All About My Mother
A man I know lost his father to lung cancer. The man doesn’t drink or smoke, but he still believes he’ll die early. “I have this weird feeling that I can’t shake,” he told me over the phone, “that somehow these habits or tendencies that my dad had live inside me, and will be my undoing.”
Another friend lost her mom to a heart disorder. “Do you find it comforting?” she asked when I called. She meant the sound of a heartbeat. “I try not to rest my head on Greg’s chest,” she told me. (Greg is her husband.)
A third friend believes her dead mom spoke through a stranger. She told me the story after I messaged her on Instagram. Do you think they’re still around? I asked, referring to our late mothers. I used to not, she wrote back, but something happened that changed my mind. The thing that happened, she later explained, started with a panic attack. One night she felt she couldn’t breathe. She knocked on a random neighbor’s door in her apartment building. A middle-aged woman she hardly knew let her in. The woman helped my friend—taught her breathing exercises—and then extracted a promise. Apparently, my friend’s drinking habits had become a source of concern in the building. The neighbor thought she might not be well. She asked for a daily text, and coaxed my friend to try to change some behaviors. My friend thought perhaps this neighbor woman was a conduit, that her dead mom spoke through her. The next time we talked, my friend had just been to the gym. She seemed to have been shaken into finding a will to live.
“I have this weird feeling that I can’t shake that somehow these habits or tendencies live inside me, and will be my undoing.”
My own will to live feels tied to my mom. She died at 56. Cancer did not run in our family. She hardly drank, never smoked. A lot of things about her death felt unfair and poetic, and therefore indicative of a vengeful order to the universe. My mother was a doctor, and she died in the very hospital in which she worked. Cancer grew in her belly, and she had a stroke. Her dad had died when she was seven, from a heart ailment the Indian hospitals weren’t equipped to diagnose. So much of my mom’s life seemed set in motion by that loss, for better and for worse.
At my mom’s memorial service, I compared her to a hummingbird. Hummingbirds are of course known for hovering; lesser known is the fact that they hover out of necessity. They can’t walk because their legs are placed too far back on their bodies. They have to fly for food. Their hearts beat faster than those of most creatures, at more than 1,200 beats per minute during flight. They live shorter lives, on average, than other birds. Five years is ancient for a hummingbird, compared to, say, ten for a crow. They often simply wear themselves out—die from a lack of food or warmth in the winter, starved for energy. They need so much to keep going.
My mom, I argued, also succumbed to her hyperactivity, undone by the feature that also made her special. After her dad’s death, she enlisted in a life of overwork—became a sort of husband to her mom, and father to her brother. She later insisted on a style of career that had her competing mostly with men. Yet she was a mom-mom, too. A girl from my dance class told me she noticed my mom at every performance, unlike the other doctors with kids—noticed her also because she was one of those people getting things done. After her death, the recollections of others could make me uneasy. Her former patients seemed to know her better than I did, this hummingbird woman, in and out of sight, forever at work. Her heart did not stop. But she was so busy she did not notice the tumors taking up space in her body, either.
A lot of things about my mother’s death felt unfair and poetic, and therefore indicative of a vengeful order to the universe.
For a year following her death, I didn’t exercise. Then my grandmother—her mother—had a leg amputated. Diabetes. I became a person who exercises, eats greens. Some part of me thought I might be able to cheat the fates I saw ahead if I could perhaps discover a formula elusive to my mother and grandmother. I would succeed where they had failed, achieve a perfect state of health, birth perfect kids, design a perfect career—vehicles that might convey my essence past my time on earth—and die at an old age with limbs intact, my place in history secure. I married a man who joked that he’d married an invalid, the way I managed my health. We got a divorce. I worked harder: at the gym, at the computer. One day I missed a period. I consulted a doctor, a friend of my mom’s. She said I had the fat-to-muscle ratio of an athlete. Plus, my arm was numb, something to do with overgrown musculature around the scalene, pectoral, and trapezius region. She blamed overhead weights, and too much typing. I needed to type, I explained. Needed to exercise. The doctor wasn’t sure how to help me. Had I considered a different life? I might be unfit for the one I’d chosen. Had I considered getting a dog?
Around then I saw a post on the Instagram account Humans of New York that seemed to have been written just for me. It veered from the account’s usual heartwarming fare. Only a hand could be seen in the photograph. The caption told the story of a “really bad divorce” that led to “the first and only manic episode” of the protagonist’s life. This person moved into a punishing routine: three hours of sleep a night, “a whole lot of writing,” and the kicker: “handstands in the morning.” Like me, the person injured a shoulder. Mania, the caption theorized, had been a solution, a way to deal with emotional pain by distracting oneself from it.
The thing I needed to distract myself from, to erase by pretending it didn’t exist, I could see, was the fact of death itself. Yet my efforts toward immortality were going comically wrong. I’d seemingly exercised my way into not only physical but professional impotence. My period stayed gone, and typing was so painful I often cried. I saw myself as a character in a silent film, full of righteous energy, who slips on a banana peel. In trying so hard to live forever, I realized, I might wind up erasing myself faster.
In 1973, an American anthropologist named Ernest Becker wrote a book called Denial of Death. The book, which won a Pulitzer Prize in the general nonfiction category, argues that fear of death fuels all human activity. Becker reframes every act of human existence, large and small, as an expression born of denial: career-building, procreation, gossip, faith … all are ways to make ourselves feel immortal, though we know we are not. Each act signals what he terms a “thrash” against our own “finitude,” a desperation to ignore reality.
