“If my mother dies on my birthday, I’m going to kill her!”
That’s what I continually repeated aloud to myself, and quietly to a few select friends and relatives, as my mother’s life was coming to an end during the month of my 62nd birthday.
I had already lost my father seven months earlier, and my brother just four months before him—I was left barely standing at the precipice of an already painful year.
Lori Sokol’s mother on Valentiine’s Day, 2022
My mother had stopped eating and drinking for eight days, but her breathing continued, which confounded the hospice staff. “What’s keeping her alive?” they quizzically asked one another.
I knew the answer.
On the morning of July 20, 2022, just as I took the first bite of a raspberry cream birthday pastry that my daughter bought for me, my cell phone rang. Two fateful words, “Mom’s Nurse”, appeared on the home screen. I immediately showed it to my daughter while spitting out that barely-bitten piece of pastry.
Yes, I knew.
“Lori,” the nurse could barely get the words out. “Your mom, she….she…”
“She died,” I finished the sentence for her, “and on my birthday.”
“It’s your birthday?” the nurse replied, “Oh my god!”
This was just the first reaction of an untold number of others that quickly followed once they heard the news, some projecting their own painful feelings of grief should it ever happen to them.
“I can’t imagine how horrible it would feel if I lost my mom on my birthday,” responded one cousin publicly on my Facebook page. She must have found it too painful to respond in person—she still hasn’t.
Another cousin had already been dreading the possibility of this catastrophic occurrence for many weeks prior, expressing it to others, but never directly to me. Again, I suppose the very thought of it must have just been too intolerable for her to bear.
Yet there were others who spontaneously responded with what I wanted to hear—needed to hear.
“This is her way of setting you free,” one friend said.
“She gave you life once, and now she is giving it to you again,” said another.
Both of these friends knew how challenging my relationship with my mother was. Her constant competitiveness with me. Her not wanting me to have a better life than she, not in love, and not in my work.
But just as the newspaper clipping she sent to me following one of our biggest arguments read: “You only have one mother.” She was right.
Although it has been over 40 years since I left her home, and have since become a mother myself, there is that bond, that grip, that je ne sais quoi, that some of the most brilliant writers have attempted to translate into words. But all of them seem to fall short. Because, really, there are no words. Losing a mother renders us speechless.
As the first anniversary of her death approaches, I am able to look back on her life, my life, our relationship, and smile at some of the coincidences; the parallels I inherited as her daughter.
“Sparkling grandma,” my daughter used to call her at the age of two, while lovingly playing with the sequins and jewels often adorning her grandmother’s jackets, blouses, pants, and shoes.
I, too, enjoy giving off a bit of sparkle at times. In fact, it is from her that I developed my passion for glitzy and glamorous stilettos, often secretly sneaking hers out of her bedroom closet when I was a child. Stepping into them—although they were many sizes too large—made me feel that I could one day dress like her, be like her. Yes, stand in her shoes, so to speak.
As the years ensued, and I came to know my mother as an adult, being like her was the last thing I wanted. And she knew it. On my 50th birthday, she called to scold me. “Stop it!” she yelled into the telephone. “Enough already, you’re 50!”
Translation: Stop speaking and marching and, particularly, writing—writing articles about winning more rights for women. This was a cause I have long devoted my career to, dreaming of doing so ever since picking up that inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine at the impressionable age of 12.
Looking back, in fact, I can sincerely say that the feminist movement saved me by allowing me to be just me, furthered by the comradery I developed with one of its most iconic leaders, Gloria Steinem, whom I am now proud to call “friend.”
In contrast, 50 was the age my mother retired from a civil service secretarial job that gave her what she dreamed of: A full pension and medical benefits for the rest of her life. And she got 40 years of it. This made her feel that she, in fact, had won.
Yes, for her, this was “enough.”
Yet I sometimes wonder how different her life could have been, or would have been if, at an early age, she had similarly unearthed that one comrade, mentor, or friend to help her feel found.
Of course, I can only speculate, but perhaps I can best guess by comparing her life choices to those of another woman who was the same age as she, who grew up in the same Brooklyn, New York neighborhood, was also the child of working-class, secular Jewish parents, and graduated from the same high school—James Madison—during the same year, 1950.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and my mother, Rhea, had each of these things in common, even though they didn’t personally know each other amid a population of over a thousand high school students.
Yet, Rhea’s and Ruth’s lives post-high school grew in completely opposite directions. Rhea, who lived under the incessant parental pressure of finding a husband post-high school, studied at the local public college for only one year before dropping out. She was also a talented pianist who was accepted to the formidable Julliard School in New York City, but also left after just one year.
Continually cautioned by her mother not to become a spinster or old maid, she married my father, a violent and abusive man, at the age of 25—which was terrifyingly late in those days—and gave birth the following year to her first child, my brother Kevin. I followed only eighteen months later. She never returned to school to expand her education or pursue her musical talent.
Still, what she was ultimately proud of was what I was able to give her—grandchildren. I never heard her express her love to anyone, including me, as she did to the two of them. Witnessing how much she loved them was even sometimes enough for me, enabling me to glean some of that love as well.
Yet it was on her birthday, her last birthday, the day she turned 90, that she finally did say the words I always wanted to hear, needed to hear: “I love you.”
For me, that was enough.
So, I drove around with that sparkling sequin pantsuit in the trunk of my car for days, the outfit I rushed to buy when I was first warned she could die at any time. The outfit I knew she would want to be buried in. The outfit I knew she would have picked out herself if she could.
The night of her passing, when I was previously planning to go to a nearby beach to watch the fireworks display to celebrate my birthday, my daughter asked whether I wanted to cancel.
I thought about it. “No,” I finally responded. “She would want her life to be celebrated with a massive display of sparkles lighting up the sky.”
As we stood there, watching each yellow, red, green, and blue rocket explode with an emphatic boom, it became resoundingly clear that I was celebrating her final birthday wish for me as well—one of freedom, to be a writer, and now, for the very first time, to be writing about her.
A woman who, in the end, chose to give me life, twice.
This essay was originally published in Newsweek on April 3, 2023.