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first person

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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

My mother would have turned 75 tomorrow. If only she’d have lived past the age of 43.

I’d like to say that I’ll be packing up the car with presents and cake to take over for her birthday. That my teenagers will be asking how long we’ll be staying at the unfathomable-to-them Wi-Fi-free zone – their grandparents’ house – to which we’d reply, “Use your data!”

But just because Mom used to call me into the living room when I was a teenager to help her program Dynasty on the VCR, why am I assuming she wouldn’t have embraced today’s technology? For all I know, she would’ve e-mailed me a recipe she found surfing the ‘Net on the iPad we bought her for Christmas. She could’ve been one of those Facebook grandmas posting way too many pics of her grandkids.

But I don’t know a thing about my 75-year-old mother. She lives in my imagination and in a lifetime of wondering what might have been.

As I write this, I’m 50 years old and have outlived my mother by seven years. I’ve been aging without a blueprint. Fine lines around my eyes, like those objects in side-view mirrors, are becoming larger than they appear. I’m carrying an extra layer or two around my middle and am now up a couple of pant sizes higher than my mom used to wear. My hair is greying at lightning speed.

When my mom last saw me, I was sucking back orange Tic Tacs by the handful; now, I’m popping blood-pressure meds out of a seven-day pill box, twice a day. I stare in the mirror at these changes and feel a bit lost most days. I scour for genetic clues to explain all this aging, relying on my fading memory of my mother’s healthy 42-year-old body before a rare cancer in her adrenal gland swept in and took her away from me.

I study the last photograph I have of her alive and happy, before that bulging tumour the size of a grapefruit took root and crept silently over to her bones. She was nine years younger than I am now. She looked so modern and fashion-forward; now, I look like her dowdy older sister. Her lips were plumped with Dubonnet, her go-to Clinique lipstick shade, not the wine, while mine have been chapped and dry, hiding behind a medical face mask for the past two years. Her signature navy and red silk Simon Chang scarf was tied around her neck in a big bow, while my bare neck is blown a dozen times a day with a dollar-store paper fan to cool the dreaded hot flashes that she never experienced.

Time will forever stand still for the vibrant and youthful woman in the photo who was supposed to always be older than me.

I envy my friends who can account for their own aches and pains by blaming them on their mothers. Age spots, carpal tunnel, bunny lines – anything they can see in their living mothers that I’ll never be able to. My compass is gone. I look at my mother’s friends who are around 75 and study their features. I try to recall what they looked like around the time when my mother was still living, and I study them now. How have they changed? What I really want to know is how would she have changed.

Ever since I began to outlive her, it has felt like the similarities we once shared have been coming to an end. I used to look down and see the shape of my mother’s hands whenever I’d wash dishes or chop vegetables. I don’t any more. These past few years, the image staring back at me in the mirror has become a bit more mysterious. I used to catch a glimpse of Mom’s chin when I’d peer up close to pick at a pimple, but it’s not there any more. I miss hearing, “You look like your mother.” I’m aging, and she didn’t. Like a ship too far out of harbour, she is slipping farther away. I can barely see her any more. This makes me so sad.

But there are moments when she does come back to me. It’s a Tuesday night, and she’s sitting up on our blue and beige striped couch with her tired feet resting on the coffee table, and I hear the crackling of sunflower-seed shells through her teeth. She’s giggling at one of Jack’s distorted facial expressions on Three’s Company, and my sisters and I are laughing with her.

I remember some things that brought her joy, such as entertaining her friends with homemade Italian dinners or her reading People magazine cover-to cover the same day it arrived in the mail. I can’t forget all the scrubbing and washing and vacuuming she used to do and realize now what great shape she was in, without ever stepping into a gym. I close my eyes and can smell her coffee as she stirred two teaspoons of sugar in it, and I watch her dunking her lemon biscotti in it every morning.

She found her tiny pleasures and indulged in them. And wherever she went, her smile and her warmth would draw people close and tight, like the pleats on that favourite silk skirt she used to wear. These memories make me happy and have carried me through life without her. I wish had my mother here to show me how to age well, but I’m grateful she showed me how to live well.

So, instead of a birthday cake tomorrow, I’ll pick up a bouquet of flowers and bring them to her grave. And, like I always do, when I get there, I’ll fill her in on what’s new. I’ll mention the new anti-aging serum I’ve been trying, and I’ll bend my neck and show her the grey roots sprouting out of my scalp like weeds, and tell her how she saved a fortune on hair-colour treatments.

Every year on her birthday, I’m filled with bittersweet nostalgia for the young woman who mothered me for as long as she could. My mother will never get old, and no matter how many years pass, missing her will never get old either.

Gina Luongo lives in Etobicoke

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