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Her Smile

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

I used to hate that I looked like my mother – I have her smile, her eyes, the shape of her jaw – and hated the comparisons between the two of us, so different from her was I, and how desperate she was for me to be “just like her”. When I saw myself in pictures, I saw her bright smile, the face she put on for the world. Truly, her face lit up the entire room when she smiled; it was the reason strangers were so drawn to her and her energy. It was the reason she has such a close-knit group of friends, and maybe why I do, too. That brilliant smile and her joyous laughter were so different from the ugly side that I saw as her daughter, the anger and the bitterness that she turned toward me when she was drinking and in the depths of her depression.

When I was older and understood that her seemingly unfounded anger was because of a deep self-loathing, guilt and shame about her own personal choices and behavior, I was able to forgive her and find peace in the knowledge that it wasn’t me she was attacking, after all, but herself. That forgiveness came, unfortunately, at the same time she was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, and I lost her all too soon thereafter. Our complicated relationship was resolved in the few months that we spent together during her final journey; we were two halves of the same whole, nothing mattered but the deep love we felt for one another.

Now that she has been gone these many years, I feel only comfort and familiarity when I see her face reflected back at me in the mirror. I like to imagine I am seeing her soul, coming through to show me the unconditional love she was unable to give while she was alive, loving me for the person I have become, instead of the person she projected upon me. Her visage soothes the pain of losing my husband to ALS, the one person in my life who, from the time he met me, at my tender age of 8, loved me completely, easily, unconditionally. It is almost as if she is there to mother me through this, the most painful part of my life, even more painful than the loss of her, or the loss of my father.

It is her face that I wake to each morning, dragging myself through the morass that is my joyless morning, trying to motivate myself to move past the bathroom mirror, into the kitchen to start some coffee before I perform the chicken chores, or head into my home office for the day’s work. It is her voice that prods me to get up and move, when all I want to do is hide under the covers and doom scroll until I fall back asleep again. It was her diligence and stoic practicality – the guise of a functioning alcoholic – that kept her going in the later years of her life, and it is those same qualities as well as the gently coaxing circle of loving friends that surround me, that keep me going through this, my first year of widowhood.

My hair is gray, where hers was still naturally dark when she passed at the age of 72, her eyes a deep, chocolate brown where mine are hazel, but that bright, transformational smile that we share links us forever in time. So, too, does the memory of caring for her as she lay dying, lessons we both learned together, lessons that prepared me for the ALS/FTD journey with my husband. It may sound asinine that I am grateful for the difficult lessons learned as the caregiver of an alcoholic, narcissistic mother, and caregiver for my husband with early-onset dementia and fast-moving ALS, but I am truly grateful for the opportunity to model love and care for my friends and family, and grateful for the opportunity to grow into myself in a way I never would have without the loss of these two pivotal people in my life. And I am, ever so grateful, for her smile.

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Thank you for sharing the story of your Mom and husband. I too look very similar to my father, and I too hated it. Then one day I realized that I was blessed to be able to remember him in such a way that when I look in the mirror I see him. Every now and then I get a visit from my uncle. It feels like he sometimes just stares into my soul, but I know he is just seeing my father in me. Whether I wanted my father to be my rock or not. He was always there for me...


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