40 years without my mother

Connie Belin passed away on June 23, 1980. She was only 49. I was eleven, the youngest of her five children.

I’ve learned a lot from the defining event of my childhood, but it comes down to this: you never stop needing your parents.

Year 1

Although I saw my mother become sicker during 21 months of treatment for breast cancer, somehow her death still came as a shock. I remember realizing how bad things were when I was allowed to visit her in the hospital, a few days or perhaps a week before her death. Children under 14 were not normally permitted on that ward, and I had never been able to see her during previous hospitalizations.

The summer my mother died, my family muddled through. My father, my siblings and I stayed close to home. We went for long walks, we went swimming, we kept doing the things we used to do, except we also went to services every Friday night to say a special memorial prayer for my mother.

My friends said nothing to me about my bereavement. I remember asking another adult whether anyone had told them my mother had died. He explained that my friends did know what happened, they just didn’t know what to say. I felt relieved, because I didn’t want to talk about it. I dreaded having to tell people what had happened. I don’t think I was ashamed, but I quickly grasped that people became very uncomfortable when they learned you didn’t have a mother.

I have a vivid memory of my sixth grade teacher asking the class, “Does your mother work?” (She seemed to be filling out some form.) She began calling on students in alphabetical order. Panicking, I tried to figure out how to answer this question. The teacher skipped over me.

My father hired a woman to baby-sit every day after school, even though I had a brother in high school who could have watched me. For that matter, at eleven I could have stayed by myself for an hour or two, but I was glad to have an adult around when I got home from school. She took me to piano lessons, chatted with me, did some housecleaning, and cooked supper for us all. I realized years later that my father was trying to protect me from feeling pressure to take on my mother’s role in the house.

Before my mother died, I had become politically engaged as a supporter of John Anderson for president. My parents even brought me to the Republican presidential candidates’ debate before the Iowa caucuses. I mostly tuned out of the 1980 general election campaign, however.

My parents had a tradition of canceling out each other’s votes, dating to their first year of marriage (1952), when my father liked Ike and my mother was “madly for Adlai.” I learned sometime during the 1990s that my father had secretly voted for Anderson instead of Ronald Reagan in November 1980. I don’t know whether he simply didn’t like Reagan or whether he couldn’t cast that vote without my mom around to cancel it out.

Year 2

Junior high school meant meeting a lot of new kids. I started developing a strategy for what to say when people who didn’t know my family history asked simple questions about my mother. Fortunately, the teachers all knew about my loss beforehand, so I didn’t face any awkward questions “in public.”

Several of my mother’s friends reached out to me during this time. One invited me to help make desserts at her house. Another became my regular shopping companion when it was time to buy back-to-school clothes, new shoes, or outfits for a special occasion. When you’re bereaved, small acts of kindness become magnified in your memory. I invited those women to my wedding almost two decades later, though I hadn’t seen them in years.

My bat mitzvah in the spring of 1982 was the dominant event of the year. My father helped me a lot with the preparations, and we scheduled the celebration for spring break weekend, so my four older siblings could be there. You would think that it would be crushing not to have my mother around for this milestone, but my memories of the event are overwhelmingly happy. Looking through my old photo albums, my husband has commented that a stranger looking at my bat mitzvah pictures would never have guessed that my family had suffered a devastating loss so recently.

With my dad, David Belin, on the night of my bat mitzvah

Year 3

I’ve read that many people regain some emotional equilibrium about two years after a bereavement, and that held true for me. I had a strong group of friends at school and at summer camp. Although I had some down moments (Mother’s Day was a drag), I don’t remember feeling overwhelmed by being the only kid I knew whose mother had died. My father and I were very close. We talked about school and daily life, but also politics and current events. He didn’t talk down to me, although we often disagreed.

My father started dating, but fortunately from my selfish teenager perspective, he dated in another city where he frequently traveled for work. These women were not in my foreground, and I had a long time to get used to the idea of him seeing other women before I met one of his girlfriends.

Year 4

I had a smooth transition to high school. A lot of my teachers already knew my parents and my older siblings. I stayed close to my core group of friends from junior high, adding some new friends through the debate team and my favorite class.

