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.