Twenty years after my mother’s sudden death, the grief hasn’t stopped | Nick Bhasin

Life has merely reshaped itself around the hole in my heart, a permanent wound that contracts and expands

In the last video I have of my mother, she’s 54. It’s 2002. Her childhood friend films her feeding her ageing dog and rebellious cats and she’s laughing, delighting in them.

A few months later, on 17 November, she suddenly died from a ruptured colon, before my emergency flight from Los Angeles arrived in New Jersey, before I could say goodbye. I was 27.

The grief I felt was profound and I wondered when it would subside. But it never did. I just got used to it.

I got used to not talking to her, to not asking for her advice.

I got used to not heeding her sense of propriety, the importance of church attendance, the insistence that she would not be going anywhere with me if I was dressed like that.

I got used to not receiving her letters filled with beautiful, thoughtful words.

I have gotten so used to life without her that it rarely occurs to me that I haven’t said the word “Ma” in 20 years. That’s what I called her. Short for Mami. The word is utterly unfamiliar to me now, like something from another existence.

Life has reshaped itself around the hole in my heart, a permanent wound that contracts and expands.

I have a wife and children that never met my mother. They’ve heard stories, they’ve seen photos and videos. But they don’t really know her.

When we celebrate her birthday, my wife buys yellow roses, my mother’s favourite. I post a photo as a reminder to everyone that my mother was here and she was important.

On 17 November, we light candles for her in church and I sit and hug my boys tight, remembering the trauma of that day and those that followed, when it all came crashing down.

Then life goes back to normal – and the hole contracts.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like to know my mother now. Would she still be gardening and ploughing through American civil war tomes? Would photos of her grandchildren take over the walls of her house?

A year before she died, my mother wrote a long letter to her goddaughter. She wrote about how much she loved books as a child, her Puerto Rican culture, the challenges of not being able to speak English when she started school.

I recently gave the letter to my eldest son and tried to tell him that it was something she might have written to him. But I couldn’t get the words out. I was suddenly overwhelmed by what he and his brother are missing: my mother’s unique blend of enthusiasm, love and pride. How she would have cherished them. How she would have pronounced their names, which are Spanish, in her honour. They can’t even imagine.

And the hole expands.

But I don’t wallow like I used to. The passing of time and marriage and parenthood has shifted my emotional attention. And it’s made the grief more isolating.

I don’t share the pain with my family. My children especially. I allow myself to be quietly torn apart, then I pull myself together so they don’t have to know what this feels like. So they don’t have to know that for me, certain contexts will always be accompanied by deep, sudden sadness.

One disconcerting side-effect of going through the trauma of the sudden death of a loved one and then surrounding myself with my own indispensable family, is that I can now imagine, quite palpably, what it would be like to go through it again. Concern can turn to worry and then fear for the absolute worst very easily. Because I know what it’s like to get that horrible call that informs you life will never be the same.

If there’s a positive aspect to this dread, though, it’s that it has made me more grateful to have the people close to me in my life. It’s a gratitude I didn’t practice enough while my mother was alive.

I hesitate to say that I’ve found peace or that I’ve come to terms with the grief. I’m not sure I’ve done anything other than let the 20 years wash over me and slowly erode the shock and panic. Because it’s always lurking beneath the surface, ready to come out.

When I watched that last video of my mother the other day, I noticed for the first time that the radio is playing Saddle the Wind by Julie London. It’s a sweet, haunting song about hopelessly yearning to unite with a loved one. A perfectly sad soundtrack to the ache caused by my mother’s absence. And even though I’d watched the video many times, grief once again flexed its power and reminded me of who exactly is in charge here.

A big part of my mother’s sudden death was the surrealness of it. I didn’t understand how it could possibly be that she was gone. I couldn’t believe that life went on. I’ve now lived without my mother for 20 years. I still can’t believe it.

And the hole expands.

Contracts and expands.

• Nick Bhasin is a writer in Sydney. His debut novel I Look Forward to Hearing from You will be published by Penguin Random House Australia in June 2023. Follow him on Twitter before the site is taken down

Nick Bhasin

The GuardianTramp

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