There are a lot of things I could tell you about my mom. How she wished she had gone to graduate school in psychology, but by the time she realized it, she felt it was too late. How she always got food stuck in her teeth and got annoyed if you pointed it out. How she never slowed down enough before red lights, then had to slam on her brakes to stop in time. How her lower lip quivered when she was upset.
But what I want to tell you about, what I need to tell you about, is how she died. I wish I could say that when I think of my mother, I remember her as she was in life, I “celebrate the person she was,” as all the sympathy cards instructed me to do. But the truth is, when I think about my mom, much of the time, I think not about her life, but about her death.
Maybe this is because of the horrific and unusual way she died. Or maybe it’s because her death doesn’t seem to “fit” her. If I tell you my mother died in a hiking accident, you picture someone with defined calf muscles, someone who enjoys the smell of sweat, someone who owns a pair of well-worn, sturdy boots. But my mother was not that person. That she and my father were even doing something you could call “hiking” was odd to me at the time. It only made sense later, after my father told me that when they reached the summit, before turning back, my mother said she never would have been able to do this before her recent weight loss. I picture her beaming, hands on her hips in her classic pose, beads of sweat glistening on her upper lip.
All this only minutes before she found herself clinging to the side of a cliff, trying not to look down at the rocky beach a hundred feet below.
July 26, 2000, around 7 p.m., I was alone in the NYU dorm room I was sharing for the summer with a college friend. It was a Wednesday evening, and I was supposed to go over to my friend Anna’s house in Brooklyn to watch “Survivor,” as we’d done every Wednesday that summer. But I was feeling a powerful sense of inertia. It was raining hard outside, and I didn’t feel like walking the five or so blocks to the subway station. I lay down on my single bed, on the cheap floral bedspread I had picked out at Walmart, and told myself I’d leave in a few minutes.
The phone rang. It was my aunt, the wife of my mother’s brother, which I immediately thought was odd; we’d just spoken the other day. Her voice was subdued, missing the intensity I was used to.
“I have to tell you something, and you need to sit down,” she said. Until then, I thought people only said that in the movies.
“Oh God,” I said. This is when she was supposed to reassure me that everything was going to be okay. She didn’t.
Instead, she said something about my parents “going off a cliff.” About my father being okay.
About my mother being dead.
“I don’t believe you,” I said, accusingly. I’d just spoken to my mother the night before. She and my father were on vacation on Grand Manan Island, off the coast of New Brunswick. They were having a nice time, she’d told me, but she was going through menopause and feeling uncomfortable. Her voice broke as she talked. I would’ve attributed her emotionality to the hormones, but my mom cried easily. My father, brother, and I teased her about it, as I did that night with her on the phone, and just as quickly as she had started crying, she starting laughing at herself.
She can’t be dead, I thought now, because I just talked to her, and she was fine.
It occurred to me that I was all alone. My roommate had a new boyfriend and was always with him. “I’m all alone,” I said, over and over, each time a little louder, more hysterical. My voice sounded strange to me, like a little girl’s, not my own. My uncle picked up the phone. Together, they tried to calm me down. They told me they’d stay on the phone with me; they wouldn’t leave me. A friend of theirs in New York was on her way to pick me up and take me to the airport so I could stay with them in Boston.
I needed to pack.
“What should I pack?” I asked. I couldn’t think.
“Well, you’ll need something black . . . for the funeral,” my aunt said. There’s going to be a funeral, I thought. I am going to my mother’s funeral. That can’t be right.
I grabbed the framed photograph of my mother and me off my nightstand and stuffed it into my suitcase.
“I need drugs — sleeping pills, Valium, or something,” I told my aunt.
My nine-year-old cousin picked up the phone. “Don’t cry,” she said in a sing-song voice. “Don’t be sad.”
I don’t remember how much time passed, waiting in the apartment by myself. It seemed like suddenly my aunt’s friend was there, helping me put suitcases in my trunk, driving me to the airport, to my life without my mother.
On the way there, I called Anna to tell her I wouldn’t be coming over to watch “Survivor.” I didn’t want her to be waiting for me, wondering where I was.
“Oh God,” she said when I explained that I was leaving New York because my parents had been in an accident. “Are they okay?”
“Well, no,” I said, as if it were obvious. “My mother’s dead.”
The rain was coming down in sheets, and it was hard to see more than a few feet in front of the car. At one point, my aunt’s friend slammed on her brakes to avoid hitting the car in front of us. I felt a pang of regret that we didn’t crash, that the car didn’t explode in a ball of flames.
In the airport, I kept feeling as if I needed to pee. On one of my trips to the bathroom, I stared at myself in the mirror for a while. Your mother died, I silently told the face reflecting back at me.
On the airplane, I sat in the darkness, listening to Paul Simon’s “Rhythm of the Saints” on my Walkman. It didn’t really seem like the right soundtrack for the occasion, but it was all I could find in the scramble. The plane was mostly empty, but there was a man sitting across the aisle from me. I felt him staring at me as I finally started crying in long, jagged sobs.
