This article was originally published on May 2, 2016.
I was at odds with myself the moment I said the words. We were walking past a stationery store, and we needed a card for an upcoming wedding. As I tugged her hand in the direction of the open door, I said, "Oh, and we need a Mother’s Day card for my mom." The words flew past my lips before I could stop them. Horrified, I tugged her back in the other direction, with apologies. "I’m so sorry, forget it, I can get these cards another time." Sam insisted "it’s fine," again and again. I felt guilty. The rest of the world could shove Mother’s Day down my wife’s throat. It was my job not to.
There are countless spouses like me out there — ones who are shielding our partners away from the barrage of reminders: Mother’s Day is coming, but your mom is dead. I am as close as can be to a loss that is not mine, and I haven’t found the word to accurately describe this ordination. I repeatedly think, It’s weird. This is weird.
Before we were married, my wife was my fiancée, and before that, she was my girlfriend — and that was the time when her mother was alive. During those years, her mom was my future in-law, our future children’s grandma. We took trips with her, spent holidays together. She was a person I loved, and one I expected to have around for years to come. Sam and I were both 26 years old when her mom died unexpectedly, life-shatteringly quickly.
There are occasions throughout the year when we feel her death more than usual: holidays, her birthday, and the anniversary of her death, when we are forced to accept that another year has gone by without her. The pain intensifies. Sam’s loss feels fresh. At these times, the agony is invisible, but each year, May arrives. Tulips line the sidewalks, trees blossom overnight, and Mother’s Day approaches.
"Do something special for Mom," compels a poster as Sam buys a morning tea. Email subscriptions somehow find their way into her inbox and ask in their subject lines, "Did you forget about Mom this year?" Each TV commercial reminds Sam that "It’s not too late" for a discount on the perfect gift, the perfect way to say "I Love You." We flip the channels. A little girl in a red swimsuit jumps fearlessly into her mother’s arms, her first time in the pool, and the child’s voice narrates, "Thank you, Mom, for believing in me."
We delete the emails. We tear up during the commercials. We face milestones in our lives without her mother.
To shield my wife from these reminders would be to lock her in our apartment and keep her off of social media. No internet. No television. No newspapers. No magazines. We know we can’t shut this out entirely, but we do what we can. We delete the emails. We tear up during the commercials. We face milestones in our lives without her mother. We got engaged. We spoke our wedding vows with hearts half-broken; someone was missing. Someone is always missing.
We understand this as a truth of our lives.
Sam has to face this void without me, because although I have been with her for each moment, I have grieved my wife’s anguish with my own mother by my side. I can appreciate Sam's suffering, but I have yet to understand it. In her loss, Sam is alone. I cannot protect her from the passing years, from the motherless milestones, or from the feeling each May that she cannot quite put her finger on.
Inside the stationery store, I hurried Sam toward the wedding cards as I peered up at the walls stocked with Mother’s Day cards. My mission was to find one fast — to grab the first one I saw, to save my wife the pain of opening even one. I held a card in my hand. I didn’t love it. I turned to see if I had more time, if Sam was finished in the wedding section. I was too late. She was beside me, scrutinizing the hundreds of patterns. She picked one from the stacks. "This is really cute," she said, "I think your mom will love it."
Later, in bed, Sam mentioned that it makes her sad to consider how long it’s been since she bought her mom a gift. I let a moment pass, and then rolled close to her and made a suggestion. "How about you buy your mom a gift, but then I’ll keep it?" Sam laughed as she shook her head, "Oh, you know my Mom would say, 'Yep, typical Laura.'"
I can’t replace what my wife has lost, but I can be here to tell her that it’s bullshit, that it’s unfair. I can be here to listen, and to tell her I’m sorry, and I can be here to make her smile every chance I get.