Trading Places With My Mother

I had reservations about transitioning into my forties. Everyone offered worst-case scenarios about what to expect, from needing reading glasses to predicting the weather with my knees. They kept the most thrilling part until the end, a brief glimpse into what was coming: perimenopause.

I needed solid advice from a trusting source. My initial instinct was to pick up the phone and call my mother to ask about how she handled her forties. Except for one thing, my mother died when she was thirty-nine.

I glanced at my fortieth birthday cake while wax trickled down the number 4 candle, and that’s when it dawned on me: I was older than my own mother. While it is typical to surpass the age of a parent when you are old enough to receive social security, forty is unnatural.

I had expected to die like my mother. In a strange way, I willed myself to die at thirty-nine to spare myself from the torment of being given additional moments in this life that she never had. My physician persistently conducted checkups as I waited for the cancer that had destroyed Mom’s body to defeat me as well. Each time I received a healthy diagnosis, I berated myself.

My fortieth birthday brought with it a flood of greetings from family and friends. Naturally, came the burning question: how did it feel to enter a new phase of life? My answer did not take long. It felt wrong. Instead of happiness, my mood spiraled downward. How could I navigate through this world knowing that I had grabbed the limelight from my mother?

That evening as I lay my head on the pillow, a familiar object sitting on my dresser caught my attention. It was a photograph of me perched on my mother’s lap. Interestingly, the picture was taken on my first birthday. My mom held me as I savored the flavor of my small thumb.

I rose from bed for a closer view. The snapshot illustrated our relationship as nature had intended. An innocent child unaware of life’s challenges, relying on her mother to guide the way. But the universe had a cruel trick up its sleeve. The woman I had relied on for guidance would eventually vanish, leaving me with the overwhelming task of fulfilling a position she would never know.

In the following years, I ruminated on what trading places with my mother meant or whether it even made a difference. I did not choose to receive the lead in the race. However, it caused me to pause and contemplate serious questions, like how I differed from the person who gave birth to me.

From a physical standpoint, I encountered a few inconveniences, such as a slower metabolism. My digestive system could no longer tolerate greasy food during late hours. My head was adorned with tinsel like a Christmas tree. I had weaker eyes and a bladder that functioned as an alarm, waking me from my sleep every few hours.

All of this created little difference between my mother and me. She had gray hair in her twenties, donned glasses in her thirties, and regularly ran to the bathroom due to the tea she consumed all day long.

My mom did have me beat when it came to serious medical conditions. She had epileptic seizures from the moment she was eighteen before succumbing to advanced Pancreatic Cancer at thirty-nine.

I grappled with regret. Why was I able to march through life unscathed while my mother was taken to a premature grave? It did not seem fair, me with minor muscle aches compared to the pain that had devastated her fragile body.

There was one field, however, in which I emerged as the frontrunner. When my mom passed away on that warm summer’s day in June, she departed from the world before discovering her authentic self. Each decade in one’s existence is a chance to gather insight from the past and use that knowledge to shape our future selves. During her brief time on earth, my mother dealt with the same challenges we all face. The contrast is that she was still too inexperienced to recognize how to conquer those struggles.

My mother was continually trying to find her place in the world, yearning for control but unsure of how to achieve it. This happens to all of us during our journey from darkness to transparency. In our twenties we stumble at every step. By our thirties we start to find our footing. It isn’t until our forties that we develop increased alertness.

As I proceeded through my twenties and thirties, I wrestled with the same issues most of us do. My choices were fashioned by emotion, my actions facilitated by stubbornness. I spoke without thinking, acted without considering, accused without knowing. I underestimated time, misusing it on unimportant matters. But it was all part of the journey.

Getting older is more than gray hair and declining health. It is understanding past behavior to modify current behavior. During this inherent process, one’s priorities change. And that is what occurred as I transformed from a naïve girl into an informed woman.

My forties bestowed upon me a most unusual gift: a sense of awareness. For the first time, I could see, hear, and think with clarity. I ventured outside of myself instead of observing an enigmatic image in the mirror. The person standing before me possessed knowledge of things my mother had not yet learned. I understood that past arguments were irrelevant. How others judge unimportant. Those you rely on disappoint. Those you care deeply for can break your heart. Most importantly, I learned that each new day is a blank page, a chance to let go of the past so that you can focus on what is, not what was.

In recent years, I have learned to embrace getting older. I no longer search for hidden ailments to end my existence. Every sunrise is a new opportunity to evolve, to improve myself from the day before.

My mom had more to ascertain, but death robbed her of uncovering her true self. Had she survived she would have been privy to the same lessons as me. She, too, had pain that needed healing. Conflicts that needed mending. She wept when she should have laughed. Grasped tightly when she should have let go. But it was all she understood at the time.

As I approach the end of my forties, I frequently reflect on my connection with my mother, a bond that remains confined to the past. Mothers play various roles in the lives of children – consoler, friend, observer, enforcer. Perhaps their most important function is that of a teacher.

Once upon a time my mother led, and I followed, relying on her wisdom to show me the way. Now I am at the front of the line, carrying my mother’s spirit upon my shoulders. She depends on me to lead her along a path she’s never traveled, to instruct her in what she’s never experienced. I do so with gentleness and grace and understanding because I know that I am living for two.

And mom, you can indeed determine the weather with your knees.

Tara Lynn Marta

Tara MartaTara Lynn Marta is a fiction and nonfiction writer. Her work has been published both online and in print. She has two books published: a novel, Look Back to Yesterday, and a memoir, Dreaming Through the Eyes of God. Tara is also the host of a YouTube podcast called Tea with Tara. She is currently at work on her third book.

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