“But she was the person I loved most in the whole world!” my brother’s cry sounded like the wail of an ambulance siren. I had just told him that our mother was dead. It was almost midnight, but he had been out all evening, and still didn’t know. At some point, it was decided that I was going to tell him. I don’t remember protesting. Somehow, at that moment when nothing made sense, it made sense that I was going to be the one to give my big brother the most horrible news of his life.
My brother paused, composed himself a bit. “Sorry, I love you and dad, but . . .”
I knew. My mother had been his touchstone. He had told her everything — too much, I thought. And now he had lost her; he was lost.
The wailing started again. It was a sound I would become familiar with over the coming weeks — at the cemetery, for example, when my mother’s coffin was lowered into the ground and my brother screamed, “That’s your daughter! That’s your daughter!” over and over to my grandfather, who stood there, stooped and expressionless.
In my small Jewish community in Montreal, where everyone knows everyone, we became celebrities for a while. In the weeks after my mother died, whenever I went out to run errands — someone still had to pick up milk — I could feel the horrified stares, could hear the whispers. “That’s the girl whose mother fell off a cliff.” It felt as if they were talking about someone else.
A couple of nights after the accident, sitting with my brother in a hotel room in New Brunswick, where we had gone to visit our father in the hospital, we saw a story about the accident on the news. A picture of my mother flashed up on the screen. It was from a few years back, before she’d lost weight. “Oh God,” I said to my brother. “She would hate that they used that picture.”
It was in the newspaper, too. Not the front page, but one of those blurbs buried a few pages in, stories you usually skip because they’re other people’s stories, not the kind of thing that would ever happen to you. Stories with headlines like, “Mystery Surrounds Cliff Death.”
The details in these stories intrigued me. They were like clues: If I collected enough of them, I would understand what happened. But they also terrified me. For weeks after my mother died, I took sleeping pills, because I knew that if I didn’t, if I didn’t plunge myself into blackness, I would re-play the accident. Sometimes I couldn’t avoid it. A scene would flash through my mind, re-created from what I’d read, and what my father remembered, or thought he remembered. My mother hyperventilating as she tries to hold on. My father scrambling to help her, falling. My mother, losing her grip, falling after him.
My father, of course, re-played it too. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of him crying, like a wounded animal. It made me think of what one of my father’s rescuers told him — that when he first heard the screams for help on the beach, he thought it was the sound of seagulls.
That’s how we learned about the accident from my father, in little glimpses. How the trail was slippery because it had rained the day before. How the first thought my father had after they both fell was that they were going to have to cancel their dinner reservations that night because they probably had broken bones, and what a shame that was. How he remembers my mother semi-conscious after the fall, slurring her words, and how he poured some water from his canteen over her head in an attempt to revive her. How when the rescuers came, he couldn’t understand why they were only helping him, not her.
Sometimes it was just too much for him. My brother or I would gingerly ask about a detail — How did you get lost? Was the trail not properly marked? — and he would get a faraway look, close his eyes. A year later, when, according to Jewish custom, we gathered to unveil my mother’s gravestone, my father turned toward the stone and spoke, voice breaking: “I’m sorry, Ruth. I tried to save you, but I couldn’t.”
About a year before my mother died, we took a trip to Maine together. We shared a king-size bed, ate a lot, giggled a lot. I told her about how I’d been depressed for much of the previous year, something I’d avoided telling her until then for fear it would upset her. But when I told her, she didn’t get upset — she was able to listen, to take it in.
On the drive home, after we crossed the border into Canada, I waited in the car while my mother went to the bathroom. After a few minutes, there was a knock on the passenger window.
“Your mother — she fell,” the border guard told me in a thick French-Canadian accent, and motioned to where my mom was standing. She wasn’t really standing, actually, but keeled over, with another border guard trying to hold her up. Her eyes were rolling back in her head. Apparently, my mom, the perpetual klutz, had tripped, stood up too quickly, and passed out. (My mother fainted easily, a trait I’ve inherited from her — that, and the klutziness.). She was mumbling, but kept slipping back into semi-consciousness. An ambulance was called.
It didn’t take long for my mother to come to. The paramedics took her pulse, her blood pressure, and pronounced her fine. Still, I took over the driving, darting glances at my mother every few seconds, making her talk to me the whole way home, so I knew she was okay. For the first time I could remember, I felt worried about my mom. She suddenly seemed . . . breakable. “I’m fine,” my mom reassured me, smiling. “I’m fine.”
In the weeks after my mother’s little accident, we laughed about it, re-enacting the sequence of events. She thought it was funny when I imitated what she looked like after she passed out, her eyes rolling back in her head. Like a corpse.
