At the delicate age of four, I discovered that death was permanent. Thanks to the song “Puff the Magic Dragon,” I learned that “a dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.” At the time, I didn’t realize that the little boy in the song didn’t die – he simply grew up. I was deeply disturbed. For several nights I was unable to sleep, bombarded by thoughts of all the things I would miss if I died. Number one was George, my stuffed monkey and best friend. I assumed that stuffed animals, like dragons, lived forever, even when their human friends died. The thought of George alone in the world upset me enormously.
A few years later, death became more than just a childish fear. On the night of Nov. 20, 1999, I lay on my living room floor doing my third-grade homework. My dad went into the bedroom to check on my mom and discovered she was not breathing. She was dead.
For five years, she had battled breast cancer. Her death had been imminent, a fact I knew but was never fully prepared for. I didn’t scream or cry, only stared in shock at myself in the mirror and thought, You have no mother. A feeling of anguish rushed through my blood.
Then I realized that I hadn’t given my mom her Christmas present. It was a small bottle of lotion I had made by combining all of the other lotions in the house. I had labeled it “Sweet Dreams.” Now she would never see it. My dad dressed her in new pajamas and placed the gift in her hands.
I was numb for months before I really cried. It was years before I ceased to imagine that she would walk through the door every time I heard the key in the lock. In this fantasy, she was never thin or pale or walked with a cane. She would glide back into my life with shiny hair and a wide smile. Inside, I never stopped missing her. I was without my favorite dinner companion; my best, fresh-laundry-smelling hugger; my safest, opal-ring-wearing hand to hold. But on the outside I carried on normally, even robotically.
In eighth grade, I became the valedictorian of my class. One day, my dad stopped by to watch the graduation rehearsal. As I stood at the podium and read my speech, I looked out into the audience. Among my classmates, I saw my dad smiling. I could have sworn there were tears in his eyes. When I finished and turned to go offstage, I looked again but he had disappeared. He told me later that he was so proud but heartbroken that my mother couldn’t be there.
Dad always said how badly my mom had wanted to watch my sister and me grow up. He would say that she was watching over us in heaven, but I wasn’t sure if he believed in such a place, or if I did. Still, I like to imagine that my mom can see these moments of my life by some supernatural expedient. With every move I make, I wonder if she would approve.
When I enter college next fall, it will have been 10 years since my mom died. I still think of her daily but no longer daydream about her magical resurrection, and my dad has stopped talking about her in heaven. Instead, he observes that I have her smile, her artistic abilities, and her independent streak. It is then that I realize that she isn’t completely gone, because my sister and I are her daughters. My mom may not be in the auditorium when I graduate high school, but her intelligence and fortitude will bring me there.
My future awaits, and I will dive into it like my mother and father always wanted. I will devour books on jellyfish and constellations. I will make underwater films on the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. I will understand the concept of daylight saving time. I’ll fall in love.
There is a galaxy of places to visit, billions of people to meet, and an infinite number of ice cream flavors to try. The memory of my mother, my past, and my fears will not haunt me but inspire me to live.