Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein

October 3, 2015: Year Two, Absent-Present My Mom


Sometimes the anticipation is worse than the actual experience. I’ve been feeling this day, October 3, 2015, two years since my mom died on October 3, 2013, for weeks now.

That is, I’ve been feeling my mother’s presence for weeks now, as if she were standing right now to me. Or grabbing and holding my hand, as she did so often during her year of slowly but surely dying. Frail fingers that hadn’t been frail; fingers that hadn’t been affectionate in that way toward me ever before; fingers passing connection and love from her to me; bones under flesh not wanting to let go of me, of life; fingers embodying what is perhaps the greatest intimacy: being present for, with, and through someone’s death.

I know now that one never “gets over grief.” You learn better to ride its mysterious motions. What I didn’t know until this past month was that moving toward this year-two anniversary would feel heavier than at many other extremely heavy times since she died. It’s as if I’m finally ready to truly be present for her death, instead of — at the time — being present for her and — last year — being present with mourning. This year two, I notice all the details that I missed during her dying, and this past month, I’ve wanted so to change the end of the story, whose outcome I feel in a way I haven’t felt to this point. I want to change the end so that it isn’t “unending.”

As a Joan Didion quote puts it, ‘[We cannot] know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” (Thanks to Gemma Mirkinson for this cite ♥)

We cannot know ahead of the fact, as I’ve found this year-marker two, that death offers presence and absence, absent presence, present absence. The infinity of someone’s absence emerges even as their presence sometimes seems eerily close, like when someone’s arm brushes against yours in a crowd, and you turn, and can’t quite see whose arm it was.

Before she died, I was much more rational. But now, I can’t quite presence-absence as well as both.

As she lay dying, my computer died. As she lay dying, I took photos of her, and again right after she died. Then my phone died. All the photos I took disappeared, just as she did. As I neared this year two, the replacement computer I got (which arrived in the mail on her death date) was stolen, and more photos of her were lost. I don’t want to read too much, or anything, into it, yet I get this sense that she didn’t me to see the last few days of her, when her usual cheer switched to anger & resignation at death, and sorrow at it, and as the hospice nurse said, “When she decides to die, she’ll die fast. She’s got a strong will.” Truth. But that truth was painfully etched on her face for the last couple days — my last few photos, now lost.

Or maybe it’s that she wanted me to be so completely present with her and for her death that distractions like my computer and phone had to be killed off, then and now. I did indeed concentrate fully on the life-death in front of me when no electronic respite was possible.

This morning, I woke with a jolt around 6 a.m. EST. It was still dark, and I almost fell back asleep. Then it hit me that this was her day, her year two of being dead; my year two of every-present absence, ever-absent presence. I looked at the clock. It was around 6 a.m. EST.

Curiously, the rest of today has been lovely, especially in terms of connecting with a few people I love, all far-flung. I felt their presence despite their absence. And in skimming through my photos today, found this blurry-bad one: the last I took of my mom, maybe 5 weeks before she died. Still there.
Still here sometimes, too.

I miss my mom, who in our last horribly stressful and impossible year together, taught me more about love — as egalitarian, as mutual, as something far greater than can be fit into heteronormative-patriarchal boxes or life-death dichotomies — than I’d learned or experienced in a lifetime before. That’s a presence that lingers. That can maybe, I trust, be passed along, as gift, as legacy.

I love you, mama, wherever you’re wandering 


One comment on “October 3, 2015: Year Two, Absent-Present My Mom

  1. rosaz
    October 4, 2015

    Cindy, we don’t know each other, but I follow your blog, and admire of your writing, your insight, and your courage. I wanted to reach out in response to this very moving post…

    may the memory of your mother be a blessing…. may you always feel her with you, even as you miss her physical presence.

    with all best wishes,


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This entry was posted on October 4, 2015 by in Dispatches from Life.
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