What is Mother’s Day like for those who have lost their mother? One motherless mom tells her story of love and loss, then finding joy with her own children.
For my first 19 years, Mother’s Day was not much more than a normal spring Sunday. As a child perhaps it was a bit more exciting as I proudly gave my mom a misshapen clay bowl I made in art class. As a teenager maybe it was more of an annoyance for me as I was forced to dress up for church and go to brunch afterwards. My mom probably made me wear nylons under my skirt and I probably fought with her about it because they’re itchy and no one else wears them anyway. But other than that, it wasn’t a day that had much significance for me.
My twentieth Mother’s Day was different. Three months earlier, I had gotten the phone call that changed the course of my life. I was at college, 450 miles away from home, away from all my family and relishing in my new independence. Living a completely self-centered and carefree life as only a young, unmarried, naive college student can.
“It’s cancer”, she said. With those words my carefree existence, my blissful naiveté was shattered just like I could swear I felt my heart shatter in my chest. Like all of me were made of glass and it only took the tiny pinprick of those two words to break me into a million pieces until all that was left of me was a pile of shards on the floor.
“No” was all I could manage to say back to her. I sunk down to the floor in the hallway of my dorm and swiped my hand back and forth over the coarse old carpet that was an ugly shade of blue-fading-into-brown. A hall mate walked by and looked at me on her way to the bathroom and I felt an irrational hostility towards her. How dare she walk by like everything is fine! Why does she get to keep being normal and happy when my whole world just got pulled out from under me?
I can’t remember the rest of the phone conversation, other than the tears. We both knew this was not a battle she would win. Several doctor’s visits earlier she had her diagnosis narrowed down to pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer. A quick Google search had told me the latter option was a virtual death sentence. And we knew it would be a matter of months, not years. I remember wishing she would just tell me everything was going to be fine, because I would have believed her. I was still her kid and she was my mom and whatever she said was right, no matter what Google said. But she didn’t lie, and we just cried.
Three months later, I was home for what I knew would be my last Mother’s Day with a mom. I cared about and prepared for this one like I never had before. Coming from a family that wasn’t big on showing our feelings or saying “I love you”, I wanted this last Mother’s Day to be different. I wanted to find a way to tell her how much she meant to me and what a wonderful mother she had been. I spent days making a homemade gift with my brother and sister, compiling photos and memories into a little book and binding it for her to keep. But by the time Mother’s Day came, she had deteriorated so quickly that she had fallen into a coma and was unable to read it. We tearfully read her the book aloud in hopes that she was still able to hear us, clinging to the hope that it wasn’t too late to tell her what we should have all along. Four days later, on May 13th, she was gone.
I wasn’t sure that it would, but life went on. I finished college, a bit more recklessly than I had started it. I traveled a lot. I went from one place to another, always staying busy, avoiding spending too much time alone with my thoughts. During those years Mother’s Day was easy. I had no reason to take notice of it. Without children and without a mother, it was a holiday that didn’t apply to me.
A few years down the line I found my way back home. I fell in love, in that guarded sort of way that those who truly know heartbreak are prone to do. I married young, and, figuring that if I couldn’t have a Mom, I might as well be a Mom, I sought out to adopt children. By my first anniversary I was a Mommy of two.
That first Mother’s Day as a Mom was strange. I thought having kids would be the magical cure, that the happiness they brought me would fill every kind of void. Instead it was a weird mix of emotions: joy that I had these two beautiful babies that I had the privilege of being Mommy to, and a profound sadness at being forced to face my grief on a day I had successfully avoided for the last six years.
With time, my family grew to include three kids, then four. My mother had always wanted four kids, and here I was living her dream! Except she wasn’t here to see it. During my pregnancies is when it hurt the worst. I would talk to her in my head: “I think this one is a girl, Mom. Did you think I was a girl before you found out?” And right after giving birth: “Wow, this baby is so beautiful. I know it would be one of the best days of your life if you could just be here to hold her.” Having kids brought a whole new level of longing to the surface. In addition to missing my mom, I’m also missing the Grandma that my kids should have had.
There are mornings when I wake up and in my first few moments of consciousness I forget she is gone. When I realize, the pain washes over me once again. I start to blame her even though I know it doesn’t make sense. “How can you be missing all this? How could you leave me when I still needed you here?”
In theory, I would like for my kids to know who their grandmother was. I have tried to tell them stories about her, but it always seems to trigger tough conversations. “If she’s your mother, why isn’t she here like Grandma Lu?” they would ask. At very young ages I had to explain death to them. “If your Mommy died, that means you are going to die too, and I don’t want you to die!” my then-5-year-old son cried to me at bedtime one night.
For the most part, I keep my thoughts of my mother to myself. I avoid correcting new friends when they say “your parents” because I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. I’ve gotten adept at acting like everything is fine. I’ve developed the skill of burying bad feelings. And then there are times when out of nowhere it pours out like a levy that has collapsed under too much pressure. Like the time my kids chose Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born for their bedtime story and I got to the page that says “Tell me again about the first night you were my mommy and you sang the lullaby your mommy sang to you” and halfway through the sentence emotion grabbed me by the throat and I couldn’t speak. After they went to bed that night I hid that book high up on the shelf where they wouldn’t be able to grab it again.
