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.