My mum was joy personified. She loved to sing and bake cookies and make enormous messes in the kitchen. She’d bring in stray animals, and at any given time we’d have an entire crew of cats, at least one dog, bunnies, lizards and a couple of birds - the more the merrier.
We would stay up late and talk about what we wanted to be when we grew up (I was around 16 by this point, she was in her 40s) then we would usually go to a diner, or late-night movie. We lived in a typical suburban neighborhood, where the gossip always seemed to revolve around who looked better than who, or who made the most money. She never seemed to care about any of that, she just wanted to find things that made her laugh, and she drove a perpetually-falling-apart minivan with an eggbeater for a hood ornament (she asked my dad to swap it out for her one day, the original one was “boring”).
She used to pull out of our driveway with the sliding side door still open, then pull ahead to the stop sign, hit the brakes, and let the door slam shut on its own. One day, the door just kept going - flying off our car, and onto the road. She turned to us kids in the backseat, and, fighting off laughter, said quietly “Oh well.” We had to tie the door back on with rope, which she found hilarious.
In spite of her easy going nature, my mum was often a firm parent. There was a mutual respect between her and her children - sort of an unspoken code, where we understood we could open up to her at any given time, about anything at all, and she would listen with an open heart. That respect and grace would go both ways. She had a real knack for making people feel seen and understood, and everyone loved her for that. As her kids, I think we realised how rare that was and really appreciated it. We knew how lucky we were. She was love, and fun, and understanding, and acceptance, and then one day - she was gone.
My mum died of cancer on her 50th birthday. She had been sick for a few years, and she fought so hard, but just couldn’t get ahead of it. The last year of her life, we watched her once vibrant light grow dim as she drifted further and further away from us. We brought the Christmas tree into her room once she couldn’t leave the bed anymore. We lay next to her and rested with her and tried in vain to find food she might still like to eat. We watched her take her final breath as we sat by her bedside, reading her birthday cards. I was 21, my older sister was 28, my little brother was 14. People often remark about the age difference between us siblings, that we’re so far apart. But from that day on, we’ve walked through life side by side with the closeness of triplets. We were her most beloved people, and we were suddenly without her, wondering where all that love would go.
I am not an especially religious person, and while I love to imagine my Catholic mum drinking iced tea and playing Trivial Pursuit with the angels, I have also made peace with the fact that I might never understand where she went. I used to feel so empty without her, like the sun in our sky was suddenly gone and now there was nothing for us to orbit. There was a time after she died where I would ask for signs from her, or I would drink too much wine and wander into the back garden and talk to the sky, hoping I could somehow channel her, or get a sign from her.
Anything. I was just so desperate to have her back. Now I’m 40, only ten years from when my mum’s time ran out, and while I don’t really wander outside and talk to the sky anymore, I do feel her. I finally understand that the love she showed her children, family and friends never actually went anywhere. It has stayed with all of us, and grown bigger, and has made us all better people. I can feel it between my siblings and I, and whenever we visit with my dad, or whenever her friends tell old stories about her. That love is as real as anything, I feel like I can hold it in my own two hands. That feeling of love is how I know she is still here.
My siblings and I have our own children now - magical, strange, lovely little versions of us who will never experience how amazing their grandma was. Instead, we give them the love she gave to us. Having someone who truly loves you exactly as you are - whether it’s a parent, or another family member, or a friend - is a remarkable gift, a gift you can give back to yourself every day. I take comfort in the fact that, while we may not know how long we have here, love is truly eternal.
So, in honour of my mom, I share that love as best as I can - in my comics and books, in my personal relationships, and especially with my own daughter. I’ll sing with her, and stay up late with her, and talk to her about what we want to be when we grow up. And when things don’t go our way, when the door flies off the car and onto the road, I’ll do my best to laugh quietly and say “Oh well,” tie the door back on, and keep driving.
You’re Loved by Liz Climo is out now, published by Welbeck, £6.99.