I woke up on this Mother’s Day feeling the pain. First to hit was the physical soreness and stiffness from yesterday’s morning gardening workout (more about that later). Then came the psychic pain of being without a mom to whom I could take flowers, for whom I could cook dinner, with whom I could laugh and cry and reminisce about all those yesterdays.
I really should be over it by now, shouldn’t I? When Dad died, all of a sudden and out of the blue in 1996, it rocked my world in the very worst way. For some reason, lately people talk a lot about experiences being “jarring.” They’re “jarred” by this or that statement from a politician. They’re “jarred” by someone else’s choice in clothing or landscaping or home décor. They’re even “jarred” by the changes in the Windows 8 interface. There seems to be a whole lot of jarring going on.
Want to know what’s really jarring? When the one person you always knew you could count on is suddenly ripped away from you without any warning. When (metaphorically) the sun that has risen every day for four decades falls out of the sky, never to be seen again, no longer there to warm your life and sustain your existence. When the granite foundation on which you’ve always stood disappears and leaves you struggling to maintain your balance on a shifting bed of quicksand. When you’ve spent a lifetime being daddy’s SBOC (Spoiled Brat Only Child) and then daddy’s gone, that’s jarring.
But I still had Mom. She might not have been the superhero in my eyes that my dad was, but I knew her love was unwavering. And she, who had always depended on Dad, too, now depended on me. And I, my father’s daughter (and he my role model) tried my best to take care of her – although I always felt woefully inadequate. I knew I could never live up to the example that Dad had set.
In 2000, Mom’s health really started going downhill. She had been “sickly” for a long time. For many years, she had bad headaches that would send her to bed for the day. In 1994, she was diagnosed with a blood disorder that required regular doctor visits and medication. But by the turn of the millennium, it was really getting serious. She was in and out of the hospital, first with this and then with that. The doctors didn’t seem to know exactly what was wrong. Until I found her a new doctor in 2001, who almost immediately found a large tumor in her lungs. It was big; it was cancerous; it was bad.
But Mom kept her faith and maintained hope. Rather than wallow in self-pity or despair, if anything her mental outlook improved. Mom, who for decades had been afraid of so many things, suddenly decided to kick the fear and start living for whatever time she had left. She had always refused to drive or ride in a car on the freeways or go over high bridges. We often went miles out of the way to find routes she was comfortable with.
After the cancer diagnosis, she became (relatively) fearless. She went places with us, and the fast cars and heights no longer bothered her. Daddy loved her and was devoted to her and lived with her fears – but he told me so many times how he wished she weren’t so limited by them. What he never complained about was how her fears also limited him. He loved to travel – but he didn’t want to leave her behind. So except for a trip to Arizona with me to visit my daughter right after she moved away from home, and another short trip to Illinois for her wedding, he was never away overnight. He sometimes got frustrated (although he tried not to show it) when she was so afraid of car trips that she wouldn’t even go across town with him. How I wish he could have seen her in those last months, when she finally threw her cautions to the wind.
Mom’s death came as no surprise; it was a long, difficult process. But at least we got the chance to say our goodbyes. It seems as if, when I write about Mom, I always end up talking about the end. But there was so much more to her than that. I still remember the mother I grew up with, before she became imprisoned by the aches and pains her body put her through and all the dreads and terrors her mind dwelt upon. I remember when I had one of the coolest moms on the block.
All the kids wanted to play at my house, because she didn’t get mad if we made a little mess, and she would get in there and help if we were trying to build a tree house or make a model of a volcano or learn to cook. If I got it into my preadolescent head that I just had to have some great board game or some special art supply that was in short supply, she would give up her weekend to schlep me around to all the stores in town until we found it. If I wanted something special for dinner (or at 11 p.m.), she’d cook it. If she didn’t have the ingredients, she’d go to the store and get them. She went to all my school things, she helped me with my homework, she sewed me clothes if I couldn’t find what I liked in the stores. Did I mention that I was spoiled rotten? Dad wasn’t the only one to blame for that.
But you know, despite all that spoiling, I didn’t grow up to be some lazy dilettante who sits around eating bon-bons (whatever those are) and watching soaps. I worked hard as a cop and a criminal justice instructor and I work hard now as a tech writer. I’ve built a very successful business. I volunteer and serve on boards and committees and am the “organizer” who gets the extended family together, who gets the old friends back together. I’m not trying to make myself look good by saying this – my point is that I’m that way because of them. They were my role models, Mom in her younger days, and Dad up until the day that he died. Whatever strength of character I have, whatever values I live by, whatever beliefs I stand up for, they instilled in me. My weaknesses, my missteps, those characteristics I’m not so proud of, I have no one but myself to blame for those.
Yesterday, along with a handful of other volunteers, I spent my morning helping neighbors who are elderly or disabled and can’t do their own yard work. It’s not the kind of work that I enjoy or am good at (there is a reason we pay other people to do that work at our house). Getting muddy is not one of my favorite things. But it wasn’t about having fun – although I very much enjoyed the camaraderie of working with the others on the team – it was about doing something to make someone’s world a better place. Mom and Dad taught me that there are few things more gratifying than doing for others. If they were alive and healthy, I know they would have been out there, digging in the dirt with me. That’s just the kind of people they were.
I miss them. I miss them a lot. I often wish they could see my beautiful home here on the lake. Daddy would have loved to go down to the water and fish. Mom would have adored feeding all the birds and wildlife that come to visit our yard. I’m trying, now, to do some of that traveling that Daddy missed out on. I’m trying to make my home the lovely but welcoming place that Mom always wanted. Most of all, I’m trying to be more like them in their steadfast faith in God and family and friendship and each other. I’m trying to do things that would make them proud of me.
They weren’t perfect, but I try to learn from their imperfections, too. If I ever feel afraid, I think about what fear did to Mom and I nip it in the bud. When I’m tempted to overindulge in the childhood comfort foods I once loved, I remember all Daddy’s struggles with his weight and remind myself that his southern fried diet probably contributed to the heart attack that took him away from me. When I get the urge to overprotect my grown children, I think about how much my mom’s overprotective instincts frustrated me and caused her unnecessary anxiety.
It’s Mother’s Day and I’d much prefer to be sitting down to a Sunday brunch with my parents and/or my kids today, instead of sitting here at my computer writing about what used to be. But savoring those memories of Mom and Dad, and the expectations of happier Mother’s Days in the future with my children – that’s the next best thing.
Happy Mother’s Day to all my friends who are moms, who have moms, or who have lost their moms. Meanwhile, it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, and I’m going to get out there and enjoy it.