Without a Mother: A Story About Life, Loss and Growing Up

In the summer of 1995, on an afternoon when the salty ocean air blows crisp and cool through my hair and my mother has not yet been diagnosed with breast cancer, we sit near the water and watch a nest of sea turtles hatch.

They move together in a churning mass, crawling over one another as they fight to emerge from the nest. One manages to hoist itself out onto the beach, and the others soon follow, digging their tiny flippers into the sand as they leave the safety of the nest and begin their race to the ocean.

“Where’s their mom?” I ask my own mother as we watch them struggle across the wide, treacherous expanse of sand.

“They don’t need her,” she says. The afternoon sun shines on her hair, making it glow. She is relaxed, happy, blissfully unaware of the insidious growth that even now lurks deep in her breast. “They know where to go.”

I frown. “Everyone needs a mom.”

She puts her arm around my shoulder and pulls me close. “Don’t worry,” she says. “They’ll be okay.” She kisses the top of my head.

We leave the beach before the turtles get to the water, but as we turn to go, I crane my neck and look back at them, still fighting their way across the sand with fierce determination. I squeeze my eyes shut and hope with all my might that they make it.

* * *

The night my mother dies, our house changes.

For the first six years of my life, our home is a warm, happy place. There are always fresh cookies on the kitchen counter, filling the house with their sugary scent while my mom hums along to the radio, slightly off-key. Every night, we play games in the living room, lamplight spilling through the window onto the sidewalk outside, and no matter what time of day, the house is full of laughter and love.

When we come home from the hospital, however, everything is different. All the rooms that once held so much warmth and light are now dark and cold, filled only by empty silence. A pair of empty oxygen tanks stands in the foyer, sentinels in the dark. The kitchen that was once warm and inviting stands cold and foreboding in the harsh glare of the streetlights outside, its counters void of baked goods or half-finished mugs of lukewarm coffee. The sterile, antiseptic smell from the hospital lingers on our clothes, creating a different sort of atmosphere than the one we’re used to.

Even my bedroom, which has always been bright and cozy, feels foreign. My stuffed animal collection, so friendly in the daylight, makes long shadows on the wall in the glow of my nightlight, and they loom over me as I crawl into bed.

As I huddle under my covers, too unsettled to sleep, I am keenly aware of all the empty spaces where my mom used to be.

* * *

The concept of death is a hard one for a six-year-old to grasp, and it takes a while for it to sink in that my mom is really gone.

“Can we go visit Mommy?” I ask my dad one evening. We haven’t been to the hospital for several days, and I miss her.

My dad sits on the edge of his bed and exhales. There are still two pillows on the bed, my mom’s side made up perfectly, as though ready for her to return at any moment. Her perfume bottles are lined up on the dresser, and one of her dresses is tossed over the back of the chair by the closet.

“Mommy’s not in the hospital anymore,” he says. His eyes are red-rimmed, and he sounds like he has a bad cold. “She’s in heaven now.”

“What’s heaven?” I ask.

“It’s” his voice breaks and he clears his throat. “It’s a beautiful place where she won’t be sick or in pain anymore,” he answers. He runs his hand over my hair, and I feel it trembling.

I don’t understand why this makes him so sad (what could be bad about a place with no pain or sickness?), but I comfort him as best I can. I pat him on the arm, and he squeezes me so tightly it almost hurts. A tear rolls down his cheek and soaks into my hair.

I’ve never seen him cry before, and it scares me. I back away, retreating to the hallway. He closes the door behind me and I hear muffled sobbing through the wood.  

I stand alone in the hallway. The house is cold and dark, and I suddenly feel terribly alone. I call to mind an image of my mom wrapping her arms around me and telling me everything is going to be okay, but it’s already hard to remember the sound of her voice.

* * *

In middle school, I pretend that not having a mom is okay. In fact, I pretend so hard that I even manage to convince myself for a while. After all, my dad does everything my mom did: he cooks, cleans, takes my sister and me to the park, and even answers all the embarrassing questions I have about my changing body with endless patience and tact.

Then, one afternoon at school, everything is suddenly not okay.

My teacher announces that this coming weekend, there will be a mother-daughter tea. The girls ooh and ah with excitement, and the boys wrinkle their noses and scoff. I sit frozen at my desk.

I want so badly to go, to wear my most grown-up dress with the purple violets on it and to eat little cakes and drink from fancy teacups with my pinkie in the air like they do on the TV shows I watch sometimes. I feel a pang in my chest as I realize this is one aspect of my mom that my dad can’t replace, no matter how hard he tries.

My friend notices the look on my face and leans over. “Don’t worry,” she says. “You can come with me and my mom.”

The lump in my throat grows, and I feel dangerously close to tears. I don’t want to be a third wheel, a tagalong borrowing someone else’s mother. I don’t want the other students to look at me with pity in their eyes.  

