59: Lillian’s Daughter

59: Lillian’s Daughter

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: For Mom, with Love

Lillian’s Daughter

The past is never dead, it is not even past.

~William Faulkner

Some months after my mother died, I was at the fish counter of her local supermarket, the place where she had always bought tiny amounts of fish for herself with the greatest concentration and intensity. The counterman had become something of a friend.

“So how’s Mom doing? I haven’t seen her in a while,” he asked as he handed over my salmon and tilapia.

And there I stood, hand outstretched for my package, speechless. Despite how calm and collected I’d felt that afternoon, I dissolved into tears. “She died in December,” I said, and bolted.

It was another of those post-loss ambushes that seemed to come in a steady, pummeling stream for those who are new at grieving. I could have — should have — expanded on my answer. Explained more gently. But that explaining was somehow just too daunting on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon when I had let down my guard.

I have had so many of those moments. And so, I’m sure, has anyone who’s ever grieved for a loved one.

For me, the worst moments would come as dusk settled, the time when I would invariably be on the kitchen phone calling Mom on hers. Our conversations were so insignificant, so non-cosmic. They were about what each of us was making for dinner, about the weather, about the kids, the grandkids, and in her case the great-grandkids.

Nobody could have prepared me for the excruciating pain I felt in those early days when I reached for the phone… remembered… and stopped.

I would have given anything to hear my mother’s voice, her laugh, even her grumbling about this or that. It was the “never again” part that was so overwhelming.

I spent days, weeks and probably months reviewing my sins of omission and commission in my relationship with Mom. I lamented the times I didn’t visit her, take her grocery shopping, spend a Sunday afternoon keeping her company in her apartment when the weather, or her infirmities, made it impossible for a lady in her late nineties to go out.

The most overwhelming thing about loss is that there’s no going back. No replaying the tape. It is what it is.

So when grief was still raw and new, there was that hollow feeling of guilt, especially in early morning or in the dark of night, and when I talked about it to my husband or my daughters, they assured me that I had been a good daughter, that I had done enough. How I wish I could have believed them.

But guilt is the handmaiden of death. Just ask anyone who’s done that inevitable litany of “I should haves.”

I adored my mother. But like most mothers and daughters, we had our differences and occasionally, our epic battles — many more when we were both younger and more volatile. We were very much alike, and that made our connection deeper — and more fragile.

The months — and now three years — have passed. I am no longer nearly as lost and sad as I was just after her graveside funeral, and through the Jewish custom of “sitting Shiva,” receiving friends and family for that first week as we remembered and grieved together.

That earliest mourning left me dazed, drained and yes, relieved that Mom’s struggle was over. Her last weeks were difficult, and in dark dreams, they return to me. My daughters tell me that they’ve had those dreams, too. Bedside vigils linger in the marrow, maybe forever.

One of the early hurdles was the final closing of Mom’s apartment in a Philadelphia high-rise, the apartment that still carried her sweet smell in its walls. Going there for the inevitable cleanout was beyond painful. Just opening the door to that world, with the familiar furniture in place, the familiar pictures on the wall, the books, the amiable clutter, turned into a grotesque parody without my little blond mother there to greet us.

I still wince when somebody I haven’t had contact with for these last years asks how Mom is doing.

I still sob when I hear certain music that reminds me of her, or when I come upon a note in her familiar handwriting. Those are the “gotcha” moments.

Grief, I am learning, is no neat process. And there are sometimes no words for the feelings.

But I count it as a blessing that I have absorbed this loss, and that the transition finally came when I realized that I am still Lillian’s daughter, even though she is not here. I am still part of her, just as she is part of me — and always will be.

Sorrow is a wild and primitive place, and there are no neat schedules as to when it releases its grip.

It is a long and difficult journey, one that each of us must take alone.

But with it comes growth, wisdom, learning, healing and yes, that phase the experts call “acceptance.”

Yes, I am still Lillian’s daughter.

And so enormously proud to be.

~Sally Schwartz Friedman

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