Friday, September 12, 2008

Mother and Child Reunion

I was born on a cold January day just slightly behind schedule. I was due on January 17th but born January 18th at 5:20 am. Ever since I have always been just a little late for everything. At the time I was born, my grandmother was in the final stages of pulmonary sarcoidosis. While my mother cared for me during the early weeks of my life she also nursed her dying mother.

My grandmother died in late March, beginning my mother’s protracted mourning period. In the Italian tradition, my mother wore black for a year. Though she eventually left behind her funeral garb, her mourning never ended. Her mother’s death left a void that could not be filled by anyone or anything.

Throughout my life, my mother always encouraged me and showered me with praise. I was one of those children who was eager to please, and I worked hard at school and home to make my mother happy. I never doubted my mother’s love or admiration, even to this day, but I always felt like a disappointing substitute, an unfair trade. Yes, my mother finally had her coveted daughter on the fourth try but, as I grew, it became clear that I was a carbon copy of my father: a fiercely independent bookworm with a bad case of wanderlust. It eventually became clear that my mother and I would not share the bond that she and her mother once had. Yes, I loved my mother, but I didn’t need her the way she had needed her mother. And my mother needed to be needed.

As I grew older I began to cringe whenever she would bemoan the loss of her mother, “I lost my mother too young.” In my egocentric twenties, her grief just intensified my feelings of inadequacy. No matter what I accomplished in my life, I felt like I would never be an adequate replacement for her mother. Nothing I did could help the child in her that longed for her mother’s love even two decades after her death.

“There is a reason and purpose for everything,” my massage therapist assures me. Sometimes I believe her. When my mother was nursing me through the recovery from my feeding tube we spent nearly two months together. She helped me shower and blow-dried my hair. She changed my bandages and comforted me through my physical pain. We cried together: my spoken fears of leaving my children and her unspoken fears of burying her daughter.

When my mother was here caring for me she spoke again about her mother’s death. “I was so angry with God when I was pregnant with you because my mother didn’t tell me how sick she was until it was too late,” she told me. My mother reasoned that had she not been pregnant, her mother would have told her the truth and things would have played out differently. “And she was so sick after you were born and I couldn’t take care of you because I was taking care of her. ‘Why did you do this God?’ I asked. I prayed that God would make her better but my mother told me, ‘God is not going to answer your prayers. He is going to answer mine. You have your daughter. Mary [my aunt] has her son.’”

God did answer my grandmother’s prayers, leaving my mother heartbroken for the last 40 years. “I loved her so much. I didn’t think I could go on without her. But I had no choice. You were just an infant; you needed me. Because of you I kept going.” All my life I thought I was an inadequate substitute for my grandmother because I didn’t given my mother the type of relationship that she and her mother had shared. I never knew that I had given her a reason to keep living when her heart was so shattered that she wanted to die.

My poor mother, the healthy woman sandwiched between her mother and her daughter both victims of autoimmune disease induced pulmonary disease, seemed to be at the end of her patience with God on her last visit. “I have trusted him for 12 years that you would get better and you aren’t and I am so angry with him,” she admitted. I’m sure she looks into the future and wonders, “How can I bear the doubling of my grief?”

Any unresolved issues that I had with my mother evaporated during the time she spent here nursing me and running my household with love. I realize now that I mistakenly personalized her expressions of grief over losing her mother. Her grief has nothing to do with me and never has. I could never take my grandmother’s place in my mother’s life. Seeing my mother’s grief in a depersonalized way – seeing her as a child who misses her mother – has made me realize that losing your mother hurts at any age. Whether I live another year or another decade, my death will hurt my children. That is the price of maternal devotion, filial affection and the shared bond between a mother and child.

“Will you die?” Amelia asked me one night as we sat together on her bed. She was young, perhaps four. “Yes, everyone dies,” I answered honestly but nonchalantly.

“But then I won’t have a mother.”

Her blue eyes made my heart ache. At the time, she knew I was sick but has no idea of how sick I would eventually become. She had no idea that I was unlikely to see her graduate from high school. The question she was asking was not quite rhetorical but naive; she had no idea how profoundly relevant it was for her. “Well, I won’t be here physically,” I reassured her, “but I will always be in your heart and, besides, life gives you lots of mothers.”

I thought about all the mothers in my life. When my house burnt down in graduate school I moved in with one of my professors and his wife, Jeanette. She literally mothered me through one of the worst moments of my life and became a lifelong friend. My mother didn’t work outside home so as I approached motherhood I found that I had no role model for balancing a career and family life. My dissertation advisor Sally was a wonderful mother to twin girls who were born during the first year of my doctoral studies. In Sally, as well as other female colleagues, I found women from whom I learned to balance family life and career demands successfully. My friend Estelle, a feisty ex-New Yorker who shares my birthday with a 40-year gap in years, and I attend plays and shows together, sharing our love of the arts. And from two elderly friends, Millie and Tina, I learned both the wisdom and hardship that comes with aging and dying.

“You will always have a mother when you need one, just be open to them. You will always have what you need,” I promised.

The answer sat well with her that night five years ago. Much to my surprise I left her room feeling peaceful, knowing that I had laid the foundation for the inevitable. In doing so I not only assured her that she will be ok without me but also gave her permission to allow others to take my place when I am physically gone.

I remind her often that life gives us many mothers. In passing on this belief, I am teaching her that loving me doesn’t demand that she be unhappy when I am gone and that finding substitutes for my love is not a betrayal of our relationship. In comforting her I comfort myself. I take peace imagining her in the loving arms of my friends and relatives and the women who will cross her path in the distant future and mother her for me. And I like to think I am at least somewhat replaceable.


mdennis said...