For a few weeks after my mother died, I didn’t believe she was gone. And I don’t mean that figuratively. If you had asked me, I would have told you that my mother was dead. Of course she was. Of course she wasn’t coming back. I had looked in the casket, seen the evidence. The person lying there didn’t look exactly like my mother — the cakey beige makeup made her skin tone too even, like a mannequin’s — but I knew it was her. I wasn’t crazy.
Still, for a while, I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if she had walked through our front door. When my parents’ suitcase was shipped back from New Brunswick, my mother’s best friend and I spent some time one evening putting my mother’s things away. We folded her shirts carefully, tried to put her things back where they belonged. Where did she keep her jewelry? we wondered. Her underwear?
After a few weeks, when I decided it was time to stop taking the sleeping pills, I started dreaming she came back. In the dreams, there was always a perfectly plausible explanation for her sudden disappearance — she was a spy and had been away on a top-secret mission, for example. When she returned, we all hugged her. No questions, no hard feelings. These dreams felt so real that I would wake up and, for a few seconds, feel completely safe, the way a child does when she climbs into her parents’ bed in the middle of the night after waking up from a nightmare. And then I would remember.
Maybe that’s what happens when you lose someone so unexpectedly — the idea of that person coming back, even in the most fanciful way, makes more sense than the idea of her being gone.
It wasn’t just that I was unprepared for her death; it’s that she was. A few weeks after my mother died, I went to the hospital where she had worked as a family therapist, to clean out her desk. I spent a long time staring at her daily planner, spaces for the coming months already filled with her tight cursive: “Jennifer comes home from NYC.” “Haircut.” “Team meeting.” She had plans.
There are even photos from the day she died. Among my parents’ things that were sent back was a camera with a roll of film in it. For months, I couldn’t even take the film out of the camera. When I finally had it developed, I turned the envelope over and over in my hands, feeling as if a secret were contained within. But there was no secret, just a handful of pictures of my parents on vacation. Actually, all but one was of my father in various poses by the cliffs or the water; my mother had been the photographer in the family. In the lone photograph of my mother, she is standing in front of some orange wildflowers, smiling, wearing a fitted purple t-shirt tucked into khaki shorts, something she would’ve been too self-conscious to wear before she lost weight. In her left hand, she is clutching a pamphlet — a trail map, maybe? She looks serene. She doesn’t know.
Maybe I should be happy that she spent her final moments enjoying nature, content, oblivious. But I can’t help feeling that she was duped, that someone should have warned her. Check the map! I want to scream at the woman in the photograph. Do you know where you are, what’s about to happen?
Maybe she did know, just before it happened. Maybe that’s even worse.
It has been more than 12 years since that phone call. I no longer expect my mom to come back. She has become a memory, the same framed photograph on my nightstand, frozen in time. My mother would be 63 now, and sometimes, I try to imagine what she would look like — hair a little thinner, lines on her face a little deeper — but I find it impossible, just the way I can never quite hear the sound of her voice in my head, no matter how hard I try.
I, on the other hand, have changed. My face no longer has the fullness of my early twenties. My skin has lost some of its glow. I’ve lived the last third of my life without her. Since she died, I’ve graduated from college, gone to graduate school, gotten married, had two children. I constantly think of questions I want to ask her, many of them about being a mother. (What did you do when I wouldn’t take a nap? Did you ever feel like motherhood was a burden?) I want to ask her, but I’ve learned to ask others. Friends, the Internet. I’ve learned to be in the world without my mom.
And yet, I don’t feel completely without her. I’ve found ways to keep her around, to do what the sympathy cards call “keeping her spirit alive,” I suppose. When I make her recipe for honey cake on the Jewish New Year, and it comes out perfectly, or wear the diamond studs she wore every day, or reminisce with my brother about something funny she used to say, she is just the tiniest bit closer. Not with me, but not quite as far away.
It would be nice to end this way, to tell you I’ve managed to “move on” from the gruesome details of my mother’s death to a happier, more peaceful place. But that’s not how the story ends. Sometimes, I still see the accident when I close my eyes at night. Sometimes, I still dream she is alive. In my dreams, she no longer returns to us. She is somewhere, but just out of reach. I keep calling her, but she’s never there. I leave her messages, but she doesn’t return them. Maybe if I just call her one more time, I think in the dreams. Maybe this time she’ll answer.
Sometimes I imagine going to the place where it happened, to see where she died. I see myself, checking the map, following the trail — slowly, carefully, looking down at my feet. (Even before my parents’ accident, I wasn’t much of a hiker. I’ve always been afraid — that I’ll be too weak, that I’ll fall — and the accident has only made me more wary.) When I think I’ve reached the spot, I place some kind of marker in the ground. Something that proclaims: This happened. She was here.
Jennifer Richler is a freelance writer living in Bloomington, Ind. Follow her on Twitter @jrichler. She recently wrote about condolence notes and about talking to your kids about your late parents for Modern Loss.
This piece was originally published on Literary Mama, under the title “She Was Here.” Republished with the permission of the author.