Last month, my mother had open heart surgery to replace her failing aortic valve. At 77, despite having lived a life of healthy moderation in all things as an early-adult-onset diabetic, she battles the ravages of rheumatoid arthritis and diabetic complications and is suddenly as frail in body as she is tough and resilient in spirit.
She had a bad hip break 25 years ago, with attendant complications, and her orthopods have been into her hip no less than four times. Yet in the past weeks, she has humbly admitted that she “had no idea what MAJOR surgery is like.”
On this Mother’s Day, I recognize that I have also been humbled by her major surgery. I feel I have a sudden, intimate understanding of how incredibly fine and transparent is the veil between life and death.
I am also humbled, in retrospect, that I had once thought I understood when friends were facing similarly heart stopping moments of being forced to contemplate the tenuous purchase we, and our loved ones, have on life. I thought I understood, thought I was saying the right words, but I now realize I had no idea what the experience was like, what I was talking about.
Both my siblings were with my mother and father for the surgery, and I knew they would update me promptly about anything that developed. However, I heard nothing for a long time, and then, a very long time, at which time I realized how deeply, deeply anxious I was, waitingwaitingwaiting for news that my mother remained on this side of the veil with me.
Fortunately for us, not always for others, her immediate outcome and longer-term prognosis were good. But I remain newly awakened to a better understanding of how the world is utterly transformed when one’s mother is no longer in it.
Mother’s Day inspires no end of sappy, sentimental observances. Year in and year out, we know we should honor and celebrate our mothers on this day, and we want to, but it is often harder than one might think to do something nice for the one who is used to doing all the doing.
I know I have been guilty of being difficult to honor. I like my morning cuppa to be just a certain way, strong and well steeped before adding in just the right amount of milk. Hearing the husband and children messing up the kitchen in order to bring me a breakfast in bed I never asked for, can be a trial.
However, several years back, I relaxed my standards, and finally found myself able to accept the gifts offered, exactly as they were presented, feeling loved and honored by the gesture, pure and simple. I joke about how long it took my husband, once he became a father, to understand that you don’t have to be hungry to accept the plastic food offered by your tiny daughter; this seemed like such a no-brainer to me, but he grew up in a very different household from mine (and is a guy). I too have my areas of slow-learning.
I truly feel like I learned nearly every generous, open-hearted, humble, kind response I am capable of from my mother. (The rest I believe I learned from my beloved spouse.) She has been endlessly patient and kind with her children, and everyone else in her universe, for that matter. When, in handling my daughters, I struggle with impulses that undermine the parental behavior I aspire to, I try to channel my own mom. And unlike many mothers of story and sitcom, her patient parenting never came with the added burden of guilt (although she is a Lutheran) or resentment, criticism or comment. She has simply been there, teaching by example and offering her love unreservedly.
We each have only one biological mother. Many of us are also blessed to have “other mothers” who offer different kinds of support, nurture, encouragement, modeling, example, at various times in our lives. I am grateful to my mom for bringing the whole array of motherings into my life in her single person, and for bringing me into life. And I am deeply grateful to have more time to share with her in this messy, beautiful, imperfect life.
Mary for The Poplar Grove Muse