The Stories My Mother Gave Me
Glynnis MacNicol on being single, childless, and suddenly motherless in her 40s
For someone who has always been bad at math, I have a weird fixation on numbers.
Take my mother’s death. Officially my mother died on March 20. A Monday. This is the date on her death certificate and the date on her gravestone. This is also what the staff at the nursing home north of Toronto, where my mother had lived for the past 26 months, told my father when they called him at seven that morning. My mother, they said, had died overnight.
I wanted more details, though. “Overnight” felt too nebulous. When my sister, Alexis, and I arrived the next day to retrieve the last of my mother’s possessions, it was the first thing I inquired about. Who exactly had found her? I asked the nursing attendant manning the staff desk that oversaw my mother’s wing, hoping this would lead to the specifics I was searching for.
The nurse was an older blond woman, and she seemed puzzled by my question. “When a person is that ill,” she said, “we send someone in to see them every hour.” Behind her on the wall, in the frame reserved for pictures of recently deceased residents, was a picture of my mother. “In loving memory” read the gold-plated plaque nailed to the bottom of the frame. It was a terrible picture, taken recently. My mother’s face was thin and frail, the confusion that had eaten up her mind apparent in the angry, taut expression. It made her look like a stranger. My mother, always so careful with her appearance, would have been horrified by the photo. She wasn’t even wearing lipstick.
I turned back to the nurse. I understood her confusion; there was exactly nothing mysterious about my mother’s death. She had been sick for a long time; the previous Wednesday, a specialist told us she probably had six months, “give or take.”
Still, I tried again. I concentrated on sounding calm — I’d long ago learned this was the best way to deal with medical staff — as if I was just making casual conversation. But the truth was that since the previous morning, when my father and then, minutes later, my sister called to tell me the news, I’d been preoccupied with this small bit of information: I wanted to know the exact minute my mother had…