My cousin’s e-mail subject heading caught my attention immediately. “Some pics of your mom.” I opened the e-mail, skipped the message, then clicked on the digital attachments eagerly, one by one. The first two pictures were familiar to me. They both show my mother, a vibrant bride, gowned in antique lace on her wedding day. She was 19 years old, and so much, that I know of, still lay before her.
The third picture was new to me. 34 years after her death, I don’t often encounter a new picture of my mom. She was 38 when she died unexpectedly and I was 14. She died unexpectedly. I just realized that I always link those words when I speak of my mother’s death. Perhaps I just want everyone to know, without going into details, how blindsided we were and that we never got to say goodbye.
This third photo framed in a golden oval is a candid shot, close-up, of her smiling. It looks like it was taken not long before she died, or at least she looks like I most remember, warmly familiar, but also somehow like a stranger in this new context. A beloved stranger. How odd. How unsettling.
Now, a decade older than my mother ever was, I study this new photo. I look into her eyes, so similar to mine, and wonder about all that never was. I realize that my grief isn’t static–it’s dynamic–constantly evolving in a way my mother never had the chance to do. I never knew all the women my mother would have been and was. I knew her only as my mother. When I miss her now, I’m missing not only who she was, but also my version of who I think my mother would have been, and a relationship that I am only imagining. How odd. How unsettling.