I turn my head away and force my face into a look of disdain. “Nah,” I say with feigned nonchalance, “who wants to go to tea anyways? Yuck.”

My friend looks at me with sad, knowing eyes, but I avoid her gaze and doodle in my notebook until she looks away.

That night at dinner, my dad asks me how school was. “Anything interesting?” he asks.

“No,” I answer, mangling my carrots with my fork. “Nothing at all.”

* * *

One Thanksgiving, when I am 13 and have just begun teaching myself how to bake, I decide I want to make a pumpkin pie for the family.

In movies, the family always comes together over dessert, talking and laughing and bonding. This is what I want more than anything, so I root around in the cupboards until I find my mom’s recipe for pumpkin pie. It’s in a plastic sleeve, its edges worn and smudged from years of use.

Since Dad is working in the garage and my sister is in her room, I decide to surprise them both with the pie. I stand on a stool to get the ingredients down from the pantry shelves and painstakingly follow the recipe instructions. Once the pie is in the oven, I lay out the yellow quilted placemats and the special dessert plates we save for company.

However, despite my best efforts, the pie does not turn out very well. The crust is burned in places, and the filling is soupy. But we all sit around the worn wooden table and serve ourselves large pieces, covered with mountains of whipped cream.

“You know,” my dad says, shoveling a forkful of whipped cream in his mouth, “I used to hate pumpkin pie.”

We eye the gigantic slice of pie on his plate skeptically.

“It’s true!” he says. “One day your mom made it for me, and she’d worked so hard that I didn’t have the heart to tell her I didn’t like it. I ate two pieces.”

We laugh.

“Of course, then she thought I loved it,” he says. His eyes are far away, reliving the memory. “She always made it for special occasions. I guess it grew on me, because now I love it.” He crams a huge bite into his mouth to demonstrate his point.

We smile, and in that moment, Mom doesn’t seem quite so far away. The empty chair where she used to sit doesn’t seem as conspicuous. For the first time in a long time, we remember her without being sad.

* * *

The day comes, despite my efforts to make sure it doesn’t, that I forget my mother’s birthday.

Until now, the date May 27 has always been seared into my brain—Mom made sure of that. She always got so excited about her birthday, so every year, I made sure to make her a special card and a homemade gift. It had never once slipped my mind.

When the day finally came, she would tear open her cards and gifts with childlike excitement, then bound into the kitchen to serve us birthday cake that she’d made herself. It was one of my favorite days of the year.

But today, I look at the calendar and realize with a shock that her birthday was yesterday. The realization that I don’t think about her every day like I used to hits me, and for a moment, it’s hard to breathe.

I don’t know exactly how to feel. Should I feel guilty for forgetting her birthday or happy that I’m moving on? Do I even want to move on?

I realize that I don’t, no matter how unhealthy that may seem. I want my mom to be a real presence in my life. I don’t want her to be a ghost, a memory, a pale imitation of the vibrant, loving woman I knew. I especially don’t want to phase her out of my life, first forgetting her birthday, and eventually forgetting her altogether.

“Happy birthday, Mom,” I whisper. “I promise I’ll remember from now on.”

But deep down, I’m not so sure I will.  

* * *

When I am 15 years old, I practice for an upcoming piano recital. I play Bach’s Prelude in C Major—it was my mom’s favorite piece, and I know it by heart. As I play, I close my eyes, swaying with the music and letting my fingers glide over the keys in the familiar patterns of the broken chords.

I can almost feel my mom’s presence. In my mind’s eye, I see her smile, hear her laugh, smell the delicate scent of her favorite perfume, and for a moment, I almost believe that if I open my eyes she’ll be standing next to me, just like she never left.

My dad comes into the room slowly, by degrees, first leaning against the doorframe, then moving to the window, and finally sinking into the couch. He listens with faraway eyes, sitting motionless, remembering. The moment stretches out, and for a brief time, everything is like it was before.

And so I continue playing while the pink sky fades to deep blue, then black, until the street lights blink on outside the window and the light from the piano lamp bathes the room in its golden glow.

For now, I am at peace.

* * *

I don’t know what happened to the sea turtles all those years ago as they navigated the world without a mother to guide them. It was so far between the sand and the sea, and nature is often cruel. They might have died, snatched up by hungry seagulls or crushed beneath the feet of careless beachgoers. They might have been swept away in the tide, tumbling endlessly in the crashing surf.

But they also might have survived. They might have arrived at the ocean, exhausted but triumphant, and slipped safely into its welcoming, blue-green embrace. They might have grown up happy and strong and carefree beneath the surface until someday they started families of their own and the whole process began again.

I like to think they made it.



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I’m a writing major at Grand Valley State University. Creative writing is my passion–although I also enjoy professional writing and copywriting–and I will defend the Oxford comma to the death. When I’m not writing, I’m re-reading Harry Potter for the hundredth time, searching for new ice cream parlors to try, playing the flute and piano, or watching the Food Network (and sometimes doing a little baking of my own).

