And with those words — which took the wind out of me, 14 months after my mom had died — I curled into a ball. But it was too late to protect myself.
The one-year mark felt like the peak of an enormous, at-times impossible mountain to conquer. I got through “major firsts” and envisioned emerging from the immense hole of despair I found myself in. I would never “get over” her death, but I had gained confidence from survival skills collected through grief therapy, a parent loss group and time away from work.
But the strain of my loss on my nearly three-year relationship with my boyfriend was undeniable. I could go joyous one moment to a full-blown panic attack the next. I was unpredictable, erratic, selfish. This guy had been through the ringer with me: We started dating as I planned my move from Washington, D.C., back home to be closer to my family. He was there for the cancer treatment — and all of the hope and despair that comes with it. He held me tight while we spread my mom’s ashes in Lake Superior. He wasn’t perfect, but he was trying.
But more than a year on, his patience seemed to wane. He wanted to fix something in me I would carry with me forever. His comments about my negativity and sadness put me into a tailspin. And then he told me he didn’t love me anymore and locked my apartment door behind him as he walked out carrying his iPhone charger and deodorant.
When my door slammed, I flashed back 14 months. I was lying next to my mom in the hospital bed crammed into my parents’ bedroom.
I wasn’t ready to lose my 56-year-old mom. I was 26.
She was rarely conscious anymore, unable to talk. When she did wake, she was restless and anxious to sit up, grabbing at the bed’s side rails.
I told her things I wasn’t brave enough to say when she was alert: She was an amazing mom, dad is amazing too, and they set my younger brother and I up for great things.
I knew she wanted to be a grandmother — and she would have been an incredible one — but would never have that chance. I told her I imagined becoming a parent with my boyfriend I loved dearly. My mom loved him, too.
“He’s going to take really good care of me, I promise. He’s going to be there for me when you’re gone. And we’re going to have kids and tell them everything about you. My kids will play with my childhood dollhouse and American Girl dolls. I will comfort them in our wooden rocking chair. I will take them on your white cruiser bicycle with the babyseat on the back.
My boyfriend and I had started dating months after I found out my mom’s cancer had spread to her lungs.
Trips home were tough; our family’s future was uncertain and I craved hope in something new. Seeing him was an escape from the unbearable pain watching my mom start treatment again.
I wasn’t looking for a relationship. I was actually terrified to start one. I kept asking myself, “Why would anyone want to date someone going through this? Who sets themselves up for emotional hardship? Is it fair for me to let him into this mess? I’m a ticking time bomb.”
He kept coming back. I was simultaneously falling in love and consumed by the reality that cancer was taking my mom from me. We were crazy happy in the midst of soul-crushing sadness.
Then in December 2012, my mom’s treatment wasn’t working: Her chemo was failing and a tumor blocked her intestines. She started hospice the following month.
My boyfriend visited my mom once during her six days of home hospice. We tiptoed into the room and I took her hand. “Mom. Look who’s here.”
She perked up and locked eyes with him. She smiled before her eyes shut again. Later she became anxious, trying to sit up in bed. He watched as I held her up and tried to troubleshoot. I rubbed her back, exposed because we cut her pajamas open to make changing easier.
The morning she died, he was at my side as loved ones gathered around her body to say goodbye.
But when my boyfriend walked out that door, once and for all, I was sent spiraling into new grief: I was deeply mourning my mom and now a relationship so entwined in my last years with her.
I lost the person I wanted to spend my life with, but I also lost something I could never get back: The comfort I gave my mom as I reassured her he would be there for me when she no longer could.
Now I was motherless and single while his life appeared to move forward carefree. He could walk away from it. I couldn’t. This pain was always mine, but now I was facing it alone.
Last August, my dad, brother and I were finalizing Maine travel plans to spread some of my mom’s ashes in the Atlantic.
I Googled “How to bring human ashes on an airplane.” We’d be carrying part of my mom in a wooden box and didn’t want TSA inspecting her cremated remains.
Overwhelmed, I took a break and browsed Instagram. A photo from my ex-boyfriend’s feed appeared: it was the first photo he posted of his new girlfriend, picking berries in the woods.
It was much like those unexpected and gut-wrenching moments after losing my mom: A reminder that the loss was really final and horribly unfair. But unlike those moments where I realized I couldn’t call my mom or she couldn’t share in a special moment, my ex-boyfriend’s photo felt deliberately hurtful as it landed in the feeds of my loved ones. His photo screamed: “I’ve moved on” when I was still hoping every day he would come back. I wanted him, but I also craved closeness to my mom through the memories I was convinced he ripped from me when he left.
I still yearn to hear my mom’s advice, even if I know exactly what she would tell me. I find her voice in a stack of notes and cards I saved from her over the years. While this breakup was uniquely devastating, I’ve been through heartbreak before and my mom knew just how to convince me I would be OK. “You are such a bright, beautiful, lovely person (total babe),” she wrote in one such instance, “and you deserve somebody who appreciates all those qualities (babe-ness,).”
And I hold onto that advice — as I move forward, with the realization that my grief over mom’s death would be with me always, but the searing pain of the subsequent breakup need not be.
Emily Kaiser is a digital producer at Minnesota Public Radio. Her writing has appeared in publications including Washingtonian, Minneapolis City Pages, Washington City Paper, Chicago magazine and the Star Tribune. She lives in Minneapolis and is working on a book about young-adult grief.