I don’t remember dwelling on my mother’s absence during this time, but other kids complaining about their moms became a pet peeve. All teenagers do that sometimes, but it stung, and I think it made me keep a little mental distance from people who had intact families. I doubt it was a coincidence that my first boyfriend in high school had an unusual home situation. He lived with guardians, even though his parents were alive. I never did get the whole story on that.

Year 5

Another wave of grief hit me during this year. I don’t remember any particular trigger, so maybe adolescent hormones or brain developments were responsible. Whatever the reason, I felt a lot more sorry for myself.

Other 15- and 16-year-olds were breaking whatever rules they could get away with, but I never went through a teenage rebellion. I couldn’t fight with or complain about my mother, because I had an idealized picture of her, and I didn’t want to push back against my father. I think I knew subconsciously that he had really come through for me in a crisis, and he didn’t need additional stress. Those feelings protected me in a way, because I never did the various stupid and dangerous things high school kids tend to do.

Year 6

At sixteen I started dating my “serious” high school boyfriend. We clicked on many levels–he was a smart, funny, cute guy. Looking back, I think I felt extra safe with him because his father had died a few years earlier. We didn’t talk much about our parents’ deaths, but we didn’t need to.

Year 7

By the end of high school, I felt I had fully accepted my mother’s death. Although I still missed my mother every day and wished I could have asked her a million questions, I believed I didn’t need to have my mother to have a good life. In fact, I remember thinking I’d rather have the one parent I had than the two parents most of my friends had.

As our group went through the college application process, one of my closest friends was accepted to her top choice. Her parents refused to pay for her to go to an out-of-state school. It wasn’t for lack of money, because the following year, they bought an expensive new car. They reasoned that Iowa colleges were good enough for my friend’s older siblings, so they should be good enough for her. I was stunned that anyone’s parents would stand in the way of their child’s dream like that. My dad would have made major sacrifices, if necessary, to help me go to the college of my choice.

Year 8

Around this time I realized there was so much I didn’t know about my mother. For instance, I knew she loved college. She excelled academically, was with her best friends, and met her future husband. But I couldn’t remember hearing her talk about anything specific that happened in college, or what it was like the first year she lived away from her parents.

I talked to my father often, mostly about my classes and my new friends, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking him to tell me stories about my mother in college. Anyway, he didn’t even know her when she was a freshman.

Year 9

At age nineteen it occurred to me that as far as my conscious memories were concerned, I had lived as long without my mother as I had with her. That thought was depressing. I also became more aware of my fears that I might die at a relatively young age, before my own future kids were grown.

A great-aunt passed away that year. After her funeral, one of her daughters told me her mother had always identified with me, because she was the youngest child in a large family and had lost her mother at age nine. All the times we visited my great-aunt and uncle when I was growing up, she had never mentioned any of that to me. I wish we had had a chance to talk about it and about raising her own family without her mother in the picture.

Year 10

I do not recall grieving deeply for my mother at this point in my life. I think I had reached another equilibrium. It helped that my dad and I were still close and spoke frequently. He helped me through the usual college crises, like not having started the paper that was due the next day.

Year 11

Another milestone approached as I entered my final year of college. My life was so different from my mother’s. At that age, she got engaged to my father and was training to become a teacher. I was planning a new adventure, going to graduate school abroad. I wondered whether she would have encouraged me to settle down, or whether she would have been excited about my opportunities. Probably she would have wanted me to go to grad school, as my dad did. She was a passionate feminist.

Year 12

I don’t remember any major steps in the grieving process during this year. My closest new friend in graduate school had a difficult family background; her mother could be described as a “toxic” parent. When she would tell me about the latest outlandish thing her mom had done, I would think to myself, I am so glad I had the mother I had, even if it was just for eleven years.

In the spring of 1992, my father remarried. That occasion wasn’t easy for my siblings and me, but I liked my stepmother and thought she was a good match for my dad. I admit to feeling grateful that my father didn’t remarry while I was in high school, living at home. The extra distance made it so much easier to accept my stepmother.

Year 13

The biggest challenge of this year was a bad break-up. Any loss tends to bring up unresolved feelings from past losses. Fortunately, the cloud lifted after a few awful months, in time for me to get to know my future husband.

