When you are in the fourth grade, you will visit the Book Fair at the small private school you attend. Your mother will be a teacher at the same school, and someone -- another staff member, a volunteer, you do not know -- will report to her your purchase of a book titled How It Feels When a Parent Dies, though you will not find out she was told for many years.
The book will have a maroon cover, and you will read it cover to cover immediately. You will stare at the black and white photographs of children who have lost a parent to disease or accident or murder or suicide, and you will think: This one is older than me but has no father. Or: This one is younger than me and has lost her mother. The concept of losing a parent is an abstract nightmare to you.
When you are in your early twenties and visiting your mother's house one evening, she will share the story of how she was informed you bought this book at the Book Fair and how she could not fathom why. Because she is your brilliant mother, the story will be screamingly funny in the telling. She will laughingly say she wondered if you wished her dead, and you will laughingly admit you have no idea why you bought the book. She will say that the school, from which she is now retired, ordered certain non-fiction books with certain students in mind, and you will ask for whom the book was intended, who had a parent who was dying. She will say she does not remember, nor does she remember who told her of its purchase, only that her feelings were hurt when she was told. She will reassure you that you do not need to apologize, she is over it, and by the way it is still in your room upstairs she thinks. You will not check.
A few years later you will meet the man you are going to marry, and one night your mother and you will regale him with the story of the book. Your mother has now moved to a smaller house way out in the country and has no idea where the book went but knows it is no longer in her possession. She will laughingly ask if you maybe took it, if maybe now that she is in the end stages of planning your wedding, you do wish her dead. You will reassure her you still do not.
Four and a half years later your mother will be declared terminal.
A scant three months later you will hold her cooling hand and you will feel a pain in your chest that makes you double over and scream. There are no words, only sounds.
You will feel zombie numb for a few days. Then you will throw yourself into making arrangements, which you will plan with as much painstaking love and attention as your mother planned your wedding.
Your mother is being cremated, and you will drive alone to pick up her ashes on your fifth wedding anniversary. Your husband will say he is coming with you, and you will say no, please stay home with the children, I will feel better if you do.
You will feel incredibly guilty about the children, because at the end there you frankly did not think about them, all you could think about was how much like a child you still felt yourself, a child who still needed her mother. Now you will grasp your own children to you, and you will thank God that you have them, these lifelines.
You will feel orphaned.
On the day of your mother's funeral an icy rain will fall. During the service you will clutch your older brother's hand, and he will clutch yours, and neither of you will let go. You will keep looking at your maternal aunt, thinking she looks so much like your mother before she got sick. You will feel like all the arrangements you have made are happening at a great distance. You will only catch tiny shards of conversation at the reception. One of these will be: You don't have to like it, but you have to get through it. You will wonder who the person is and what he or she has to get through. You will wonder if it is you. You will think: I cannot.
The days will go by and you will count them. You will think to yourself: A week ago at this time, I still had a mother. When a few weeks go by you will switch to calendar counting: A year ago on this date, she was alive, and we were planning a trip to the beach.
Several times over the next few months you will burst into sudden tears. Sometimes you will know what precipitated them, but most of the time you will not. You will know you cannot wash dishes after dinner anymore, though, because that was the time of day you called your mother. Your husband will take over the dishes.
You will write many thank you cards, but you will leave many more unwritten. Do not fret about them, for everyone has suffered a loss and so nobody will judge.
Here are the days that will be especially hard: your birthday, her birthday, Mother's Day, Christmas, the day of her death, and any day you see a mother and her adult daughter shopping at TJ Maxx together.
(Speaking of mother-adult daughter duos, you will be tempted to horn in on their conversations. Try to resist. Also you should ignore the instinct to lecture the daughter if she's being short with her mother or doesn't seem to realize how blessed she is to have her mother with her. Maybe it's an off day. Maybe they're planning a wedding.)
Some years these days will be more difficult than in other years, and there is no way to know which. With time you will notice that only one or two remain painful, that the others have faded like bruises.
One day a friend will call you and through tears tell you her mother has been declared terminal, and you will realize you have turned a corner, that you can speak about losing your mother without crying. You will watch your friend's children while she visits her mother in hospice. You will offer to wash her dishes.
You will get through it.