Your blogs made me laugh and cry. I lost my grandfather quite a few years ago to pulmonary fibrosis and then my mom almost 2 years ago to pulmonary fibrosis. It was like fate that I found this. I have 3 daughters and my little one was 1 so I didn't find out until the end how bad my mom was she didn't want to upset me. I was there with her until the last breath. It was heart breaking I love my mom I am an only child and sometimes wonder how I can go on I miss her so. But, when I look at my three daughters I know I have to. I will treasure them more and enjoy them more because of you. I often am afraid that one day I too will have pulmonary fibrosis but instead of worrying about it I will try to enjoy life more. i read of always having a mom around when you need one and I so agree with that too. After losing her and not having anyone in my life it changed and now I have someone that treats me as if I were her daughter too. I wish health and strenth for you and you family. Thank you so much you are truely special!

Angie said...

Thank you for this post. Thank you for helping me understand that it's okay to still feel sad over my mom's passing even though it was over four years ago. Thank you for sharing your life with us.

nancy said...

Thanks for your posts. I am a 49 year old nursing student (3 months to go!)and even though my kids are in their early 20's, your posts about your life, children, and family brings back memories for me. I find your writing intriging and your spirit and sense of humor to be a bright spot in my life. I thought I was the only one that playfully flipped my husband off!

Lisa (Myers) Hartsfield said...

Thank you for your words. You are so very right....if we take the time and look around, we all have many "mothers". My friend was tragically killed by a drunk driver and her children are struggling without her. They think they will make her sad if they laugh or are happy. You are doing your children a tremendous favor in advance!

Carl said...

This is a beautiful passage Michelle. I have been reading your blog for over a month now and this is the first one that has moved me to tears.

You are a very strong woman and hearing the way you worded it to your daughter is so well put. You did her (and the rest of us reading your blog) a great service with that pearl of wisdom.


Chip said...

This is a beautiful essay - thank you. And I hope your night went well.

Annie said...

as usual, michelle, you've left me with no words.

p.s. thank you for the well wishes.

Cha Cha said...

What a beautiful post!

My mom lost her mother to cancer when she was pregnant with me and didn't yet know it. Like you, I have spent a lot of energy worrying about filling the shoes of a grandmother I never knew. It's freeing to know that other people have faced this, and that you can't ever take the place of another individual, nor are you supposed to.

I think your advice to Amelia was spot-on. I've had many mothers and have been blessed by them all.

Thanks for another wonderful post.

Jeanne said...

This is a beautiful, beautiful entry, especially when you tell your daughter that she will have "many mothers" throughout her life. I can't tell you how many of my kids' friends call me MOM. I know that if anything ever happened to their mom's, I would certainly be there for them in a heartbeat.

What a wonderful world it would be if everyone felt that way!


Ana's World said...

A mother's job...preparation for life. You prepare them well. Thinking of you. Ana

Mothers heart said...

You inspire me when I'm feeling down and ready to give up. Each day that I read your post you give me a reason to continue. Thank you.

Bird Spot said...

Fourteen years ago this December my mother wept quietly in the back of the van as my family drove back to NC from KY after attending my mom's mother's funeral. My grandmother lived a long, rich life into her 80's, and I always suspected that the main reason my mom was crying on the long drive home was because she (my mom) had recently been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and her own mother had died without knowing this or helping with this.

My mom lost her battle to cancer 5 1/2 years ago, the day before my 31st birthday, while I was 5 months pregnant with my second child. I think about and miss my mom every day when I'm sad and sick (in other words, a lot lately), and my son always says, "Your mom is right here with you, Mommy. She's right here." It's such a beautiful sentiment and I do believe it.

You're right about going through life with different mothers. I've been going to yoga classes regularly for about 2 years now, and it's there, in yoga class, with a male instructor, no less, when I feel the most "mothered" these days.

There's something about girls losing their mothers (at any age) that warms me, haunts me, confuses me, makes me feel guilty about my own situation and at the same time comforts me in a way that is hard to explain.

I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but what I gain through reading your posts, in a way, your mothering me.

imi4u2c said...

Thank you Michelle for your beautiful post. Your advice about 'mothers' is sitting very well with me and something that I really have not considered before. My mother is an alcoholic and taking medications for her thyroid and high blood pressure that have irreversible effects on her liver. As sad as this is to say, throughout all the help the family has tried to offer, her denial sinks deep and I am afraid I will loose her before her time is up.
Every essay of you compose has valuable lessons and I truly thank you for being such an inspiration.
Peace to you,

Anonymous said...

Like most people, I stumbled on to your blog by accident and I've been completely mesmerized by what you've written. I lost my grandma two years ago and she was like my mom - we were so close, she and my mom used to joke about grandma adopting me so I would be completely hers. Thank you so much for letting us all in to your life and sharing so much with us. You are amazing and like birdspot mentioned in her comment, I feel like you're mothering us by what we're learning through your openness, honesty and emotion. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers. Lots of love and hugs!

Piglet said...

My motto in life. Cherish the moment and with what you have got.

Lori said...

Your daughter will endure and she will go on but I am afraid you are not replaceable. Yes, she will have many mothers but there is only one you. You love her like no one ever will and she knows that, even at a young age.

But you are given an opportunity, which is so rare, to be able to convey to her that you will always be with her, that you will always love her and that is okay for her to go on. Many mothers are not given that chance and many children are not afforded the chance to be able to say the things they need to say before they lose someone so important.

You are doing an amazing job at sharing your feelings with your children and allowing them to share theirs with you.

I lost my mom 15 years ago and I wish I had been given an opportunity to let her know how important she was to me.

She knows you are not choosing to leave her. This is part of life. We don't make the choices about staying or going. And she knows that you are always going to be with her, loving her, watching her and mothering her.

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