In the 1980s, the psychologist Sheldon Solomon happened on Becker’s work and helped birth twin neologisms with which to test the argument therein: “mortality salience”—a phrase I’ve come to love, for the neatness it imposes on extreme messiness—and “Terror Management Theory,” or TMT. Death strikes terror into every human heart, and thus every act in a human life can be recast as a time-pass, a way to manage that fear, goes the basic principle developed by Solomon and his colleagues. Researchers have tested this premise in the decades since, armed with the accompanying twin phrases. Studies across the social sciences track variations in how people spend, eat, work, vote, feel, live, based on the degree to which an individual exhibits salience of his or her own mortality.
Procreation, as a 2005 paper from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology bluntly puts it, is “one of the most efficient” buffers against terror, a surefire way “to prolong a form of symbolic existence.” A year after the attacks on 9/11, the Guardian reported a 20 percent increase in the birth rate in New York hospitals. “We earn, we procreate, we pray,” explains a 2004 study on behaviors that reduce thoughts of death.
People who’ve seen their same-sex parent, their prototype of self, die can seem to walk through life already “manipulated,” to borrow a term from a Dutch study that primed subjects to answer birth-related questions by getting them to talk about their own deaths. Adults who lose one or both parents before their 30s score worse, on average, on ratings of psychological distress. Physical health status markers also trend worse, according to multiple studies conducted over decades.
At times I feel I am a member of a secret variable group. Only life, not researchers, levied a pressure that alters my worldview. My sense of limited time hasn’t always seemed to track with my peers’ calculations—as seen in my ex-husband’s bemusement at my health obsession. I sometimes feel prone to misreading basic rules on how to live—at what pace, and to what end—because my brain was rewired to see a nightmare instead of a game. Studies tend not to frame “mortality salience” as a sickness so much as a fact of life. The first time I saw the phrase in print, though, I felt as if I’d found a diagnosis. If I could rid myself of this companion, this salience, perhaps I could be happier.
The three people who start out this essay all lost a parent of their same gender. So did another woman I spoke with. In a way, we are all members of a variable group. (I’ve changed the names of individuals to protect privacy.)
Sai, the young man who lost his father to lung cancer, spoke to me of work. His dad lived a life of thwarted ambition. Sai has vowed to do the opposite. His dad wanted to write but never did; Sai already has a book contract. His dad relied on cigarettes; Sai relies on awards. He muses that the cause of his early death might be work, even as it’s potentially how he finds immortality. He thinks often of his obituary. He hopes awards guarantee a life beyond this short one.
May, whose mom died of heart failure, dreams of being a mother. She seemed to see danger in the prospect. “Pregnancy,” she told me, “puts a strain on the heart.”
Vidya, the woman with the concerned neighbor, tells me she lost interest in herself after her mom’s death. Her attentions went mostly to her dad and brother. Then her dad remarried. Her brother got into medical school. The neighbor told her she didn’t seem well.
One woman I’ll call Faith punts when we get on the phone. Motherhood, the expected subject of the call, is too painful to discuss, due to a health scare that recalls her own mother, who died of cancer.
Death strikes terror into every human heart, and thus every act in a human life can be recast as a time-pass, a way to manage that fear.
She tells me another story instead. A woman who was to marry Faith’s uncle nearly didn’t. The woman’s parents were worried, because of the history of illness in Faith’s family. Then they reasoned that the woman would be fine, and so would her husband. It’s the women in Faith’s family who get ill enough to die, not the men. Faith speaks in a breezy, almost humorous tone, but the point of the story is not hard to miss: all the women in her family die early, and Faith is a woman.
The stories we tell ourselves can come true, a therapist once told me. On his website, he pitched himself as a dismantler of old stories, clearer of space for new and better ones. I held back from repeating this bit of neat poetry to the people I called. But I did wonder if the stories of doom I heard perpetuated their own conclusion. Vidya told me her mother died six years after a doctor gave her six years to live. Faith told me the precise weight of a cyst removed from her mom’s body. Details felt like recitations. Six years, played in a brain—what can that refrain do to the body? Maybe some words work more like orders than predictions.
Children are meant to see parents die, rather than the other way around. Death before retirement complicates that script. My mother was at work one day and in a hospital bed the next. Illness stripped her of her power of speech and movement, of her hair, her privacy. I saw her body as a nurse carried her to the toilet in a hospital gown that flapped open. I touched her arm at the funeral, imagined her friends turning that cold mass of limbs to wrap in a sari, and thought she would hate how she looked: bald and, just as disturbing somehow, in a carefully pleated sari. She always went for the pinless, fabric-falling look. Death, I thought, was a quick stripper of personhood. The deceased’s tastes are erased by the time of the service.
One particularly dark, mortality salient night after my divorce, I decided it was time for a new story. Before I saw my death written into my mother’s limbs, I’d felt protected by a god-force, a mother-force, by some-force that seemed to care about the quality of my days. I decided that night to slip into a pretense: I would pretend to be a child. I would need to split selves, though, to be a mother to this child self. One day, some time later, I realized I wasn’t scared of illness anymore. I suppose I’d heard enough of my own fears by that point to have reasoned myself out of them, split as I was between mother and child. Illness now looked like a byway to a shared destination, with its own sights and lessons—not to be desired, but not feared either.
One morning, after a year or so of not bleeding, I had a period again. I was dog-sitting at the time, looking after a puppy, and felt affection for the pup, noticing how he grew cautious after a loud car scared him. I felt, I guess, like a mother. I didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or relieved at the symbolism when my period showed up during that stint. (No one presumably wants to be that person who feels like a mother to a dog.) Anyway, I kept going. One day I noticed I could type just fine, no tears. It didn’t seem to matter if anyone read what I wrote, so long as I did the best I could. I realized I didn’t mind if no one ever knew I’d lived. Life seemed worthwhile on its own, even without proof it happened.
Then, one night, I dreamed I had a daughter. She seemed happy, and so did I.