidence to keep trying.
“I think that the key to happiness is to appreciate the blessings that you do have, however large or small they might be,” my mom wrote. “I reveled in the joy that you brought to dad and me; I valued the love and loyalty and humor of dad every day (even when he drove me crazy with his cleaning). I took pride in my position as a law professor, and my teaching and writing. My life was shorter than I would have hoped, but it was so full of love and joy and satisfaction that there was not much room for sadness about being ill.”