What I’ve been telling people in the last week might sound insensitive or histrionic, but I can’t stop thinking it and I can’t stop saying it: I haven’t felt this way since my mother died.
When this first occurred to me, which was sometime early on the day after the election, my instinct was to hide it. Like so many deeply true and painful things, I felt ashamed of it. But it remained, and I told one friend and then another, and then I told some family members, and then I told a stranger five minutes after I met her in a bookstore. I haven’t felt this way since my mother died.
An election is not a mother. I know this. And yet.
December thirty-first will mark the sixteenth anniversary of my mother’s death. What they say about grief is mostly true: it gets better with time. And yet just a few months ago, I woke panicked from a dream in which my mother was alive but missing. The dream was so convincing that I leapt out of bed and ran from the bedroom as if to find her. It was only then, as I stood gasping in the hallway, that I remembered my mother was dead and had been dead for years. I was stunned by this revelation, as if she were dying anew.
When I returned to the bedroom, I collapsed shaking into bed. I fell asleep (was I ever fully awake?), and by morning, I felt foolish—because the dream had been so real, and because I had so thoroughly believed in it.
Because I woke up.
I did not watch the election results, nor did I drown my anxiety in wine as I’d jokingly promised my friends. Instead I watched Black Mirror while occasionally checking the electoral vote count on my phone. Then I went to bed because to fall sleep early was to still have hope.
But I did not sleep well that night. I had dream after disruptive dream. My heart pounded. I sweated and turned over in bed. Finally, in the middle of the night, I gave up and checked my phone. When I saw the news there, it was not a surprise. It felt like something I’d faced before.
On Christmas Eve, one week before she died, I gave my mother The Cider House Rules on VHS. I did not know it would be her last Christmas. I fully expected that one day, maybe when I was home from college on a break, she and I would watch the movie together.
Then she died and I returned to campus. I put The Cider House Rules, still brand new and unopened, on my shelf along with my other movies. I didn’t know what else to do with it. A few weeks passed. One night I returned to my dorm room to find my roommate and a mutual friend watching the movie. There was the crinkled cellophane they’d torn off the box, there was the empty case.
“I hope you don’t mind that we opened it,” my roommate said.
She had no idea I’d bought that tape for my mother. Part of me knew it shouldn’t matter, that it was just a movie and that someone might as well enjoy it, but the rest of me was raw, consumed, reeling. I could not bear to see the movie my mother never watched playing on my roommate’s tiny television.
I told my roommate the truth, that the tape had been a gift for my dead mother. I told her I was going down the hall to take a shower, but when I came back, I couldn’t stand to have them watching the movie any longer, so please stop it, please stop it, please stop it.
I grabbed my robe and my toiletries and hurried down the hall to the bathroom. I stayed in the shower for ages, openly sobbing.
When I finally returned to the room, my skin red and itching from all the hot water, my roommate and friend had vanished. They had rewound the tape, placed it back in its case, tried the best they could to replace the cellophane wrapping, and slid it back on the shelf.
The room was eerily quiet. I reached out and touched the movie, that broken-open, torn-apart thing I had wanted to keep whole.
But it was hers, I kept thinking. It was meant for her.
When I say I haven’t felt this way since my mother died, I mean lots of things, so many twisting dark fearful hopeless things, and yet I also mean simply this: During those first seconds upon waking every morning, a shadow crosses my consciousness. In that moment, the morning is not singular but is instead all mornings, all hours, the entire future. To wake in this way is to think I cannot bear this and then to bear it. It is to keep my eyes closed just a bit longer, to conjure what was once hers, to remember. To dream.