Year 14

Having finished grad school, I came back to the U.S. for a job. It wasn’t a good fit, but living in New York allowed me to see my father and stepmother much more often.

My grandmother on my father’s side passed away after many years of poor health. Someone recalled after her funeral that she used to say she wished she could have died in place of my mother. I never heard her say that, but I was aware that she adored her daughter-in-law.

Year 15

I quit my job after nearly a year and started looking for work overseas, so I could live closer to my long-distance boyfriend. In the meantime, I came back to Iowa to volunteer for Bonnie Campbell’s campaign for governor in the fall of 1994. I stayed in my dad’s house, the house I grew up in, but it looked much different, because my stepmother had done extensive remodeling.

Living in the Des Moines area for the first time since high school, I came into contact with many people who had known my mother–old family friends as well as new acquaintances who recognized my surname. When strangers would tell me a story about my mother, I was touched that people still remembered her after so long. At the same time, those conversations reminded me how much I had missed by never being able to have an adult conversation with my mother.

Year 16

I was in a better frame of mind by the 15th anniversary of my mother’s death: living overseas again, adapting to a new culture, loving my new job (my first one as a writer), and getting to see my boyfriend every four to six weeks instead of every few months. My father and stepmother visited me during my first year in Prague, which was fun. Naturally, it would have been more fun to share my favorite views and places with my mother.

Year 17

My father had a health scare during this year. Oddly, I felt little fear about his condition. His underlying health was good, and I think psychologically I was not able to acknowledge any serious threat to his life. He recovered well, and I remember feeling glad he had my stepmother to help take care of him.

Year 18

This was a great year, and I don’t recall struggling with grief in any significant way. I was working long hours but loving my job and my surroundings. My boyfriend was spending a sabbatical year with me after years of dating long-distance.

Year 19

A promising beginning: my boyfriend and I decided to stop being a long-distance couple. When his sabbatical was up, I quit my job and went back to grad school in the UK. We were adjusting to life in London, and my father was planning to visit for my 30th birthday. One of my brothers got engaged. My sister got married, wearing our mother’s wedding dress.

Then a freak accident ended my father’s life in January 1999.

The year that followed was the worst of my life by far. My father’s death set in motion a painful chain of events for my siblings and me. My stepmother insisted on visiting me for my birthday (two months after the death), though she was the last person I wanted to spend time with. She meant well, wanting to give me the present my father had already picked out for me, but I just felt like canceling my birthday.

I lost all interest in my academic work and freelance writing. I didn’t try to make friends in my new city. Finding a good therapist helped a little, but the bottom line was, I did not want to be a person without parents. Having one parent was a major part of my identity, and I was completely unprepared for losing my father so soon. His doctor used to joke that he would live to be 100. His mother lived into her 90s.

For the first time in many years, I felt intensely jealous of people my age whose parents were alive. There they were, going about their business, having no clue what it’s like to have your family shattered. I mean, I was content to have just one parent. Why did the universe have to take that away from me, and in such a flukey way?

I would go over and over the series of unlikely events that led to my father’s accident, thinking of all the ways some tiny thing could have led to a different outcome. If I couldn’t get my father back, I wished there were some magical way to swap him out for my mother.

While I was grieving for my father I often recalled a conversation I had had with a friend in college. His mother had died in a car accident during his senior year of high school. I said losing a loved one in an accident must be much harder. At least my mother had a chance to fight cancer, and I knew nothing could have saved her, given the technology available at that time.

His take was that when you think about it, dying from cancer or any other disease is just as random as a car accident. Why did his mother have to be in the wrong intersection at the wrong time? Well, why did my mother have to have a cell that started dividing and wouldn’t stop?

Year 20

When this year began, I was still at a low point following my father’s death. I had made no progress in my graduate research and didn’t see how I could follow through with a freelance writing commitment for the fall and winter of 1999/2000. Amazingly, though, the less bad days started to outnumber the really bad days, with some good days sprinkled in. As I battled through my freelance job covering the Russian parliamentary and presidential elections for RFE/RL, my interest in the subject matter returned. My boyfriend was now my fiancé, and we started planning a wedding in my hometown the following year.

