By Jordan Miller
My handwriting looks like my mom’s.
Our words run together because we don’t take the pen off the paper. Our letters squish together too, since we write too wide for it to be any other way, and my dad always admonished us both for it.
“Jane Ann, it looks like a two-year-old wrote this,” he would say.
The words “Love, Mommy” are some of the last I have from her, on cards I get on special birthdays or other milestones, written in wobbly script that hurts if I think about it too much.
She died when I was 11. Her breast cancer turned into brain cancer.
Life with my mother is now a faint memory to me. I have snippets, and I can remember what she looked like mostly – the way she wore her shoulder-length blonde hair with those sparse bangs, the funny fauxhawk she got when the chemo had taken most of it away.
My little brother was a carbon copy of her – once, we even put her wig on him and he looked exactly like her as a child.
Jane Ann Miller’s personality is somewhat of an enigma to me. What I do know is she was an accountant until she started having babies, and resolved to go back to work once me and my brother made it through high school. She loved the New York Times crossword puzzles, and had an autographed book of Hillary Clinton’s autobiography – but she was more moderate than that would lead me to believe.
Of course, all of this knowledge is courtesy of my father.
I can hear her laugh sometimes, or her voice saying “Jordan Renee Miller” when I was in trouble, but real memories I have of her are few and far between.
I remember she used to play an online game with me called WebKinz, and I bought my mom her own WebKinz stuffed animal for Mother’s Day while she was sick. We buried her with it.
I remember we used to scare my little brother by flipping her hair over her face and putting her glasses over it, making him shriek with terror and me shriek with laughter, until she turned into Mommy again.
Cards from her that my dad saved for the milestones of my life she wouldn’t witness are the tangible things I have left of her now, along with a morbid fill-in-the-blank book that tells me parts of the life story she never got to share with me.
After they broke the news to my 7-year-old brother and me that Mommy wouldn’t be getting better, my Houston home became populated with neighbors and their countless casseroles, family from across the country to help us with the day-to-day of caring for her and ourselves.
I felt suffocated by pity. My school even held this unbearable concert with my withered, bald mother at the center of the library while my fifth grade class sang “You Raise Me Up.” At eleven years old, it made me sick that everyone knew what was happening to my family.
My dad’s sister, Aunt Kelly, helped her with a fill-in-the-blank book of her favorite memories that she didn’t get the chance to share with me. When they gave it to me after her death, all I could feel was numbness.
Now, I’m glad I have at least some of her memories for myself. Like the fact that one of her high school boyfriends ate the tails off of shrimp, or how she spent every summer in the Cayman Islands because that’s where all of her family lives.
There’s a point in the book where the shaky, penciled handwriting turns into defined blue pen. They only got about a third of the way through the pages.
I always hate seeing fish tanks in public places.
M.D. Anderson has a ton of them, I guess to distract you from whatever shitty diagnosis you have to keep going back to that hospital to face.
Staring into those fish tanks when my mom was being treated or undergoing surgery was my main source of entertainment at that hospital, other than frequent visits to the gift shop or cafeteria to buy sanitized stuffed animals, crunchy aluminum balloons and lumpy mac-and-cheese.
That building took a chunk of my childhood from me. The feeling of the scratchy blankets under my legs as my mother’s weak arms clutched my brother and me, my father leaning over us as we collectively sobbed, the air leaving my lungs so quickly and the adrenaline surging through me as I realized I’d have to grow up without a mother.
That I wouldn’t have her at my wedding.
That she wouldn’t be able to share with me those things only a mother can share with her daughter – her first kiss, who she went to prom with, how to shave her legs, how to be a woman. That later I wouldn’t get to share with her my first kiss, or first boyfriend, or the life I’d make for myself.
That my story would continue even when hers ends.
The ending of her story makes its way into mine constantly.
There’s a spot in I-45 on my way home that always propels me to the backseat of my dad’s SUV on the way to the hospice. My granny is clutching the car’s ceiling handle and my baby brother just stares ahead.
“Jeffy, slow down,” my grandpa says in the passenger seat to my dad. He’s probably going at least 20 mph over, but for a good reason.
We finally get there, and my dad goes into the back while one of my family members explains to me that it’s happening: My mother is dying. Someone tells me I can go back and see her to say goodbye. I ask if she’ll hear me. They say she will, but she can’t say anything back.
My brother, who turned 8 just a few days ago, says he will. I’m scared, so I don’t.
She died the next morning.
We never visited the grave after she was buried.
Something about it made me feel like it was so final, that my mom was truly dead and gone. My brother didn’t want to go either for the longest time.
But a few months before I left for college, I decided I needed to say goodbye to her, and I needed my brother to come with me. That was a challenge, but we made it there.
I made my peace with my mother then, accepting the finality of it all. Even though the memories – and lack thereof – came rushing to the forefront of my brain, I was glad I did it.
I’ll go back again to update her on where my life goes, but I don’t know how soon that will be.
I don’t remember what she liked to wear, or what she smelled like. But faint outlines of her hit me every day – with framed pictures and notes I’ve saved of her handwriting when she was healthy and just my mom.
I can feel her sometimes, when I hit a milestone or do something she’d be proud of. My dad used to give me notes on some of my birthdays that they had tucked away for when I’d get older. I don’t know how far they got with those, and I’m afraid to ask.
One day they’ll run out – they may have already.
One day I’ll have to face the fact that I won’t have any more of my mother.
One day I’ll turn 41, and I’ll know an age she never had the chance to.
Almost for more years than I had with her, I’ve faced what life is like without her helping me write my story. But she’ll always be my contributing author, even if I’m the one holding the pen.