For the last few years on May 11th, I’ve used Instagram to pen a sort of letter to Lowell, my high-school boyfriend who passed away when we were twenty. I’ve done this because the main thing that has made his death easier to cope with is remembering how positive and happy he was as a person, and how much he just loved life. It seemed like being unhappy was not in his vocabulary. His nickname was, honest to god, Mr. Sunshine. 

I’ve written to Lowell about how his loss has impacted me, and how I’ve been trying to stay positive and embody his spirit. I’d write about what I’d want to show him in my life, and what I’d want his input about. This year I want to tell him about Tyler, a Yankees fan who was at one point a spokesperson for Occupy Wall Street, and what I’d give to see Lowell talk to him.

My grief is different now. Lowell’s death was the first loss that impacted me in a significant way, and while I’m not going to compare losing him to losing my mother, the coincidence of Mother’s Day falling on the day before the anniversary of Lowell’s passing has compelled me to write. 

Yesterday was the first Mother’s Day I wasn’t able to call my mom, or send a gift, or go home and visit her. I was understandably dreading the days leading up to it (being inundated with internet ads that shouted “don’t forget about Mom” was pretty taxing), but all day yesterday I was met with texts from friends sending me good vibes, well wishes, and lots of love. My dad sent my sister and I a photo from Mother’s Day in 2014, when the four of us went to the Met together. I went on a long walk with Caiti in Prospect Park, I made chocolate chip waffles like the ones my mom would make me. I did lots of things to feel better, and they helped a lot, and today I woke up with the same mom-shaped hole in my chest that I’ve had for months. 

One of the toughest realizations I’ve had in the middle of this pandemic is how badly I feel like I need a mom. I miss her every day, not just Mother’s Day. I will probably have to be socially distant from people I love when her birthday in July comes around, and possibly for the anniversary of her death in August; I will probably miss her every day in the interim. I don’t say this to detract from everything my friends and family have done, I say this to emphasize how grateful I am for it, and how much I need it.

At the tip of the iceberg, I miss the ability to call her and talk for hours on the phone (or, if she missed my call, how my phone would light up with her picture and the ringtone I set for her, “Happy” by Pharrell). More than that, I miss the ability to call my mom crying and not have to explain what was wrong until she’d told me that, no matter what, it would be okay. Often, I think I am a complete failure for not constantly being able to “be strong” without her, how when I miss her I feel like a little kid again, and how I can’t escape that feeling when I come across music or pictures or other things that remind me of her. It is very hard to convince myself it’s going to be okay right now. 

It is even stranger to explain or rationalize individual grief in the context of the pervasive sadness where I live. I read a figure from Paul Newell that New York “has had 7.44% of all COVID-19 deaths (and 8.1% of cases) worldwide,” along with the tweets about how “the United States is experiencing the same amount of deaths as 9/11 every (x) days.” In writing this piece, I’m not trying to assert that my sadness is worse than anyone else’s - while my loss is significant to me, it is minuscule compared to the scale of how many people have lost someone in the last few months due to COVID. The grief we are experiencing on a planetary level is at times overwhelming, and I am so fucking sad about so much.

In the past I have been able to make sense of grief by taking pictures and finding material nostalgia. A couple of weeks ago, I read this article about Minivan Rock, a genre described as “Y2K-straddling equivalent to the smooth soft rock that was similarly ubiquitous on radio playlists of the mid-1970s to early ’80s.” Basically, it was a list of the most common radio hits from my childhood. There were only one or two songs I didn’t recognize by title, and when I listened to them, I realized that I’d heard them dozens of times before. I even knew the choruses of some of them. Today I sat down to write because not only was I thinking of my mom and Lowell, but also because I was nostalgic for all the days in the middle of spring that I spent in my hometown, listening to these songs as I drove around.

Having an artistic process about loss, memory, and longing has taught me that it’s easier to make work about missing places and things than it is to make work about missing people. However, it’s also taught me that they’re inseparable: all of my photographs of places I haven’t been in months or years are imbued with the memories of those who were there with me, in person or in spirit. Whenever I write about a picture I’ve taken, I end up writing about my most prominent memory of that place. The photographs in Big Empty of the baseball field, floodlights, and parking space are about the time I got to spend with Lowell, watching him play baseball or driving around with him.

What I don’t talk about, when I talk about Lowell, is how depressed I was after he died, and for how long. It was the first time I’d lost someone so close to me. I look back on being able to come out of that depression after Lowell died as a huge personal success. I wouldn’t know that kind of sadness again until I was putting my life back together after losing my mom. I’d be lying if I said this grief was the same (sometimes it seems that grieving my mom has only gotten harder as time has gone on), but I know that in time it will get easier. 

Already, I have been finding positivity in moments of grace and benevolence. Having so many people reach out because they were thinking about me is not lost on me. I am very lucky to be as loved as I am. I’m choosing to take stock in little things that remind me of the people I’ve loved and lost, little things only I would recognize. Last year on May 11, at the Garry Winogrand show Caiti took me to, there was a photograph with a LOWEL theatre marquee in the background, and it made me think of my friend. Yesterday, the Brooklyn Public Library ebook app informed me that I was next on the list to borrow When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön, who was one of my mom’s favorite authors, and I couldn’t help but feel my mom’s presence in what was probably a grand coincidence. 

Any sentence I could write about how integral my mom was to who I am as a person would not do the sentiment justice. I’m especially aware of my mom’s presence as I take pictures - I imagine her feedback, always overflowing with support, never punitive in her criticisms. It’s been difficult to keep at it without her around, but the knowledge that I’m where she would want me to be, doing what she would want me to be doing, surrounded by people who love me, is enough for the moment. Even though the world is a pretty bleak-looking place right now, I am aware that this is temporary, and that even when I can’t put them directly in my line of sight, there are in fact better things ahead.

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