For Christmas 2015, my mom gave me an ugly water bottle. In the store, she hadn’t noticed the garish colors and loud logo, and she apologized sheepishly as I unwrapped it. I’m not one to care much about appearances, and I needed a water bottle, so I thanked her and kept it. When I returned to college for my final semester of classes, the ugly water bottle was always in my backpack, traveling with me to and from class and the gym until I graduated.
My mom passed away the following August, granting the gift a much greater significance. If I forgot it somewhere, I felt deep panic, then embarrassment at fretting about a piece of plastic.
It is impossible to prepare for a loved one’s premature death, even if it is by a cancer diagnosed years before. In my grief, I lost control of my thoughts and emotions. I forgot things all the time, from conversations I’d had the day before to where I had put something I’d just been using. In movies, the slightest mention of families being disbanded left me sobbing.
My new brain bewildered me, until one instance of the lose water bottle/panic/get embarrassed routine, when I remembered an incident from summer 2013. I’d been studying Quechua, an indigenous Andean language, in Cusco, Peru, with a teacher named Gina, who had grown up on a farm in the Peruvian countryside. On a bright Saturday in July, a few classmates and I hiked with her to one of the many Incan ruins surrounding the city. Rather than packing a lunch, Gina brought ingredients to cook in a traditional earthen oven, and a huge pickax, which she insisted on wielding herself. Watching my grandmotherly professor hack away at the chunks of hardened mud we would use to build the oven was a comical sight, and I jokingly told her I liked her pickax. Gina stood up straight, smiled, and proudly responded, “My mother gave it to me.”
Her reaction — equivalent to joyfully exclaiming your mom has given you a power drill — made me laugh. But after losing my mother, I remembered her words and suddenly saw my water bottle and Gina’s pickax as vessels for both immense grief and love. Our mothers had each given us tools useful to our survival in our respective realities. Gina’s mother had died years earlier, yet she was Gina’s first thought when I complimented the ax.
As humans, we tend to imbue objects, from precious stones to stuffed animals to an old pair of sneakers, with meaning. Loss lends a different dimension to these things — Gina’s pickax, my water bottle, my mother’s hairbrush that still holds strands of her hair, her homemade cartoon books. Each is truly irreproducible. Gina’s mother will never give her another gift. Neither will mine.
This August, I turned 25. Five days later, my mom’s death turned 3. I can’t say the 22 years we were together on earth were the best years of my life — they were my life, and I knew nothing else until I began adulthood without her. Time has dulled the sharp pain of missing her; I no longer feel as though I’ve been punched in the stomach whenever a friend mentions phoning her mother, or that her mom is coming for the weekend.
Questions I wish I could ask her still come up daily, however, and there are still times when a flash of memory I’ve not yet carefully tilled brings me to tears. Grief is weird. You think it’s gone, then it pops up when you least expect it. You could say the same of beauty. I never noticed until after my mom died how similar our smiles are, or how many of my youngest brother’s sayings come straight from her.
Both of these types of revelations — of grief and of beauty — make me grateful for a mother better than I could have dreamt up. She could have written the book on how to ponder life carefully, how to nurture, and how to love others however they are.
Her name was Joan Kennedy.
Teresa Kennedy lives in Beijing and works for an environmental group. Send comments to email@example.com. To submit your story for consideration for Connections, e-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to firstname.lastname@example.org. We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.