When my mom was sick, people used to tell her she was “so strong.” She knew they were well intentioned, but she hated hearing that. “What choice do I have?” she would ask me rhetorically.
I knew what she meant; she didn’t ask for cancer; she didn’t want to be a hero. She was just doing the best she could under terrible circumstances.
But the older I get, the more I understand that whether she wanted to be or not, whether she would admit it or not, she was strong. She did have some choices.
She chose to leave my brother and me a spiral bound notebook, for instance, filled with pages of sage advice and sentiments of love. She chose to keep guiding us and giving us comfort through these words that are immortal and must have been heart-wrenching to write.
She chose to shield my brother and me from some of the harsh realities of her illness and impending death. She chose to encourage us to live our lives and be kids, instead of asking us to stay by her side. Sometimes I wish she wouldn’t have done that, though I don’t know if it would have made a difference. She must have guessed that guilt and regret would plague me for a long time after she died, and she tried to absolve as much of it as she could, while she could.
She chose to continue embodying what a good mother meant to her, even when her body was failing and her mind was fading. She fought to keep mothering us.
She chose to reach for a sense of acceptance at the end of her life, despite her fears and her deep sadness – despite not wanting to leave any of this, any of us.
She chose to be vulnerable. She asked for help and opened herself up to new people and ideas. She wrote poems. She found the humor in everything. She did lots and lots of crying. She leaned on her friends; she leaned into her family.
She chose to have dignity, in life and in death.
She chose to be a mother even when she needed her own mother.
I wasn’t a mother when she died, but I am one now, eight years later. I sometimes think about what I would do if I found myself in her shoes.
Rage courses through my body when I picture it. I think of my son, and envision being robbed of mothering him, the best experience of my life.
It sounds selfish, I know, that my immediate thought is about what leaving him would mean for me.
But that’s my initial, visceral, reaction. I wonder if my mom felt that, too.
I’ve been without a mother, and on some level I believe that if something happened to me, my son would be okay, eventually. On the other hand, I don’t know, and I never want him to have to find out. I wish I could be around for him forever.
My mom often said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” She knew that after she died, my brother’s and my “village” would support us. And they did; they still do.
It wasn’t the same as having our mother, of course. It’s awful not to have a mother.
“You will always have a part of you missing from your life,” she wrote me on October 16, 2006.
Relief washed over me when I read that, because it was true, and it had become exhausting to try to deny.
“I always felt like the one thing I was good at was being a mother,” my mom also wrote. “I mean look at you and Ben.”
“You don’t know how to raise kids,” she continued. “You just figure it out. You just love them so much that everything becomes about them and you’re so focused.”
Now, when I think of what my mom went through, I think from the mind of a mother. Was she enraged, like I would be?
As I pour myself into raising a son who often seems too good to be true, I can’t help but imagine being in my mother’s shoes – being forced to let go of the being I brought into this world with great force, and take care of with intense focus, and love fiercely and wildly with every cell in my body, this child with so much life left to live, all this growing to do.
A friend once told me that life is a series of letting go’s.
I don’t know if I could ever let go with the grace my mother did. I doubt I could be as strong.
Maybe I would feel like I had no other choice.