What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.
Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three.
Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.
– “Eleven,” by Sandra Cisneros
Today is the 20th anniversary of my mom’s death from cancer when I was 10 years old. I was planning to write about something else — I have a whole list of things waiting to be written, words I didn’t have time for during the chaos of summertime with three rambunctious boys at home, posts that have been waiting for me to get back in the routine of setting aside blog-writing time; but this is what’s coming out today, instead: 20 years without my mom.
There have been a lot of round numbers this summer, some very straightforward math: my 30th birthday; my 10th wedding anniversary; the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks; and now this one, 20 years without my mom. This anniversary means that she’s been missing from my life twice as long as she was in it. Such stark, startling numbers.
Underneath the 30-year-old is the 27-year-old with three little boys; the 24-year-old leaving the workforce to move to a different city and stay home with her kids; the 19-year-old straightening her wedding veil; the 15-year-old awash in dramatic feelings about boys; the 12-year-old navigating puberty and an ill-advised haircut; and the 10-year-old whose heartache is raw and unabating, feeling utterly cast adrift: all stacked inside like matryoshka dolls. Grieving for my mom means grieving for the pain of the thousand girls underneath; acknowledging every stage of mourning and of the mourner: grief stacked on top of grief, layer upon layer.
And self-care, a requirement anytime but vital today, means nurturing the 30-year-old and the 10-year-old both. This may be the first of these anniversaries that I’ve truly felt worth getting the care I need, the first I’ve felt it permissible to nurture myself, to love myself openly in my grief, unashamed: letting my needs stand on their own, undepreciated by flaws of body or of self, but worth acknowledging, worth meeting. To uncritically embrace the 10-year-old and the 20-year-old and the 30-year-old, to welcome both the grieving and the nurturing.
And I grieve with hope, as the 30-year-old and the 10-year-old: with belief in an eternity, of a someday reunion, so essential to my Christian self — with faith that this is part of a larger story arc, not just random tragic happenstance. Faith doesn’t minimize the grief, but it reshapes it, changes its meaning. Faith means whispering to the 10-year-old little girl, “This is awful, truly, and worth mourning for; but it is not forever, dear heart.”
And tomorrow I will have been missing my mother for 20 years plus one day, and all of the other days will still be inside me, will still be me, just as all of the days of my 10 years with my mother will be part of me, too. And the next day and the next and the next, I will be daughter and wife and mother, girl and woman, mourning and hoping.