A great-uncle who had always been very close to my father developed liver cancer. I flew back to the U.S. for a cousin’s bar mitzvah so I could see him one last time. Other people cry at weddings, but since that weekend I’ve rarely made it through a bar or bat mitzvah without crying. Seeing the proud parents with their son or daughter is tough for me.

Year 21

I’m not usually one to get hung up on arbitrary dates, but the 20th anniversary of my mother’s death coincided with a close friend’s wedding weekend. I was one of her bridesmaids. She and her mother (an old family friend whom I’d known my whole life) had offered to put on a Sunday brunch for the morning after my wedding. On June 23, 2000, my friend’s mother sprung on me that my stepmother wanted to do something for my wedding, so she was going to co-host the brunch.

It was too much. Since sixth grade I had realized my mother wouldn’t be there for my wedding day. I was dreading my father’s absence for the celebration. Now my stepmother was barging in on my party. I called my fiancé in the middle of the night and cried for ages. Later that weekend I took my friend’s mother aside and told her that while I didn’t desire to exclude my stepmother from my wedding festivities, I would prefer for her not to host an event for me. Looking back now, I feel a little guilty for hurting my stepmother’s feelings when she was trying to do something nice. At the time I felt a boundary had been crossed.

The wedding a few months later went well. Stealing an idea from my sister, we displayed photos near the guest book from my parents’ and my in-laws’ weddings. I felt comfortable including my stepmother in the wedding photos and procession, with one of my brothers walking her down the aisle. I got a little teary at one point during the ceremony, when the rabbi (an old family friend) reminisced about my parents. But it was truly a joyous occasion, not overshadowed by my parents’ absence.

Year 22

By the summer of 2001, I had found my equilibrium again. I no longer had trouble sleeping or searched for any excuse not to work on my dissertation. I missed talking things over with my father–news of the day, a chapter I was stuck on. But I was adjusting to the reality of having no parents.

Year 23

More big milestones: I finished my dissertation, and my husband took a sabbatical so we could move to Iowa, with a view to starting a family. Once we were back in town, I frequently ran into people who had known my parents. It had been years since I’d had daily contact with anyone who remembered them. As in 1994, the scattered memories I’d hear from family friends, business contacts, or casual acquaintances were very moving.

Our first child was born that year, and I struggled during the postpartum period without my mother available. My in-laws are wonderful and came to visit us twice, but I had so many questions I wanted to ask my parents. I had done little baby-sitting and hardly spent any time around babies before having one. I had never even changed a diaper.

Others could help me learn to take care of a baby, but I wanted to know what I was like as a baby, what it was like for my parents to take care of me, things they wouldn’t have changed and things they wished they’d done differently. It was devastating to think of my children never getting to know my parents, and my parents never having a single day to spend with my children.

Year 24

I wasn’t working outside the home and had plenty of time to read while I nursed or held my son in a rocking chair. I lost count of how many parenting books I read that year. I was drawn to the attachment parenting approach.

As I learned more and watched my son develop, I understood how important that initial secure attachment to a caregiver is for babies and toddlers, not just emotionally but on a neurological level. When a child has a consistent, loving parent in the early months and years, that child develops the ability to trust and love. Even if trauma or tragedy disrupts the family bonds later, the child will forever benefit from that attachment.

As much as I still missed my mother on a daily basis, I again felt grateful to have received unconditional love.

Year 25

From what I remember, I was in a stable place during this year. My son kept me busy, and I enjoyed life with a baby and toddler even more than I thought I would. I don’t recall much grief during this year, but I did envy other moms whose parents were around to baby-sit or help them in other ways.

Year 26

My second child was born during this year, and the newborn period was intense. I felt much more confident about taking care of a baby, but parenting a baby and toddler simultaneously was challenging. I sought advice from other experienced moms, but of course I really wanted to talk to my own mother. How did she juggle things with two, three, four, and five children? I wished she could be there to play with my older son so I could nap while the baby was sleeping.

I loved my in-laws and was happy to have them visit us, but on the days I watched my older son have the time of his life with Grandma and Granddad, I felt my parents’ absence deeply.

