On March 2, 2002, I was playing with toys that fart in a Spencer Gifts when my mom called me. She just wanted to say hi and tell me she loved me. At the time, we’d been fighting quite a bit. I was 14, and she was addicted to prescription painkillers. Both of us were hard to deal with.
She claimed to be sober but wasn’t. The summer before, when I’d broken my foot, she stole my Vicodin. She said she wanted to keep it safe so I wouldn’t take too much and become an addict like her. But I didn’t believe her. I counted how many were in the bottle when she took it away, and then counted again several hours later. Four were missing. But I didn’t confront her. I didn’t know how to.
That phone call was the last time we ever spoke.
The next day I was at my dad’s house, and we had just stuffed ourselves stupid with a breakfast of lox and bagels. As we were clearing the table, the phone rang. It was Joe, my mom’s boyfriend. My dad told Joe to calm down. Then suddenly his face changed. I started to cry in ignorant terror.
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My dad hugged me and kissed me and began to weep before he told me what happened. Joe had left my mom’s house that morning and thought she was asleep. When he returned that afternoon, she hadn’t woken up.
My mom was 48.
She had many faults. Some of them, I’m certain, were associated with her addiction. She had a nasty side, especially during any interaction with my dad’s new girlfriends. She got arrested for doctor shopping to find one who would give her painkillers. She was, at times, tremendously lazy, letting me miss doctors’ appointments and stay home from school whenever I wanted. She spent way too much money on clothes and makeup and plastic surgery. She smoked cigarettes in the house. She had a real thing for young men in AA.
Still, my mother loved me intensely, and she showed it.
There were endearing nicknames, a million kisses and head rubs, birthday presents weeks in advance because she just couldn’t wait, bragging to all her friends when I did anything halfway noteworthy; hundreds of childhood photos put into dozens of photo albums. If I hated a new boyfriend, he’d be gone in an instant.
Although she deployed Yiddish from time to time, my mom wasn’t religious. So during her “recovery” in AA, she called me her “higher power.” She was a gorgeous, loving, broken mess, and I’m lucky to have had her at all.
This never feels more true than when female friends tell me about mothers who criticize them for everything, who pick on them for their weight or their hairstyles or their boyfriends or their careers, who never instilled self-esteem in their children. Their moms are alive, but my mom never put me down.
My mom now has been dead longer than I knew her. But the missing hasn’t stopped. I wish I could introduce her to my boyfriend (she would adore him) and tell her about my journey through med school (she’d be stupid proud). I wish she could be there to watch me get married (she’d cry and smile the whole time) and be the world’s No. 1 grandma (she’d have a mug to prove it).
Mother’s Day is the worst. I go days without thinking about her, weeks even. And then Mother’s Day arrives, and with it millions of #mom hashtags. Sometimes co-workers or acquaintances will ask me if I’m doing anything special with my mom. These exchanges end with “Oh, I’m sorry.” Sometimes I want other people to feel bad, too. Just a little.
It’s usually about this time of year that I have dreams about my mom. They’re always similar: She comes back very casually, unlovingly, avoids my calls, acts very apathetic toward me — completely out of character. I’m always hurt and upset that she left me or faked her death. These seem like straightforward resentment dreams. But I don’t feel that way. I feel terrible for her that things got so bad.
Maybe waking up from a dream where my mother is back and perfect and wonderful would be too devastating for me. At least waking up from my current dreams of her is, in a way, a relief. “Oh, good,” I get to say to myself, “my mother was still the most loving mother in the world.”
Mollie Kotzen is a third-year medical student who lives in Washington, D.C.