I’ll be 55 tomorrow. I have anticipated this birthday for nearly 40 years.
In 1980, when I was 16, my mother died at age 55 from breast cancer. For the past 38 years, I have grown accustomed to being a member of a club that no one willingly applies to join. Milestones such as graduation, new jobs and marriage have been poignant to navigate without my mom.
Over the years I have done a lot of emotional work, healing and learning about the effect on a girl’s life of losing her mother early. Not only is a daughter stripped of her main emotional support, but she also loses a role model, a way of being a woman. The book Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman has been a constant in my library since the mid 1990s.
For better or worse, our mother’s life gives us a blueprint, or template, of what it means to be a woman. My mother and I never talked about her life, but I have the sense that she lived much of it held back in an unhappy marriage and never really finding her true path in life. I saw her break away and begin to live for herself at the age of 50 when she separated from my dad and went back to college, but her life was tragically cut short five years later. I vowed that I would not repeat that pattern of waiting until it was ‘too late’.
In reaching my mid-50s, I am at a time of my life where I look back over the years to take stock and to examine the results of choices I have made throughout my life. I am very proud that as a young woman, I had the insight to look at my mother’s life, and her early death, and made the conscious choice to live my life in a way that I would have few regrets or lost opportunities when I reach the age that I am now. In the early loss of my mother, as emotionally difficult as it made my life, I found the freedom to follow my own path into womanhood. Throughout my life I have taken many risks and gone through many open doors, a few admittedly ill chosen, but I have always come through each experience learning more about who I am as a person and finding strength that I never knew I had.
I have found role models in real women in my life, literary characters and the lives of women artists. One of my early mentors told me that even if a chosen path doesn’t take you where you had hoped, it will take you to where you need to be. This is so true and I pass this gem of wisdom on whenever I can.
At the same time that I am celebrating becoming 55, I have had an unconscious fear, common to many ‘motherless daughters’ that I will not live past the age that my mother was when she died. I feel sadness in the knowledge that I am facing a stage of life that my mom never experienced — and I’ll have to go into the future without her example. Although at the time I knew my mother was far too young to die, I understand that all the more now that I’ve reached the age she was. It’s hard to believe that all the life I’ve had to date is all the life my mother ever had. I still feel young and energetic, full of plans and dreams — and I am acutely aware of how much life she missed out on.
Still from The Cannonball Run (1981)
It is also strange to see women my age and older whose mothers are still alive. To see and hear about time spent together, or about them caring for mothers whose health is failing and to think that I did that as a teenager, when I was far too young. Sometimes I uncharitably think, ‘Why them and not me?’ Still my experience made me who I am and I have felt for much of my life that I have already faced and coped with one of the most difficult events possible, the death of one’s mother.
To a society that bombards us, especially women, with messages that we are not supposed to age I say “Hooey!”. I feel excited about going forward into the uncharted territory of my mature years. Since I was a young woman, I have been looking forward to growing into my late 50s and through my 60s, 70s and however long I will have beyond that. I’ve prepared myself well up to this point, making positive life choices and taking great care of my physical health and mental well-being.
I have the most satisfaction about sharing a very happy marriage with a loving and supportive man. In fact, all this week we are celebrating our Double Leo Birthdays having reached a cumulative total of 115 years. We are both looking forward to many shared decades to come!