Year 27

By now my husband and I were getting the hang of parenting two children. But I still had so many questions about my childhood. Had my siblings or I done the same kinds of things my kids were doing at the various stages of development? How did my parents handle the annoying or frustrating behaviors that popped up from time to time? Honestly, I didn’t feel anything was missing from my life except my parents.

Year 28

The crisis of this year was a strep infection that got out of control and put me in the hospital for a week. Lying there, in pain with a fever, no appetite, and nothing to do, I desperately wanted my mother to come sit with me. When I had a couple of brief hospital stays as a child, my mother was with me the whole time. My sister flew to Des Moines to keep me company for a few days, which I appreciated so much, as my husband was tied up at home with our children.

During the spring of 2008, one of my brothers and I had a running argument about whether our mother would have supported Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. I used to ask friends and relatives, who mostly agreed with me that she would have been for Hillary. I don’t know why we kept hashing out this unanswerable question. She didn’t live to see Reagan elected president, so how could we guess her views on Hillary Clinton?

Year 29

I turned 40 this year. Getting older didn’t bother me, but I often recalled that my mother never made it to 50. I occasionally wrestled with fears that I would not live to see my kids grow up. As a parent, I could better imagine the worries my mother must have had during her illness.

On the other hand, I realized that while I can’t control when or how I will die, my unconditional love should help my children cope when I’m gone.

Year 30

I thought the year leading up to the 30th anniversary of my mother’s death would trouble me more than it did. I must have reached another emotional equilibrium.

One painful moment stands out in my mind, though. My husband came across some family videos from a vacation we took when I was a teenager. As I pointed out my dad, my siblings, and me to my kids, my older son (seven years old) asked, “Where’s your mom?” It hurt to tell him she had already died.

Year 31

A good friend battling multiple sclerosis had to move out of her home into a hospice in January 2011. We had bonded strongly after meeting through a parenting group four years earlier–a lucky chance, since she lived an hour away and rarely came to the Des Moines area. We had been getting our kids together every few weeks since 2007. She used to call our visits “extreme play dates,” because my son and I would often spend four or five hours at her house. She was happy for the company. Since she became unable to drive during pregnancy, she had been somewhat isolated. I appreciated quality time with another adult while unfamiliar and therefore exciting toys kept my son occupied. We talked about politics, parenting challenges, pros and cons of living in Iowa, whatever book she was reading, our lives before kids.

We also talked frankly about her health. She knew there was a chance she might not see her son grow up, and I’ve thought quite a lot about that. I told her about adjusting to life without my mother, how my father and special family friends helped me through my bereavement. I reassured her that the unconditional love she’s given would serve her son well decades into the future, and that her husband’s strong bond with their son would also aid his healing.

Those early conversations happened when my friend had realistic hope that her multiple sclerosis would go into remission, or at least stop progressing. Many people live for decades with MS. She ate a healthy diet, had access to medical care, was doing the recommended physical therapy, and had gone into remission before.

When she declined to the point of needing hospice care, our boys were five years old, developing ever more elaborate games and routines. Watching her cheerful and energetic son, I was overwhelmed to think of all the milestones she would miss in his life, and devastated that this poor kid was about to have his world collapse on him. After a couple of months in hospice, my friend moved into the skilled care unit of her local hospital. It wasn’t a good space for children to hang out, but occasionally her husband brought her home for a few hours, so I could bring my son over to play.

Also during this year, my oldest brother had several hospitalizations related to chronic health problems. One time, he was in intensive care, and things looked so bad I was worried I wouldn’t get out to see him in time. But it was a false alarm: he recovered reasonably well. When I called him, he invariably said he was “feeling good” and did not seem to want to discuss his health or other unpleasant subjects. We mostly talked politics and sports. I regret now that I rarely brought up our parents or childhood memories with him.

Year 32

I began visiting my friend more often alone. Her husband told me the play dates at home were too physically exhausting for her, so I stopped bringing my son down, except for special occasions like a birthday party.

Sometimes I attended her book club for women reading short stories by women. Other times I helped her edit a collection of personal writings that she hoped to self-publish. She was no longer able to type, nor could her eyes make out words on a computer screen, so I read passages out loud. Coming to terms with her deteriorating body was a running theme in her memoir.

