Years After She Died, I Use Google Street View To ‘Visit’ My Mother

From my living room 4,000 miles away, seeing her grainy outline lets me grieve without the painful intensity. It’s like she’s present and accessible, 24/7.
The author's mother's home, visible on Google Maps
Google Maps
The author's mother's home, visible on Google Maps

From my Newcastle living room 4,444 miles away, I often visit the outside of my parents’ house.

If you’re so inclined, you can visit too. Thanks to Google’s Street View function, you can also rewind the years and see the old Edwardian house age and change with the seasons every two years.

When Google’s cameras drove down Queens Avenue in New Westminster, British Columbia in July 2015, they captured the grainy outline of my mother as she walked from the back door to the front of the house under the branches of the magnolia. You can’t make out her face but if you zoom in as much as possible, which I do every time, you can see her. She is just a shape in three colours: brown, pink and red.

Since my mother died in 2016, I have avoided looking at photos of her – it’s too painful. This accidental snapshot of her is different. After not visiting for a while, I’m always relieved to find that it’s still there, unchanged. I can visit her whenever I want – on long train journeys, at work, and before bed.

In this grainy picture, there is so much to see. Rather than making me feel sad, it feels like a mystery for me to solve. Is she holding something? Is that her cat weaving between her legs? I wonder what she was thinking about at that moment.

“When she was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer, a death sentence, our family policy was to pretend that everything was completely normal.”

My mother wasn’t the kind of person who spoke about her feelings, or spent much time indulging the feelings of others. Anger, frustration, sadness and disappointment were most often expressed with tortured, icy silences that lasted for days. For years, she always felt slightly out of my reach, even when we were together.

Something softened in her as her children grew up and moved out of the house, and gradually, we became friends. She learned to text, and she left me long voicemails. She was my first phone call in a crisis. We understood each other, but any deep feelings that she had remained a mystery to me.

When she was diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer, a death sentence, our family policy was to pretend that everything was completely normal – a charade that we all kept up even as my mother developed a limp, slurred her words and slept in her chair for long hours of the day. My father would call us from the garage and give us grim updates in a whisper. When she started “going a bit downhill” – our code for dying – she lost the ability to speak or write.

“This Street View voyeurism is a way of stealing a glance at her, without the painful intensity of having her looking directly back at me from a photo in a frame”

Near the end of her life, when we would say goodbye as I left the house, she would pull me into bone-crushing hugs from the chair she stayed in all day. I remember that her long fingers and fingernails would dig into my back and my arms. She would cling on, with her face pressed against my chest until I would squirm away, uncomfortable and guilty, after a few minutes.

“I’ll be back, I’ll see you soon,” I would babble over and over, as I backed out of the door before practically running to the car. Even now, four years later, it is too painful to think about what she was trying to tell me in those few embraces.

With everything that is going on in the world today, from coronavirus to a looming recession to climate change, like many of my bereaved friends, I just don’t feel like I have the emotional bandwidth for ‘real’ grief – the kind that keeps you under the duvet all day.

This Street View voyeurism is a way of stealing a glance at her, without the painful intensity of having her looking directly back at me from a photo in a frame. It doesn’t force me to think of all of the future photos that she won’t be in: family get-togethers, holidays, birthdays. It exists outside of my small collection of family photos, her jewellery and her cardigans and while everything else reminds me of her absence. In this chance snapshot, she is present and accessible, 24/7.

Until I feel ready to really accept that she is now out of my reach forever, I’ll keep visiting her on Google Street view, and feel comforted to see that she is still there in the garden – right where I left her.

Caitrin Innis, originally from British Columbia, lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and workings in arts and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @caitrinnis

Have a compelling personal story you want to tell? Find out what we’re looking for here, and pitch us on ukpersonal@huffpost.com