March 11, 2016. 25 years.
25 years ago tonight, my mother, Robin, died. She was 39; I was 10; my brother was 7; my father was 35, the same age I am today. It happened at home. It wasn’t entirely a surprise when it happened, but we didn’t know exactly when it was coming. I never said goodbye. I was never conscious of seeing her for the last time. I don’t remember it. Instead, my last memory is of her back, walking towards my parents’ bedroom — sometimes, in the memory, I’m upstairs as she’s walking away, which would make my view of her impossible. It’s almost certainly not an actual memory.
For a quarter century, nearly every single day has had measures of rage, terror, & sadness. The tacit promise made to us, as children — by no one in particular, but by general consensus — was that time, by some sort of geological therapy, would eventually make things easier. The slow, tearing realization that there’s no truth in that assumption was hard enough to accept (a friend in her seventies, who lost her mother when she was just shy of 12, recently wrote me that “Dan Savage doesn’t apply here — it doesn’t get better”). But what I’m realizing, ruefully & with a kind of pitch-dark irony, is that it wasn’t only untrue but the opposite of the truth: time makes it worse. And that makes sense: even a little kid can go 10 minutes without their mother. A day is harder. 9,130 days, with the only promise being more to come, feels next to impossible.
Every year, around this date, I think about it all especially acutely — although I’m pretty much always thinking about it, all the time. For some reason, this year, I keep thinking “It’s been 25 years. If I’d killed somebody, I’d be getting out now.” It’s such a strange thought, & unlike me. But according to David Graeber’s book Debt, ‘the Sumerian word amargi, the first recorded word for “freedom” in any known language, literally means “return to mother.”‘ Maybe this is what’s circling around the penitentiary imagery I can’t shake this time. I have been excluded, since childhood & without any reprieve, from the most ancient conception we have of freedom.
Of course in some ways this doesn’t line up at all with the life that I am living, which is one of comparative material comfort & liberty, a freedom of movement more or less global in range, artistically & professionally satisfying. I get warm attention from strangers for telling jokes on the radio; more importantly, I have friends & comrades, family, a wife, and a daughter who love me. In conceptions both Buddhist & Darwinian, that daughter is partly my mother. So am I.
Life is not a gift, and life is not a sentence. It’s a process containing all of the very worst & best things that happen to people, in totally asymmetrical measure. My politics are based on the ethical principle that we’re responsible, as a society, for countering the asymmetrical dispersal of misery to whatever extent we can. My recent one-man show, written with my friend Marcus Youssef, explored the importance of socialism & social democracy in addressing this obligation. Canadian health care gave me fully half the time I had with my mother, & kept our family from being destroyed financially by her illness & death. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t destroyed.
There’s what society can do. Then there’s what it can’t. I have been angry for 25 years; I have been afraid for 25 years; I have been sad for 25 years. When good things happen, those feelings don’t go away; they live next to them. But I can realize that life will never be purely joyful again without lessening my love for my daughter, my wife, my family, friends & comrades in any way. Life isn’t good, & life isn’t bad, it’s a container for both, & so there isn’t any imperative for it to be consistently either.
Over the next 25 years — if I get them, & I take it as a good sign that I desperately hope that I do — I will stop expecting magic from time. I’ll stop expecting for the pain to become remote by some alchemy of minutes & months. I’ll live alongside it. I’ll keep seeing flashes of my mother’s features & expressions on her granddaughter’s face, even if they may be just as constructed as my final memories of her walking towards the room she shared with my dad. I’ll tell my daughter about her Granny, & she’ll sort of understand without really understanding, & sometimes I will leave the room & bawl. I will have good times, sometimes even whole good days. And I will have bad ones, because it’s not written anywhere that I shouldn’t.