Mom and me at 63
By Leslie Gavel
I’ve been thinking about my mom more than usual lately. She died in January 1991 at the age of 63, from breast cancer, and, as impossible as it seems, I’m now the same age. In some ways, it feels like yesterday that I was 33, trying to manage the intense, hot grief. But in other ways, it feels like forever ago — years mired in the minutiae of the day-to-day, building a life that resembled adulthood.
I was certainly not in a position to lose my mother. Is any girl or woman, ever? Yet I’ve muddled through (Mom’s words when I asked how I would manage without her) and the abject grief no longer dogs me. The physical ache in my chest is gone. I’m now contending with what it means to outlive my mom.
Here’s a secret that you can’t know until you get here but being a woman in her 60s is rather glorious.
A distinct unease washes over me when I wonder how come I deserve to be here at 63 and Mom didn’t–a form of survivor’s guilt, and at the same time, anxiety that the calendar flipping by my 63rd birthday brings with it what feels like borrowed time. When my mother died, I realized my mortality was more than just a rumor, but I never felt it as viscerally as I do now. If I’m living on borrowed time, I better damn well treasure it for all it’s worth.
Here’s a secret that you can’t know until you get here but being a woman in her 60s is rather glorious. You would never know it as we rarely see ourselves reflected in the media and society sees us as useless. Old people are seen as irrelevant, especially women. We lose cultural currency when we are lined and grey—no longer seen as beautiful if we ever were.
What I grieve now is that Mom was just dipping her toe into this most liberating decade. She missed too much. There is so much to celebrate in old age.
I no longer care about impressing people because I know what matters. It’s not landing the big promotion or acquiring the fancy house but the times shared with my most cherished people.
If there was some consolation in Mom’s death, I think it made me a kinder person.
Yes, we all have more illnesses, loss, and lives further complicated simply by time but we also have more empathy, emotional intelligence, and less arrogance (but for the grace of god). In short, we make better friends. If there was some consolation in Mom’s death, I think it made me a kinder person.
I would rather read a book than climb a mountain and feel unapologetic about that. I use this example because of our proximity to them. I am more awed by exquisitely placed words on a page than I am by nature. Although I’m grateful that my body is capable of getting me up a gradual slope–I’m more grateful in general–and I do this on occasion.
I love to travel to far-away places but I’m no longer driven to visit all of the top destinations in the guidebook. I’d rather wander the streets, lounge in a café watching the world go by.
I’m painfully outspoken in my opinions because I know what I stand for. (I love to tell my kids that I’m not at the height of my physical powers but I’m at the height of my intellectual powers, just to see their eyes roll.) My mom was no shrinking violet either. She was interested in politics and current events. I remember her and my dad arguing over highballs on Friday evenings. I think of her often when my husband and I resolve an argument by googling up any given topic, how she would have loved that instead of relying on the dictionary or an encyclopedia that never had the answer anyway.
I can admit to watching the Bachelor and not give a shit, which means I don’t judge what others do with their spare time and there is much more of it these days. I recall watching All My Children with Mom–the 80s equivalent. We never thought it was beneath us.
I adore clothes, especially dresses, and find any occasion to wear them. Mom my inspiration. I was always proud of the way she dressed, like the world was worth showing up for, her hair and fashion always in vogue. She didn’t wear much makeup, but lipstick, more vibrant the better, was a necessity even when just dashing out to the corner store.
Another way I honor my mother and her life interrupted is by tending to these relationships as the beautiful, fragile things they are.
Mom and our oldest Tess had about two good years together. She never met our youngest. She excelled at being a grandmother keeping Tess overnight on occasion so my husband and I could have a night out, not a couple of hours, but a stay-out-late kind of night. “How do you get to know your grandkids if you don’t spend time with them?” she would say to me when I thanked her. She bought Tess clothes and trinkets for no special occasion. She often cooked for us.
I resolved that if I was ever to be a grandmother, I would work to hold my grandchildren close and provide childcare and meals because we benefited so much from this kind of support as do all young families. (So far my husband and I have only been called upon to look after a big, clumsy mutt for a weekend.)
But for now, it’s my girls, the ones who hold my organs and tissues in place. We not only love each other but genuinely like each other and spend significant chunks of time together. Another way I honor my mother and her life interrupted is by tending to these relationships as the beautiful, fragile things they are. At times Mom and I weren’t as generous as we could have been with each other and I bare this in mind with my kids.
At times I’m hard on myself when that inner voice says I’m not enough. How much more productive I could be! I should do more writing, housework, cooking, walking, volunteering. Do just about more anything, except drink wine, watch television, scroll through social media. But I also realize that some is better than none and there will be more here and there.
Every day I’m aware of what a miracle and privilege it is to be alive in a way I never appreciated when I was younger.
Instead, I dwell on the life I’ve built, or if that’s too pretentious, the life that has come my way. I dwell on the nurturing, hilarious friends, the extended family always up for a party, my husband and kids who, for the most part (we’re a family, after all) bring me unadulterated joy. I know on a bone level everything else is beside the point.
Every day I’m aware of what a miracle and privilege it is to be alive in a way I never appreciated when I was younger. I’ve been granted more time than Mom, but who knows for how long, and because fate will do with us what it wants, I need to seize the day but on my own terms. Mom would approve if I started by slipping on a kick-ass dress and painting my lips red. That might just be as far as I get.
About the Writer
Leslie Gavel is a Calgary, Canada freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, Canadian Living, More, Today’s Parent and several Canadian and American newspapers. She has written for mamamia.com and CBC.ca. She is the author of Dropout: How School Is Failing Our Kids And What We Can Do About it. She isn’t sure at this moment what the future holds but is excited about the possibilities now the world is opening up.
Subscribe to our e-newsletter, Bucketcetera and get regular updates on new articles and features.
- Living Fully
- Dying Well
- Money & Law