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Without a Mother: A Story About Life, Loss and Growing Up

In the summer of 1995, on an afternoon when the salty ocean air blows crisp and cool through my hair and my mother has not yet been diagnosed with breast cancer, we sit near the water and watch a nest of sea turtles hatch.

They move together in a churning mass, crawling over one another as they fight to emerge from the nest. One manages to hoist itself out onto the beach, and the others soon follow, digging their tiny flippers into the sand as they leave the safety of the nest and begin their race to the ocean.

“Where’s their mom?” I ask my own mother as we watch them struggle across the wide, treacherous expanse of sand.

“They don’t need her,” she says. The afternoon sun shines on her hair, making it glow. She is relaxed, happy, blissfully unaware of the insidious growth that even now lurks deep in her breast. “They know where to go.”

I frown. “Everyone needs a mom.”

She puts her arm around my shoulder and pulls me close. “Don’t worry,” she says. “They’ll be okay.” She kisses the top of my head.

We leave the beach before the turtles get to the water, but as we turn to go, I crane my neck and look back at them, still fighting their way across the sand with fierce determination. I squeeze my eyes shut and hope with all my might that they make it.

* * *

The night my mother dies, our house changes.

For the first six years of my life, our home is a warm, happy place. There are always fresh cookies on the kitchen counter, filling the house with their sugary scent while my mom hums along to the radio, slightly off-key. Every night, we play games in the living room, lamplight spilling through the window onto the sidewalk outside, and no matter what time of day, the house is full of laughter and love.

When we come home from the hospital, however, everything is different. All the rooms that once held so much warmth and light are now dark and cold, filled only by empty silence. A pair of empty oxygen tanks stands in the foyer, sentinels in the dark. The kitchen that was once warm and inviting stands cold and foreboding in the harsh glare of the streetlights outside, its counters void of baked goods or half-finished mugs of lukewarm coffee. The sterile, antiseptic smell from the hospital lingers on our clothes, creating a different sort of atmosphere than the one we’re used to.

Even my bedroom, which has always been bright and cozy, feels foreign. My stuffed animal collection, so friendly in the daylight, makes long shadows on the wall in the glow of my nightlight, and they loom over me as I crawl into bed.

As I huddle under my covers, too unsettled to sleep, I am keenly aware of all the empty spaces where my mom used to be.

* * *

The concept of death is a hard one for a six-year-old to grasp, and it takes a while for it to sink in that my mom is really gone.

“Can we go visit Mommy?” I ask my dad one evening. We haven’t been to the hospital for several days, and I miss her.

My dad sits on the edge of his bed and exhales. There are still two pillows on the bed, my mom’s side made up perfectly, as though ready for her to return at any moment. Her perfume bottles are lined up on the dresser, and one of her dresses is tossed over the back of the chair by the closet.

“Mommy’s not in the hospital anymore,” he says. His eyes are red-rimmed, and he sounds like he has a bad cold. “She’s in heaven now.”

“What’s heaven?” I ask.

“It’s” his voice breaks and he clears his throat. “It’s a beautiful place where she won’t be sick or in pain anymore,” he answers. He runs his hand over my hair, and I feel it trembling.

I don’t understand why this makes him so sad (what could be bad about a place with no pain or sickness?), but I comfort him as best I can. I pat him on the arm, and he squeezes me so tightly it almost hurts. A tear rolls down his cheek and soaks into my hair.

I’ve never seen him cry before, and it scares me. I back away, retreating to the hallway. He closes the door behind me and I hear muffled sobbing through the wood.  

I stand alone in the hallway. The house is cold and dark, and I suddenly feel terribly alone. I call to mind an image of my mom wrapping her arms around me and telling me everything is going to be okay, but it’s already hard to remember the sound of her voice.

* * *

In middle school, I pretend that not having a mom is okay. In fact, I pretend so hard that I even manage to convince myself for a while. After all, my dad does everything my mom did: he cooks, cleans, takes my sister and me to the park, and even answers all the embarrassing questions I have about my changing body with endless patience and tact.

Then, one afternoon at school, everything is suddenly not okay.

My teacher announces that this coming weekend, there will be a mother-daughter tea. The girls ooh and ah with excitement, and the boys wrinkle their noses and scoff. I sit frozen at my desk.

I want so badly to go, to wear my most grown-up dress with the purple violets on it and to eat little cakes and drink from fancy teacups with my pinkie in the air like they do on the TV shows I watch sometimes. I feel a pang in my chest as I realize this is one aspect of my mom that my dad can’t replace, no matter how hard he tries.

My friend notices the look on my face and leans over. “Don’t worry,” she says. “You can come with me and my mom.”

