There comes a time when you see your mother as a being separate from yourself. It’s not as an infant when you realize you exist outside her body. It’s not when, as a toddler, you assert your independence. The tumultuous teenaged years don’t do it. Even becoming a full-fledged adult doesn’t do it.
She will always be your number one fan, miracle-worker, therapist, and helpmate. She will always allow you to be self-centered when you come calling because you are her world. She is your MOM. (No Pressure 😉 )
But there are moments when she does something on an even more amazing level of awesome – perhaps even sublime – in which you see in crystalline form what a perfectly human and beautiful individual she is.
The first time this happened was when I was an early teen. My parents, consummate do-it-yourself-ers, were in the middle of some household project that necessitated the transit of a long ladder through our tiny kitchen. One inadvertent swing of the ladder swept the decorative items off one of the display shelves surrounding the window. A crystal-clear unicorn, whose knobs and nodules captured and refracted the sun’s rays into rainbows, shattered against the stainless steel of the sink below. I heard my mother scream like I never had before: a desperate, anguished wail. She cried as she gathered the pieces. This was another thing I rarely – if ever – had experienced with my mother. These were not the welled-tears of sentimentality; these were big fat gobs of grief.
Being a young person, with no framework within which to place this, I asked my mother what was wrong. She explained that the unicorn had been a gift from her sister when she had lost a baby. Four years prior to my birth, my mother had delivered my would-be sister, stillborn. This was my first encounter with this information, with this grief. While I now had a framework, it was shaky. I knew it was tragic. I knew my mother hurt. But I had no idea to what extent.
Years later, as a mother myself, now accustomed to grief, but still not of that magnitude, I sat with my mother in the parking lot of a botanical garden. We stared out the windshield at the glass squares of the greenhouse. ‘A woman in my writers’ group has written a memoir about her family, Ma,’ I said. ‘About her journey through love and loss. She had a stillborn, too. Much the same circumstances as yours.’ There were some eerily similar details in their stories, though my mother never got the legal vindication that this woman did. ‘Would you read it?’
I didn’t know if I was overstepping my bounds, if I was being too forward, pushy. Was I dredging up feelings that my mother had gladly put to rest years ago?
‘I suppose it might be good for me,’ she said. ‘Therapeutic.’
Months later, I took my mother to the launch party for that book: Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict by Kelly Kittel. The day before Mother’s Day, we spent the afternoon of the launch together. Ironically, though we were celebrating the ubiquitous holiday, I saw my mother as ‘other than mother’. Hearing her speak to Kelly and share her story, I saw the profoundly deep wellspring of strength my mother’s been drawing from all these years. I saw her as a woman, fighting a soul-crushing battle and winning. I saw her as someone – like myself – who has been curled up on the floor crying, but she got up! She went on. And gave me the best, most important parts of herself. All while, unbeknownst to me, she was suffering a tremendous loss.
It was hard for me to not insert comments or explanations as she spoke. I felt the intermediary between these two women and wanted to help forge the link. But the link between these two women had nothing to do with me. It was in their tragedies and victories, their similar experiences with death and inextinguishable life.
I saw my mother as a distinct individual, a woman with her own suitcase of memories and maladies, a human being with a suit of armor and the soft underbelly of a mother.
Photo by John Butler