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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

After my mom died in 2015, I unexpectedly found myself searching for her – on her wavelength. Elaine was a seeker in the truest sense. She was always trying out some new type of woo-woo: Trance dancing, energy healing, shamanism, chakras, crystals, rolfing, reiki – the list goes on. She frequented New Age havens like Kripalu; Zen Mountain Monastery; and Elat Chayyim, a Jewish renewal retreat in the Catskills (where, she told me, they’d sit in a circle, with their index fingers touching their thumbs, and chant “Shal-Ommm”).

My mom could drive me nuts, but there was pretty much no one else in my life I’d rather spend time with. We talked on the phone regularly, often went to restaurants and movies, and even took trips together. We weren’t exactly the Gilmore Girls – it would’ve made me cringe to call her my “best friend” – but we were really good friends. We complemented each other perfectly: She was the fun-loving dreamer and I was the down-to-earth realist.

So it caught me off-guard when, six months after her death, I felt the urge to go on a silent meditation retreat. I’d been absorbed by my grief and told myself that I needed to chill out. It would be a while before I realized that my trip to Oaxaca and the others that came after it were more about me wanting to feel closer to my mom. After all, this was the kind of thing she often did. For three very long days, I sat on a yoga mat and meditated – or at least tried to. Mostly I just ruminated on my mom’s untimely demise.

The following year, I ended up going to a juice fast retreat in Costa Rica. Mom had gone to the Hacienda a few months before she died and raved about it, even though it failed to flush out her cancer. I had just begun writing about my mom (an exercise that would eventually turn into my memoir, Dead Mom Walking) and thought the trip might be good for “research purposes” (never mind provide a shot of mood-boosting vitamin D). At least that’s what I told myself. For seven days, I drank maca and moringa juice and injected copious amounts of water up where the vitamin D don’t shine. (I’m no psychologist, but it might be worth mentioning here that my mom had rectal cancer.)

While working on my book, my subconscious search continued. I found myself retracing many of the steps my mom and I had taken together – in Paris, Venice and San Miguel de Allende. I even went to the mountain! The one she and I climbed in the Adirondacks when I was 13.

By December, 2018, I found myself at a Kundalini Yoga & Gong healing class in Tulum, with my hands up in the air, chanting “God! God! God!” I’d visited the laid-back beach town in the late nineties and thought it would be a good place to get some writing done, only to discover that it had basically become the Hamptons of Mexico – albeit much more celestial. After trying my best to avoid all the beckoning “positive vibes,” I eventually resigned to #TrustTheProcess and #BeHereNow. So when the Kundalini teacher (a white woman from Southern California) led us in a round of “God! God! God!,” I attempted to mute my inner critic for once and become a joiner (although I drew the line at attending the “Intro to Energetic Lovemaking” talk taking place in the Gratitude Tent).

After all my forays into the mystic and the holistic, I was still at a loss. Sure, my bowel movements had never been better, but I didn’t actually feel any closer to my mom. I couldn’t locate her in the same rituals and retreats she participated in to make sense of the world for herself. She was missing; I was missing her even more.

“What do I do when I miss you?” I had asked her before she died. My mom was always my go-to person whenever I had a dilemma or was feeling down. She had the air of a wise sage or crone, like Yoda but with better skin and a more whimsical wardrobe. She told me to remember the part of her that lives on: “All the good things I’ve been able to pass on to you – the time and attention I’ve given you, the support in growing up and having adventures … You have in you everything I gave you, including the stuff you may have to talk to a shrink about,” she said with a chuckle.

It’s taken me a few years, but I think I finally understand what she said: The infinite love and encouragement she gave me, the feminist role-modelling, the lessons in letting your freak flag fly – it’s all a part of me (including the stuff I talk to my therapist about). My mom was a strong, fiercely independent, “alternative” woman who gave me the strength and space to become the confident, non-binary, queer person I am today.

In the end, I did not find Mom in the sound bath. I did not find Mom in the green juice. I did not find Mom in the garlic enema. I found Mom in me. Or at least I’m still in the process of discovering her – and myself – in the wisdom, affection and acceptance she imparted.

It’s her comforting voice that I often still hear, especially recently. The past year has left many of us mourning both the loved ones we’ve lost to COVID-19 and our lives as we knew them before the pandemic. This liminal period has forced many of us to experience and confront our most raw and vulnerable feelings. I know that for me, it’s often in the lonely, quiet moments that my grief comes back to smack me in the face – and chest, stomach and legs – like a tidal wave.

This Mother’s Day will be my fifth without my guest of honour. And every year – starting at the end of March – I now brace myself for the endless stream of mom-themed marketing e-mails, commercials and gift guides that love to rub it in. I realize that the mother of all sentimental holidays can be tough for so many people, for all sorts of reasons. But I’m trying my best to shift my focus from what’s missing to what remains. Nothing will ever live up to hanging out with my mom IRL but her presence does live on in me. I’m not motherless; I have a dead mom. There’s a difference.

Rachel Matlow lives in Toronto.

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