When I attempt to conjure up an image of her, she is always sick: skin dry and yellow, hair a mess, her limbs simultaneously a disconcerting amount of thin, yet bloated in the wrong parts.

She comes to me in dreams the same, and it’s always clear she should not be there, that she has somewhere else that she belongs now. The mornings come, and the suspicions are proved prescient – she is, in fact, gone again.

I miss the beautiful version of my mother, the one that exists only in a limited amount of hard photographs, most of which I do not have.

I visit her grave when I am home, down the road from the house in which she and my father raised me, their names etched side by side on the marble headstone. There are two dates underneath her name, and just one beneath my father’s.

I was recently asked by a friend – a friend who had given me unconditional support throughout my initial process of grieving, and someone who more recently lost her father, also to cancer – if the pain of losing a parent wears off over time. I made up an answer, that perhaps it fades eventually, but it will hit you at the strangest of moments as time passes.

It seemed like the thing to say, and I even think that it is probably true, though I’ve been wondering ever since I texted her – how has my grief evolved, and why can I not picture the version of my mother that I would like to be able to picture? What might I have done differently in the interim time period since she passed to have better celebrated her life?

Two Saturdays ago I had time to kill. I was supposed to be covering a high school softball game for one of the newspapers that I work for, and the Easter tournament was running behind. I went to a nearby car wash – my vehicle coated in yellow pollen from the North Carolina bloom – and I waited in line, my car idling, blasting air conditioning in the increasing swelter that will soon become unbearable around here. My mother would have loved the heat.

I do not remember what made me think of my mother, but she does pop into my head at the smallest of occurrences, so it might have been anything – the heat, a bird, a color.

I waited for the final car before me, and cued up a song in her honor: the song I least hate by the band she loved most: “Better Man,” by Pearl Jam. It’s a strange tribute to her in terms of the content and story in the song – of a woman with an abusive lover that she cannot get away from, or something my doting father never was to her – but it’s a gesture she would appreciate nonetheless. I can still picture her doing sit-ups in her bedroom, singing along, listening on a Sony CD player. Yes, her face is still the sick version in this scenario, even when I know that she did not yet have cancer when she was doing those sit-ups, and singing that song.

As I moved into the covered area in which my car would be washed, the first notes of the song played, and I knew I had found myself a safe space to cry, the water running down the windshield a nice obstruction – and alternative representation – for what was going on inside the car, on my face.

“She dreams in color, she dreams in red…”

More often than not, three years later, I find myself going out of my way to remember my mother, just like I had on this occasion. Gone are the days that “Better Man” seems to find me during inopportune moments at the bank, or as I catch a glimpse of the only beer I saw her drink in the final several years of her life, a Michelob Ultra Lite (God rest her soul). These moments are now things that I myself seek out, instead of the ostensible other way around.

I rarely bring her up with my father, or brother any more, and have few friends who I haven’t worn out the topic with. Sometimes, when I meet new people, I get excited about getting to tell them that my mother died, and trying to explain what she was like, but the feeling is short-lived – nobody really gives a shit, and I’m not so sure they should. Besides, how do you explain your mother to someone who couldn’t possibly understand?

I have another friend who I grew up with who lost his mother to breast cancer when he was 13 years old. If you think that sucks, his younger brother was 5, though is now, from what I understand, a fine young man who attends a liberal arts college in rural Ohio (yes, it’s one of the two or three you’re thinking of). My friend has a tattoo on his body that represents his mother, and I know that he still struggles with how to remember her and carry her with him every where that he goes. The tattoo was a nice solution, and I’m sure it’s a decision he is happy he made.

I’ve thought about tattoos, but I hate them; I don’t like things for long enough to not be able to change them. I’ve written part of a book that will probably never be published, because it isn’t very good right now, and my desire to revisit it wanes with each passing day. I’ve published essays in the newspaper I am the editor of, about the last moments I spent with her, not necessarily because I thought people wanted to read it, but because I could, and I thought that they should read it.

I’ve told everyone I’ve met since she died about my mother, at the earliest possible convenience. I’ve gone out of my way to let them know that she is dead, using the past tense when I explain where she “was from,” or what she “was like.” I’m sure this is uncomfortable for them, and I don’t give a shit.

I’m writing this post now and I’ll probably post it on my Facebook later, and people will click the “like” button, and for some reason that will piss me off. Three people have texted me today, telling me they are thinking of me, and for some reason that pissed me off too, even if I was thankful and impressed they remembered.

I would like to mourn privately, and yet I would like everyone to know about it. I still haven’t quite figured it out.

My mother died three years ago today, and I wanted you to know that. I wanted you to know she was once beautiful, and she loved me, my father, and my brother, Max. She wasn’t always sick, but I wanted you to know that when she comes to me in dreams she is sick, yellow, and dying. I wanted you to know that she loved Pearl Jam, the ocean, and dolphins.

I want to think she is a dolphin now, but I do not. I want to believe she is in heaven, but do not. I want to know where she is now, but I know the truth. She is in the ground, under a tombstone that says her name, two dates underneath it – May 14, 1957 – April 26, 2014.