Losing my mom has greatly affected the way I parent. I want to do things with my kids now, not wait until they’re adults, because who knows if we will ever have that time? I try to replicate the best memories I have of my mom as a kid. I think about the negative aspects of our relationship and try to improve upon those with my children. I have a different scale of “things worth getting upset about” compared to most parents. In reality my “things worth getting upset about” list is almost identical to my “people who are not allowed to die” list. They are both very short.
My husband asked me what I want for Mother’s Day this year. Just like all the other years, I answered that I’d like a pedicure, or to go out to brunch. Part of me really wants to stay in bed all day and not think about what day it is. But then I would miss out on those four little people proudly handing me their misshapen clay bowl from art class, probably with a crack in it from being carried around by clumsy little hands. So on that day, I will get up and be Mom to my kids, moving forward even though a piece of me is broken, like that crack in the bowl. And I will still think it is beautiful because it was made with the never-ending love between child and mother.
Thank you for sharing Caitlin. This is about the most difficult thing we can experience; the loss of a parent. Your mom sounded like a wonderfully loving, caring woman.
I recall 5 years ago when my dad called me – living in Laos at the time – saying my mom had Alzheimer’s. That same feeling like when you’re mom shared her cancer diagnosis. Just stunned, shocked, paralyzed. Like it is not real. She has been in hospice for 6 months. All but a vegetable for months. I have accepted it after much sadness and some resistance, but seeing her degrade and lose all the qualities that made her, her, over the course of years….. when the formality takes place I will miss her but feel relived that she is free.
PS….Loving your blog. You are doing great 😉
I can only imagine how difficult it would be to have a loved one here physically, while her true self is already gone. Thanks for sharing your experience, Ryan. I wish you and your family all the best.
Hi Caitlin, how very open of you to share something so very personal to you. Through your exquisite writing you have created a prose that is a real tribute to your mum. I’m certain from what you say that she was very proud of you and no doubt would be proud of this achievement too.
Enjoy the journey!
Thank you Mandy for taking the time to read and for your kind comment!
Thank you for sharing your journey. I read once that people never grow up until the loss of a parent…my own father passes 12 years ago, long before there were grandchildren to keep us going…the next few years all the holidays were passed in a fog.
So true, Kim. The first few holidays without a loved one are the toughest. Our family couldn’t even think about Christmas without my Mom at first. We ended up deciding to change all the traditions as much as possible so we wouldn’t feel as much that she was missing. Then of course when the kids arrived, Christmas took on a whole new life and that helped a lot.
Thank you for sharing your story Caitlin, such a beautiful tribute to your Mum. Becoming a Mum ourselves really makes us face the pain we ran from in our lives pre kids, but they also help us heal. The love you experience from your 4 beautiful kids this mothers day must be exquisite.
Thanks for reading, Michelle. And yes, the love we Moms get from our adorable children certainly does help us heal.
Thank you for sharing such a heartfelt story of you Mom. I cant imagine my Mom not being here. 10 years ago my Mom had a severe heart attack. How she survived it we don’t know, but her heart was left with tremendous damage. I thank God every day that I still have her. I hope this Mother’s Day (and every day) you can enjoy the beautiful memories you have with her. It sounds like you are a truly amazing Mom and your children are lucky to have you. Thank you for sharing this post in the All For Mamas Link Party Week 8 #allformamas . will share this post on the Facebook group page, my page Blended Life Happy Wife, Twitter and Google + I’m so glad you joined us
How amazing that your Mom survived, and I’m sure you appreciate her that much more after such a trauma! Thanks for your kind words and thanks for welcoming me to the group.
Thank you for sharing this, it is beautifully and perfectly written. I lost my mom to cancer too, at 15. It has also shaped my world and my motherhood unlike anything else and I think we are special in that way. I had my first Mother’s Day this year and it was tough as usual, but it does make it better when you have a little one to brighten the day for you. ❤️ Kelly
This was a tough read for me. I lost my mom to cancer when I was 11, and lost my father last year at age 33. I can relate to so much that you wrote here. And I totally agree. I parent so differently because of my experience. My time spent with my kids is precious, and it’s so important to me to document the little things about their lives. Sending you love, Caitlin!
Wow, I can’t even imagine going through this with both parents. That is heartbreaking. It’s amazing how unfair life can be.
Oh gosh…reading and crying. Very similar situation here. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for commenting, Lynn. Hugs to you!
Thanks so much for sharing this! We just lost my mom a few months ago from pancreatic cancer and this will be our first Mother’s Day without her. The emotions you expressed are all too real and relatable. ❤️
Wow, that made me cry so many ugly tears… My mom passed away in January, only three months after being diagnosed with a brain tumor which turned out to be extremely aggressive. So I relate to this post so much. I’m so glad she was able to meet her first two grandchildren, but they are so young that only one of them will remember her, and it breaks my heart that she can’t see them growing up. I started my blog in her honor (projectpromom.com), although I haven’t been able to bring myself to write about her very much. This mothers day was so hard without her. Anyways, sending hugs. You’re not alone <3