I told my friend repeatedly that her son would be able to cope and even thrive, just like I had done despite losing my mother at a young age. I wanted her to believe that her son would be ok without her. Maybe I didn’t tell her enough how much he would miss her.

Year 33

My friend and I worked on her manuscript with a growing sense of urgency as her health continued to decline. I started bringing my son for occasional play dates in the hospital. He and my friend’s son made paper airplanes and flew them in the atrium area. They played with toys and games and play dough in a family lounge area. Wanting to give my friend every chance to enjoy time with her son, the hospital staff were very tolerant, even on the occasions our boys (who were six and seven years old during this period) got a little too excited and loud.

My friend spoke often of how she missed being able to do everyday things with her son. Of all the things multiple sclerosis had taken from her, that was the worst. I put on a brave face in her presence and usually cried in the car on the way home.

Year 34

This year turned out to be the hardest since 1999. My friend’s husband moved her from Iowa to a nursing home in another state, close to her family. He then moved with their son to a different state. I was enraged that a woman who had already lost too much would now see her son only every few months, rather than almost every day. She had no recourse, since her husband had medical and legal power of attorney.

Thankfully, we had finished editing the manuscript by the time she moved. Another friend and I worked with a local self-publishing firm on the final steps, like securing photograph permissions and blurbs for the back cover. We got proofs of her memoir into her hands less than a week before she died in January 2014.

The following month, my older son turned eleven. Having read Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman, I was prepared for some additional grief and anxiety when my child reached the age at which I lost my mother. I never shared any of that with him, not wanting to make him feel self-conscious or worried something would happen to me. But sometimes when I looked at him, I couldn’t believe everything that had happened in my family, and how I hadn’t seen any of it coming.

My oldest brother passed away in March, triggering strong emotions for my siblings and me. He had survived many brief hospitalizations by that time, so none of us realized the end was near. Most of our extended family and quite a few friends who grew up in our neighborhood came out for my brother’s memorial service. I felt guilty for thinking it was just as well my mother wasn’t alive that day. She would have been so upset.

Year 35

Around the anniversary of my mother’s death, my older son passed the age at which I lost her. I loved the conversations he and I could have and wished I’d been able to share that stage of my life with my mother.

My father-in-law died unexpectedly on election night 2014. He had been suffering from a progressive disease, but we all thought he had years to live. My kids accepted the death easily–almost too easily. Although I was glad not to see them in distress, their reaction reminded me how little time they’ve had around grandparents, compared to many of their peers.

When Hillary Clinton kicked off her second presidential campaign, I thought a lot about how excited my mother would have been to see a woman become president.

Year 36

I didn’t spend ten seconds considering caucusing for Hillary in 2008, but I ended up standing in her corner on February 1, 2016, even though part of me felt that as a progressive I “should” caucus for Bernie Sanders.

Toward the end of this year, my older son had his bar mitzvah. Planning for the event was an emotional minefield. I’m not normally a superstitious person, but I think I was worried about inviting some catastrophe if I got too excited about the occasion. Everything went fine, and I managed to hold it together during the service.

Year 37

I often thought of my mother as I talked with the old ladies phone banking or writing postcards for Hillary. Health permitting, she would have been one of those 80-somethings volunteering as much as possible.

November 8, 2016 was the second time I can remember feeling it was better my mother wasn’t around to see what just happened.

The first half of 2017 was a stressful time to be covering Iowa politics from a Democratic perspective. I don’t recall any wave of personal grief, just feeling perpetually exhausted and overwhelmed trying to “document the atrocities” of the new Republican trifecta.

Year 38

My younger son passed the age at which I lost my mother. I didn’t dwell on that much, but occasionally when he was upset, it struck me that he was so not ready to live without a parent.

I often reflected on how lucky my husband and I were to have easygoing kids, because I would have no clue how to handle a difficult teenager and no parents to provide wisdom.

Year 39

I was going to turn 50 in March 2019, but two other milestones loomed much larger in my mind.

January 2019 would mark the 20th anniversary of my father’s death as well as the point at which I would outlive my mother. We’d scheduled my younger son’s bar mitzvah for May of that year; seeing both kids become Jewish adults was a life goal.

