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Bittersweet Motherhood

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I gave birth to my daughter on a Monday. That Friday, my mom died.

My daughter was five days old. I got a call from my dad mid-morning, who said he was nearby and wanted to come over for a few minutes. He lived 40 minutes away. He never just happened to be nearby.

I hung up the phone, waddled to the bathroom to take care of my postpartum self, and hustled back down the hallway just as my dad was walking through the door of our condo. He looked up but didn’t smile.

“Mom died today,” he said, offering no additional details, leaving an opening for me to say something. Anything.

But I didn’t say anything. I released a strong breath, then looked over at my baby in my husband’s arms on the couch. He was dangling a bottle of formula over the armrest, burp cloth draped over his chest, staring back at me, waiting for my reaction to news that was stunning but also a long time coming.

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My mom suffered her first brain bleed when I was 10 years old. When my mom’s brain bled for the second time, I was 12, and this time she stayed in the hospital for more than four months, followed by an extensive stay in a rehab facility. When she finally came home, she wasn’t who she had always been. My mom died that summer in the hospital, though the doctors told us she had made a miraculous recovery.

Traumatic brain injuries have a way of taking someone away while leaving them right next to you. I saw my mom next to me, in her wheelchair, slurred speech, sad eyes. But it wasn’t her at all. The person I knew, the person I needed, she no longer existed. She had become her illness.

I lost her when I was 12, but it wasn’t until I was 33 and a new mom that I felt the finality of that loss. All those years of mourning and coping and managing, I thought those years would prepare me for this moment. But I was surprised to learn that no amount of loss can prepare you for death.

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My husband drove slowly into the cemetery. I had one hand near my newborn’s mouth, holding her pacifier in place, while the other hand covered my own mouth to control my tears. Sitting in the back seat of the car, staring down at my daughter, my mind was racing, replaying years of grief all at once and all over again.

But this was a new type of grief that shook me that day in the car, and for months after. I was no longer just a daughter grieving the loss of her mother, but a mother grappling with the possibility that my daughter could one day face a similar fate. For the first time since she got sick, I saw myself in my mom.

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As my daughter’s first birthday approached, so did the anniversary of my mom’s death. That week was both happy and sad and also confusing. Of course, this week will occur every year in the years to come, and I will have to find a productive way to spend this time. I hope to be able to do that soon.

But until then, I will mark both events separately, as they are. The anniversary of my mom’s death will honor the woman I lost and then lost again. My daughter’s birthday will celebrate the beautiful, spirited, feisty little girl I brought into this world.

And together, these events will be a reminder of who I am because of them both.

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