The lump in my throat grows, and I feel dangerously close to tears. I don’t want to be a third wheel, a tagalong borrowing someone else’s mother. I don’t want the other students to look at me with pity in their eyes.  

I turn my head away and force my face into a look of disdain. “Nah,” I say with feigned nonchalance, “who wants to go to tea anyways? Yuck.”

My friend looks at me with sad, knowing eyes, but I avoid her gaze and doodle in my notebook until she looks away.

That night at dinner, my dad asks me how school was. “Anything interesting?” he asks.

“No,” I answer, mangling my carrots with my fork. “Nothing at all.”

* * *

One Thanksgiving, when I am 13 and have just begun teaching myself how to bake, I decide I want to make a pumpkin pie for the family.

In movies, the family always comes together over dessert, talking and laughing and bonding. This is what I want more than anything, so I root around in the cupboards until I find my mom’s recipe for pumpkin pie. It’s in a plastic sleeve, its edges worn and smudged from years of use.

Since Dad is working in the garage and my sister is in her room, I decide to surprise them both with the pie. I stand on a stool to get the ingredients down from the pantry shelves and painstakingly follow the recipe instructions. Once the pie is in the oven, I lay out the yellow quilted placemats and the special dessert plates we save for company.

However, despite my best efforts, the pie does not turn out very well. The crust is burned in places, and the filling is soupy. But we all sit around the worn wooden table and serve ourselves large pieces, covered with mountains of whipped cream.

“You know,” my dad says, shoveling a forkful of whipped cream in his mouth, “I used to hate pumpkin pie.”

We eye the gigantic slice of pie on his plate skeptically.

“It’s true!” he says. “One day your mom made it for me, and she’d worked so hard that I didn’t have the heart to tell her I didn’t like it. I ate two pieces.”

We laugh.

“Of course, then she thought I loved it,” he says. His eyes are far away, reliving the memory. “She always made it for special occasions. I guess it grew on me, because now I love it.” He crams a huge bite into his mouth to demonstrate his point.

We smile, and in that moment, Mom doesn’t seem quite so far away. The empty chair where she used to sit doesn’t seem as conspicuous. For the first time in a long time, we remember her without being sad.

* * *

The day comes, despite my efforts to make sure it doesn’t, that I forget my mother’s birthday.

Until now, the date May 27 has always been seared into my brain—Mom made sure of that. She always got so excited about her birthday, so every year, I made sure to make her a special card and a homemade gift. It had never once slipped my mind.

When the day finally came, she would tear open her cards and gifts with childlike excitement, then bound into the kitchen to serve us birthday cake that she’d made herself. It was one of my favorite days of the year.

But today, I look at the calendar and realize with a shock that her birthday was yesterday. The realization that I don’t think about her every day like I used to hits me, and for a moment, it’s hard to breathe.

I don’t know exactly how to feel. Should I feel guilty for forgetting her birthday or happy that I’m moving on? Do I even want to move on?

I realize that I don’t, no matter how unhealthy that may seem. I want my mom to be a real presence in my life. I don’t want her to be a ghost, a memory, a pale imitation of the vibrant, loving woman I knew. I especially don’t want to phase her out of my life, first forgetting her birthday, and eventually forgetting her altogether.

“Happy birthday, Mom,” I whisper. “I promise I’ll remember from now on.”

But deep down, I’m not so sure I will.  

* * *

When I am 15 years old, I practice for an upcoming piano recital. I play Bach’s Prelude in C Major—it was my mom’s favorite piece, and I know it by heart. As I play, I close my eyes, swaying with the music and letting my fingers glide over the keys in the familiar patterns of the broken chords.

I can almost feel my mom’s presence. In my mind’s eye, I see her smile, hear her laugh, smell the delicate scent of her favorite perfume, and for a moment, I almost believe that if I open my eyes she’ll be standing next to me, just like she never left.

My dad comes into the room slowly, by degrees, first leaning against the doorframe, then moving to the window, and finally sinking into the couch. He listens with faraway eyes, sitting motionless, remembering. The moment stretches out, and for a brief time, everything is like it was before.

And so I continue playing while the pink sky fades to deep blue, then black, until the street lights blink on outside the window and the light from the piano lamp bathes the room in its golden glow.

For now, I am at peace.

* * *

I don’t know what happened to the sea turtles all those years ago as they navigated the world without a mother to guide them. It was so far between the sand and the sea, and nature is often cruel. They might have died, snatched up by hungry seagulls or crushed beneath the feet of careless beachgoers. They might have been swept away in the tide, tumbling endlessly in the crashing surf.

But they also might have survived. They might have arrived at the ocean, exhausted but triumphant, and slipped safely into its welcoming, blue-green embrace. They might have grown up happy and strong and carefree beneath the surface until someday they started families of their own and the whole process began again.

I like to think they made it.



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