I phoned my mother to greet her for Mother's Day. She no longer speaks; she grunts, no doubt because she's highly sedated from the pain medication. My sister S, who sat by her side, asked her gently, "Mom, are you listening? You're not talking again."
This is a difficult post to write, simply because I struggle with the tears that seem to be stronger than I am these days. I try not to cry, afraid that if I do I won't stop, that I'll break down completely. Instead I cry when I watch videos of cute animals who are unlikely best friends, I cry when one of The Voice contestants has a "moment." I cry when good and bad things happen to other people, even when they're only characters in a movie or television sitcom. My tears are like little earthquakes that appear unexpectedly and often, if only to ease the pressure building up from The Big One that threatens to blow.
My mother is a force of nature herself. She's never been one to follow societal conventions although she's keenly, painfully aware of them. As I've gotten older I've discovered the push-and-pull dynamic that frequently tore at her from the inside, the kind that has also characterized the kind of relationship I've had with her my entire life. She's never been the nurturing kind of parent who held me close, who said she missed me when I was gone or uttered "I love you" at the end of every phone conversation. Yet she gave me everything she had. She would give me more if she still could.
In one of mom's final email messages to me from late last year, she was filled with regret. She said she was aware that she wasn't the kind of warm, nurturing mother I probably would have wanted, but that was only because she didn't know how to be that person, that her own mother wasn't that way with her either. She wondered if working so hard alienated her from her children, and if sending me so far away for college was the right thing to do because we were now so far apart.
My mother's words broke my heart, even if I already knew what they were before she said them. Mom and I have had sporadic conversations like this before. She once confided to me that she probably would have been better off had she never married so that she could have traveled more and had the kind of adventures she could only dream of. Then she paused, looked at me, and said, "But of course then I wouldn't have had all of you. I don't regret my children." Push and pull indeed.
Mom didn't have to explain her words; I understood that her generation of women didn't have the choices mine do, and that even today we still have to deal with the consequences of those we do have. My mother wanted a career, she wanted a family. About a decade ago she was eased out of the last position she held, perhaps because of her age, and she wondered about the costs of everything.
My mother recently told my best friend that I am strong. If I am, it's only because she was, too. Everything she did in her life helped make me who I am, and I thank her for it. When people talk about a mother's sacrifices, we don't ever know half of it, I'm certain.
With my mother's ear to the phone I told her I loved her and I thanked her for everything she's ever done for me. I didn't mention that it wasn't just for the food on the table or the house I grew up in, the good schools I attended or all the opportunities I was ever given. I'm grateful that I had a mother who was her own person. She taught me, through her example, that becoming what other people think we should be is the worst betrayal of ourselves -- despite the costs. She never gave in, even now as she is slowly giving up on life itself. And what a life it has been. Hers, completely.
As my mother lies on her bed, often asleep, I lay awake trying not to cry over her. I fight with my tears as hard as mom and I once fought. In the end, I will make peace with them as I have with her. In the meantime here's what I wish my mother knew: I wish she knew that whenever things get really rough, whenever I don't know if I'm as tough as what I need to deal with, the first thing I think of -- the first thing that has always come to mind and that always will -- is that I wish my mother was here with me.