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My mother and I never took many pictures together, something that never seemed urgent to me until she died. At that point, ravenous for totems of our intimacy, I regretted it. Thankfully, there are a few stray shots here and there, including the one that is my favorite that you see above: a cameo of Mom snapped in the last weeks of her life where I am also present, albeit accidentally. It is, I believe, the last photo taken of her.
We were playing Apples to Apples in the kitchen, and my sister took a sly photo of Mom as she considered her cards, a fuzzy turquoise beanie safeguarding her shorn, patchy head, the vestiges of a once-thick mane sacrificed to chemotherapy. Behind Mom is a window, and that is where my face appears, blurred around the edges, and serene with love. In the photograph, I watch my mother, though perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that I absorb her: memorizing her details, reveling in her presence—her soft and gentle manner, her thin, but ever-steady hands, and that ridiculous turquoise beanie. Then, it was her flopsy crown whose winsome fluff obscured the severity of its purpose. I would later take the beanie, sleeping with it from time to time to run my fingers across my mother’s invisible traces, and to inhale the echoes of her scent. Grief, I have learned, is a scavenger hunt where we are in perpetual search of the person we have lost.
After living for three-and-a-half years with metastatic ovarian cancer, and withstanding the brutalities of various medical treatments, Mom had entered into home hospice care. And that night, as we shuffled cards and traded benign jokes, I came to the solemn recognition—too late, as is so often the case—that Mom would soon leave us.
The platitudes urging us to cherish one another while we can are easy enough to disregard while life remains reassuringly static. Though I had known Mom was dying for almost two months, my mind, unwilling to contend with her imminent absence, had fixated on an alchemy of optimism and denial. I was only now confronting the finite terms of earthbound relationships: one person will always depart before the other. How many more opportunities would we have, my mother and I, to sit together at the kitchen table in intimate, mutual acknowledgment? I looked at her, and I loved her, and I knew, all at once, that there would never be enough time. I imagined that I could hold on to her, so long as I kept her in my sights.
A few weeks later, my mother would slip away, to where my eyes could no longer reach her, and I would frantically, desperately grasp at the relics of my memory. Remembering someone was a flawed practice, I realized almost immediately. The only body whose endurance I could count on was my own.
I am telling you this to explain why, after my mother died, I became preoccupied with skin care. For me, it is a matter of self-preservation.
This is, I admit, not a unique motivation for investing in masks, face creams, and serums. In fact, many skin-care products promise to freeze you in time—or try to, anyway—with the added bonuses of brightening and smoothing wrinkles into tautness. My newfound interest is in many ways uncomplicated: routine is soothing in chaotic times. I’ve also discovered the solace I can find in small, indulgent acts of self-care: the emollient glide of a face cream across my cheek, or a sheet mask that, for at least 20 minutes, encourages me to lounge on the couch, so as not to disturb it.
In one of grief’s bizarre turns, I also sought comfort in skin care’s promises. Upon returning home from Mom’s memorial service, I spent weeks burrowed into my bed until it was late morning, and then, when it wasn’t, I relocated to the living room couch. I cried and drank rosé and showered, sometimes. If I felt especially ambitious, I binge-watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine (while crying and drinking rosé). I didn’t wash my face. Because friends were generous and pooled together money for last minute tickets, I pulled on clothes and saw The National with my husband (I wept throughout the show). My book manuscript was due to my editor in less than a year, but marshaling my despondent, wildly bereft thoughts for the purposes of creative work seemed a hurdle too elephantine to overcome.
In the weeks after her death, family and friends sent care packages and cards. I opened every box, and read each note, flush with gratitude, but still largely unable to do more than cry, listen to Andrea Bocelli (whom my mother loved), and spoon my cat. My mother’s skin, porcelain and petal-velvet, had been a point of pride. She was fastidious in her own, uncomplicated practices: Cetaphil had been her primary skin-care product, and it sufficed. I, on the other hand, was often too impatient for bedtime to remove my eye makeup (in high school, Mom had begged me to reform, if only to safeguard my pillowcases, most of which were painted with Rorschach splotches of mascara and eyeliner). Now in my early thirties, I had hardly evolved, and while perhaps it might have been a fitting tribute to my mother’s memory to begin washing my face before bed, the burden of grief rendered me too apathetic for even the most basic tasks.
