WITHOUT MY MOM
Of all of the questions I asked my mother growing up, “What was I like as a baby?” was never one of them. As the oldest of four kids, I was the one with the most pictures, the completed baby book, the record of each step, word and blink of the eyelash. But that baby book doesn’t tell me what kind of baby I was. Was I fussy? Happy? Did I smile a lot? Did I like being around other kids? What was my favorite food? Did I sleep easily? Was I bouncy, talkative, lazy or mean? And what was it like for her, a new mother at age 24 (25? I don’t even know that, really) home alone with this baby girl all day while her husband worked hard to provide for his new family? Was she thrilled? Lonely? Did she have friends around to lend a hand? Did she manage to shower daily?
These are the questions that swirl over my head every night as I rock my own daughter to sleep. I’ll never get to ask these questions to my own mother. She had heart disease and died just three years before my daughter was born. She was 54 years old and my world was rocked. Then I got pregnant and gave birth to a beautiful little girl who we named after both of her grandmothers. My mother’s oldest daughter has a daughter of her own. What advice would she give me if she were here today?
I’m one of those fortunate kids who comes from a house with two parents who were madly in love. Dad traveled for work when I was growing up, so he wasn’t around a lot during the week. He would come home very late on a Thursday evening and be home with us Friday through Monday before he was on the road again. We lived within 15 minutes of the airport in an easy-access city, thanks to this travel schedule. His memories of us as babies is distant and thin. One day when I was a teenager, I sat at the breakfast table with my dad, my sisters and my brother while my mom was at a friend’s house. I looked right at my dad and, as only a teen would, asked him, “So, did you ever think about not coming home to all of this?”
I don’t know what prompted this question. Maybe it was my friend’s parent’s divorcing left and right. Maybe I was figuring out that raising four kids with no more than two years between each was a difficult proposition for any family. I’m not sure what made me ask my dad if he ever wanted out. But I did. And his response surprised all of us. “Yes,” he said, with a slight chuckle. “I sure did. Sometimes I would think, ‘If I just keep driving on I-70W I can make it to St. Louis by dark.’ But then I would think about you, and your sisters, and your brother, and your amazing mother. I love you all so much. I could never keep on driving. I’ll always come home to you.”
I was surrounded by love like this as a kid — a love that was full of humor and quick with a laugh and also deep and true and heartfelt. The kind of love that I understand, now that I know more about all of the different family dynamics that exist in the world, was a complete blessing and not one to be taken for granted. Even with dad’s days on the road, we knew that he loved us immensely. My mother and father worked day in and day out to let us know how loved we were. It wasn’t currency — you know, some families buy and sell with love — but it was a constant.
Even as we were punished for slamming our bedroom doors or snapping the new pear tree in half for trying to climb it, we were punished with the undertones of love. “I love you, but I don’t have to like you right now,” came out of my mother’s mouth quite often. The four of us sure gave that sweet woman hell. I have a feeling that if she were here today she would smile and nod as I lamented my own daughter, at just 8 months old, giving me a hell of a time. If there’s anything my mother did teach me about raising children, it’s that they show you the very best and the very worst of your own character.
My mom was the best mom I have ever known. And I’m not saying that just because she was my mom or even because she’s dead and that’s the nice thing to do — to honor her. Nope. She was hands down The Best Mom.
Mom taught special education preschool and had this “relatable” way with kids who were misunderstood by the rest of the world. She got them. She sang silly songs and handed out tactile cushions for sitting on and kissed boo boos and washed hands. She lived every day in complete service to others and did it with a smile on her face. She loved teaching and, quite literally, changing lives.
She loved being a mother — one of those women who was born for the role. She was one step ahead of everything and would simultaneously make my sister her favorite meal for dinner after a straight A report card while sending me to my room for hitting my brother. I have pictures of all four of us as kids wearing handmade outfits — all fashioned by mom and her trusty sewing machine and pulled together during nap time. (As a mother now I find this to be, well, complete magic.)
When she died, nearly 500 people attended her funeral. It was incredible to see how many lives she had touched in her 54 years on this planet. Mom never knew a stranger, was quick to help others, had a wicked sense of humor and was a loyal friend to anyone who was the same in return. It was apparent in those days following her death how much she meant to so many people. I wonder to this day if she knew her impact when she was alive or if it took her passing for that to come to light. I suppose that’s another thing I never get to know.
Losing my mother changed me. Before she died, I laughed more. I was more generous, patient and carefree. I was more like her, actually. I don’t know how I’ll ever get over it. I don’t know if I should. My daughter deserves a mother who is whole, complete and present. But this daughter, the one writing this — ME — deserves a mother too. One who is whole, complete and present. And while part of me says that wish is wishing for the impossible, a bigger part of me knows that this is exactly what I have now.
My mother fought a long and hard battle with heart disease. I watched her fight and fight, knowing she was doing it for “the kids.” When she let go, we were all adults with our own homes, lives, even families. Her work here on this planet was done. So, it’s quite possible I have my wish after all. In death, my mother is whole, complete and more present than she was ever able to be in her body. She’s present in me. And, as everyone who meets my sweet daughter can attest, she’s present in her granddaughter in more than a name. Her legacy and light is carried on in a new generation. And I continue to learn the meaning of love from these beautiful women I am honored to call my family.