As those dates approached, I started thinking seriously about making some changes I’d long considered. One was dropping my blogger handle (“desmoinesdem”) and publishing here under my own byline. It was a difficult decision for reasons that are hard to explain to people who have only worked in traditional journalism.

The other was spending more time at the capitol. I’d had a vague plan to do that someday, when my kids were older. Near the end of 2018, I learned that due to retirements and cutbacks at other news organizations, fewer experienced statehouse reporters would be on the scene for the upcoming legislative session.

I rolled out my new byline on New Year’s Day and soon after submitted my application for credentials to cover the Iowa House and Senate. I figured, it would be more convenient to have a place to work in the building, and I’d have access to the press conferences. It had never occurred to me that Republicans who controlled the legislature and governor’s office would refuse to acknowledge me as a journalist.

My credentialing problems were first reported publicly in late January, while I was reeling from the reminders of how very long my parents had been gone. The battle became an ongoing distraction as I scrambled to cover the legislative session and take care of logistics for my son’s bar mitzvah. Keeping various press advocates and attorneys informed about what was happening took up way too much bandwidth.

The worst part was, the attorney whose advice I would have valued most had been unavailable for 20 years.

By some miracle, I didn’t drop any major balls related to the bar mitzvah and was not an emotional wreck during the service and reception. We had scheduled the event for Mother’s Day weekend, and it was without doubt my best Mother’s Day ever.

Year 40

I have lived more than three times as long without my mother as with her. My grief is quite manageable. Compared to 20 or 30 years ago, or even ten years ago, I have less fear about dying.

Yet watching the coronavirus pandemic unfold, I can’t stop thinking about the hundreds of thousands of people (likely including thousands of Iowans) who have already lost a parent this year, perhaps far earlier than they ever anticipated. COVID-19 can kill younger people, even those with no known vulnerabilities.

When I read about the parents who left small children behind, I think about what a painful journey lies ahead for those kids. I know many of them don’t have the privileges I enjoyed: a strong support network, a financially secure household, access to good education. Losing my mother didn’t ruin my life, but it greatly affected my life, even with all those advantages. For so many other children, having a parent’s life cut short may irreparably damage their physical and emotional well-being. It may mean losing a home or not having enough food on the table.

When I hear public figures downplay the fatalities by emphasizing that most who have died were over age 65 or had underlying health conditions, I want to scream.

I have friends who lost elderly parents this year. Losing a parent is heartbreaking, regardless of the age of the deceased, or whether they lived in a nursing home. All the more so because in many cases, COVID-19 protocols deprived relatives of the chance to comfort their loved ones during their final illness. The pandemic disrupted funeral and burial rituals that can provide solace for the bereaved.

As for the pre-existing conditions, people who are immunocompromised or overweight are no less loved. People with diabetes or chronic conditions of the heart, lungs, or kidneys will not be missed less at their children’s weddings or their grandchildren’s birthday parties.

You never stop needing your parents.

Top photo: Laura Belin with Connie Belin, late 1970s.

  • Moving

    I had seen the picture of you and your father at your bat mitzvah (and the joy on your face) before, and knew from past writing that you were close to your father, but until now had not known you had lost your mother at such a young age. Thank you for sharing your story. I still have a lump in my throat.

  • Thank you for sharing

    To reflect back on one’s life and the lives of others is a real privilege. To read it, an honor. Your children will treasure this … in later life.

  • I am very close

    to someone who lost their mother at age 4 and whose father, a political consultant, became an alcoholic. They are brilliant – and the stories about them as a lawyer are amazing (including walking out of each session the bar exam over an hour early and long before anyone else).

    It defined this person for decades. They were driven to perfection since they did not believe they could ever rely on anyone or anything. They were forever remembering the mother they did not have, and the father who forget to pick them up. It created disaster after disaster in their personal life. They simply could not let people in – and around their 35th birthday, it all came crashing down. This person is very different now then when I first met them – astonishingly they no longer even practice law.

    The loss of this person’s mother defined them and the choices they made for most of their life. It took serious therapy for this person to realize the extent to which their sub-conscience ruled their choices. This person told me once about a year after they had started therapy that they didn’t think they had ever really made a conscious choice.

    As I said – it is hard to believe they are the same person that they were.

  • Beautiful tribute

    Thank you for sharing.

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