Then, on a whim, I changed my mind—the terrain of mourning is vast, unpredictable, and somewhat inclined to obsessions; suddenly, you might decide that a ritual or author or exercise will be your deliverance. One of my care packages contained a promise of this sort: a set of REN skin-care products—two cleansers and a mask—gifted from kind friend who explained that she had navigated grief, in part, with some productive pampering. Determining that I could not spend the next year plastered to my bed like a starfish suffering an existential crisis, I decided to take a cue.
For the first time in weeks, I washed my face.
Establishing a ritual of skin care assuaged my bone-deep craving for control. I could not resurrect my mother, but I could, with ginger precision, press the top of a tube of face wash, so as to produce the exact amount desired. I could apply a mask, ensuring that I left no swath of skin uncovered, and diligently monitor my phone so that I wore it for the amount of time suggested. And I could take brief, but tangible pleasure in the yielded effects: a velvety cheek, compliments of a moisturizer recommended by Sephora, and the shadows beneath my eyes less prominent. The corporeal evidence of grief could melt away, even if its roots still clung tightly.
Gradually, I accumulated a battalion of face creams, serums, and sheet masks. I purchased a box of snail hydrogel eye patches which boast the benefits of being cheap, feeling swanky (maybe it’s the snail ooze), and allaying the arid heat of my cried-out eyes. I procured a bottle of Son & Park’s dual toner and “cleansing water” (named mysteriously but not inappropriately Beauty Water), which facilitates my sloth by allowing me to swab my face on lazy mornings and maintain the illusion that I am still a virtuous practitioner of daily face washing. After hoarding a wagonload of freelance pennies, and conducting assiduous research, I purchased a retinol serum. In the meantime, I browsed Sephora with the regularity of a disciple—it had, indeed, become my church—even when I couldn’t afford to purchase anything (and this is often the case). Sometimes, planning new beauty initiatives sufficed. This was, at least, a partial distraction.
I am always thinking about my mother; she is my atmosphere, my weather. I think, too, of that photo, her last, and through chance, ours. Often, it emerges in my mind’s eye just as I’ve rinsed my face, and am regarding my reflection. It has not yet been a year and a half since she died, but I am already scouring my face for the most minor changes, markers of a life beyond the photograph, one where my mother is not present.
When I see my reflection in these moments, I’m walloped by feelings: nostalgia and grief and gratitude for the mother who accompanied me as I floundered through the first three decades of my life. Staring at my own reflection is also a cruelly bitter reminder: the face I see in the mirror—the same face in the photograph—is the last iteration of myself that Mom would know.
Or so I suppose.
My opinions on the afterlife are unfixed and muddled. I want to believe that Mom exists as some ethereal and conscious entity, that she observes my father, sisters, my niece (the granddaughter she never met), and me from an indiscernible plane. It comforts me to think, as the character Harper concludes in Angels in America, that “Nothing’s lost forever”—that my mother’s death is a displacement rather than a definitive erasure, and that her gaze, which steadied me during my early life, persists, even if it is imperceptible to the mortal eye.
I do not want to believe in “gone.” I admit that as a result, I occasionally indulge flights of fancy, fantasizing about the possibility of her return, a spiriting back to earth, even for a day (now and then, I dream of occasions like this and interpret them as visits). And so, I am determined that she will know me, even 50 years from now—that is, if I am fortunate to live decades longer than she did. It’s superstition, I know, but it’s something else to hold on to. And so, I rub retinol into my skin where I imagine rivulets of lines might appear, affix face masks around the contours of my cheekbones and nose, and exfoliate—sloughing off the day as if it never happened. I wash my face, and imagine that I can throw off the last year and a half like a cloak, stitching together the berth that yawns between Mom’s last day and the weeks unrolling before me, relentless, but brightened, bit by bit, with little joys. I am trying to preserve my reflection: the one she saw last, the one beaming at her over cards, beating back the surety of imminent loss. It’s a strategy, just in case it would be helpful. I need to ensure that she’ll always recognize me: a daughter in the window—her daughter—searching.
Rachel Vorona Cote is a writer living in Takoma Park, MD. She has written for many venues, including the New Republic, Rolling Stone, Poetry Foundation, Catapult, and various other venues. She was previously a contributor at Jezebel. Her first book, Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today, is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing. Find her on Twitter at @RVoronaCote.
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