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The author and his mother, Sara Gilsdorf, on beach in New Hampshire, 1967. (Courtesy)

My mother would be 73 if she were alive today. But she is not. She died at age 57, when I was 33.

Yet, perhaps worse than her death, was the loss she and I sustained many years before.

At age 38, when I was 12, she endured a massive brain aneurysm. She survived, but was never the same. The brain damage caused paralysis on the left side of her body, nasty bouts of epilepsy and huge disruptions in behavior and personality.

I want to reach back into memory’s rusty time machine for those happier, more whole experiences. I want to recall the pre-illness mother I had from birth to age 11. The mother she wanted to be.

Like her body divided into two halves, healthy and crippled, her aneurysm divided her life too. No longer did the life of Sara Gilsdorf contain a consistent narrative. There was only the before and the after.

Each year, as Mother’s Day approaches, I struggle to make sense of this conundrum. I wonder, what is the “right” way to remember her?

I want to reach back into memory’s rusty time machine for those happier, more whole experiences. I want to recall the pre-illness mother I had from birth to age 11. The mother she wanted to be. The one who taught me to make meatloaf and wheat-germ-and-yogurt smoothies. The one who showed me how to cross-country ski and develop black-and-white film in the dark. The one who taught me to plant pumpkins and harvest tomatoes and herbs in our garden bordered by the lilac hedge she loved. The mother whose example said, no need to choose: You can be artist and parent, partier and coach of your son’s Little League team.

Sadly, those memories are as muddled and foggy as a botched roll of 35mm film, as if the more harsh experiences overexposed my brain and blotted out the good.

Instead, what I mostly remember are the aftereffects — a damaged, half-operational version of the woman she had been. I recall more vividly a mother who screamed obscenities, and lay awake at 3 a.m. in a haze of cigarette smoke and TV static, and limped around the house like a war survivor. However inadvertently, she taught me not to get too close to anyone, to keep your distance and protect yourself because people, even mothers, can disappear without warning. I know she didn’t mean to impart those lessons as part of her legacy — but learn them I did. In much the same way that I don’t mean to remember my mother as a broken woman who had no control over much of her mind and body. But I do.

Perhaps, I’m not so unique. Perhaps, we all have versions of our mothers we want to celebrate. And versions we’d rather forget. Perhaps I was lucky to have had her for as long as I did.

When her health ran out, her luck ran out. And our time ran out. I was still her “pumpkin” when she died, but we weren’t able to build much of anything more. She spent much of her post-aneurysm years in an institution.

And how I can ever be “at peace” with her death, when I was never at peace with her life?

I contain empathy and love. And resilience. But I know I was damaged by the loss. And how can I ever be “at peace” with her death, when I was never at peace with her life?

Here’s what I want to try to do this Mother’s Day, to pay tribute to my mom, to thank her, and make her real again:

Remember her. Think about her, who she was and still is to me.

Resurrect her life by retelling the stories she told me, and stories about her that I know.

Imagine who she might have been. Try to not be too sad. Try not to be afraid.

Finally, plant a lilac bush. I know she would have loved that.

Tags: Family

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  • http://www.facebook.com/emily.h.lacroix Emily Harvey Lacroix

    Thank you.

    • Ethan Gilsdorf

      you are welcome. thanks for writing

  • Lee Bakerman

    As always, thanks for sharing your words and messages.

    • Ethan Gilsdorf

      thanks Lee!

  • Maureen

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I am moved by the similarities in our experiences. I too lost my “real” mother to a brain aneurysm when she was in her early thirties, I was 10. After that she suffered seizures and was reduced from being a vibrant, fun loving, compassionate woman to a child again. She died at the age of 42 while I was still in college. She, too, would be 73 years old now. I realized when she died that I had lost her twice and that I never had the opportunity to mourn the first death. I have only begun to appreciate the beauty and the pain her presence in my life for that short time was for me and, like you, want to be sure to honor who she was by sharing her story with the grandchildren who will never know her.

    • Ethan Gilsdorf

      you are welcome. wow, what an amazing coincidence. thanks for writing.

  • Katie R

    Thanks, Ethan. I was really touched by this. I think we need to go out for a drink sometime and swap stories. Hugs to you on Mother’s Day

    • Ethan Gilsdorf

      who’s buying? ;-)

  • carlegardner@gmail.com

    You are an excellent, perceptive writer and this piece proves it once again. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Ethan Gilsdorf

      thanks for the kind comment!

  • Papa Lew

    I too, lost my mother to a brain aneurysm. I was 14 and she was 45. She had surgery but never came home from the hospital. She was in a coma for 8 years until she passed away at the end of my senior year in college. Those intervening years were very hard for us, seeing her, but not being able to communicate. I am now 66 and still mourn her aneurysm, which was her death to us. My cousins still speak fondly of her, but my wife and children know little of her.

  • Caroline Bakerman

    A wonderful account of your memories. Thank you, I’m sure it triggers thoughts and emotions in all of us who have read this.