It is Mother’s Day and I am motherless. I am a mother. I have been childless as well.
My own mother died in my arms on Aug. 25, 2003, of breast cancer. I didn’t think I could do that; sit with someone, much less my own mother, as she transitioned from this world into the next. As each breath became deep and heavy, she looked directly into my eyes with an intensity I will never forget. I experienced such a strong connection that it seemed as though I were transported to another plane. I suddenly felt strong and confident. I felt elevated, as though a blessing had been laid upon me. I realized in that instant that it was an honor to be chosen to assist my mother through her process.
“It’s all right, Mom,” I said with authority I didn’t know I possessed. As her breath became even more labored, her eyes widened. She seemed to be startled with the realization that it was finally happening, that this was it. I watched her still beautiful face as she worked hard to breathe her spirit out of her once lovely, now useless body. The cancer had spread to her bones and was quite painful.
“It’s OK, Mom,” I said, attempting to reassure her that she needn’t be afraid, for herself or for us—those she was leaving behind. “Just relax, Mom. It’s OK.”
Meanwhile, my father had come home from work. Having been happily married for 53 years, he was terrified of losing his soul mate. We took turns holding her; he, trying to urge her to come back and me, trying to assist her in letting go. As my father left their bedroom to open the door for the hospice nurse, I continued to cradle my mother in my arms. And then she left.
Eighteen years ago, I held my firstborn child, Arianne, in my arms, in total awe of the miracle of childbirth. All of the pain, fear and shock handily delivered to my entire system was well worth it. All of it. I had been initiated into the world of motherhood and for the first time in my life I knew what it meant to love unconditionally, completely and without reservation. Three months later, Arianne would also leave my arms, a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I was consumed with overwhelming pain and depression. I had now been initiated into the world of grief. I had not known what true suffering was before I lost my child. I had not a clue.
With my mother, the parting had been expected. Even so, it was painful; a tremendous loss. The kind where you think: “I wish I had said... I wish we had done...I hope she knew...”
With my daughter, her parting was so unexpected and shocking, it was all I could do to hold myself up. I didn’t know what to do with my now empty arms, my full, hardened breasts. I was completely lost and distraught. I wondered; am I still a mother? Or was I a mother for only three months and am no longer?
Two years later, I gave birth to my second daughter, who is now a junior at Berkeley High School. Although I didn’t sleep until she was about two years old, her happy, beautiful spirit brought me back to the joys of motherhood. She is 16 and my son is 11 and today is Mother’s Day and I am very grateful to be one.
My children asked me what I wanted for Mother’s Day and I told them that I wanted three things: I wanted them to clean the house; for my daughter to help her brother with his math homework and that they accompany me to church. Well ... what I got was half of a clean house, one third of the homework accomplished and we all slept through church. I drove my son to his playoff basketball game while my daughter and her boyfriend decorated the house with handmade cards and flowers. We came home, I cooked their favorite spaghetti dinner and they brought me a cake with candles arranged in the shape of a heart.
What I get every day is two wonderful kids with whom I exchange many hugs and “I love yous.” What I try to give is a non-judgmental ear and an open heart and mind. Particularly now, with their parents engaged in the process of divorce, my kids need to know that no one person is all right or all wrong; that there is always room for questions and different points of view.
Life is precious and so tenuous. Too many of us die way too young. To begin each day as though it were not your last, not your first but your very best day—I think that just might be the key. It’s worth a try.