“Mama, what did you used to do with Grandma Heather on Mother’s Day?” asks my four-year-old as we sat down to brunch. Pause. Swallow. Breathe deeply.
“Well, we did lots of things,” I reply. “We were lucky to have a lot of Mother’s Days with her. Sometimes we used to take her out to brunch or make her a special meal at home… Sometimes we went to a jazz concert with her, since that was one of her favorite kinds of music…” I trail off.
“Jazz? I don’t like jazz,” he sniffs, and then turns to his dad to ask for the syrup. The moment passes without my dissolving into tears, a minor triumph for me.
The last Mother’s Day I got to celebrate with my mom was May 10, 2009. She was in a rehabilitation center after several weeks in the hospital, following the discovery that her breast cancer had metastasized and necessitated a colostomy. Her illness aside, it was a harrowing time for our family: my husband had lost his job due to the recession; we had had to move a few hours away as a result, my toddler son was melting down regularly as his world zigged and zagged, and, to top it off, I was very, very pregnant. My mom wallowed in self-pity for a few days, thinking about how uh, crappy, it would be to have to walk around with a bag of stool taped to her stomach for the rest of her life, but did her best to clutch at her usual spunky, snarky self. She was focused on regaining the strength to climb the stairs of her townhouse in Brooklyn and hoped to make it home in time for the birth of my second son several weeks later—which she had graciously allowed to take place in her home.
On that particular Mother’s Day, she was tired from everything she had been through in the previous weeks, and I was exhausted from waddling around the city as my due date loomed. While my husband and toddler went exploring in the hallways of the rehab center, my mom and I sat together, trying to enjoy our time but looking forward to better days. I gave her a card that day that read, “I was really worried there for a bit, but I should have known that you still had some fight left in you. I am so grateful for the almost 23 years since your initial diagnosis, but I’m greedy for more time with you. You are a remarkable woman and an amazing mom—I really do aspire to be like you and to have my kids feel about me the way that Jay [my brother] and I do you.” Little did we know what was to come.
She didn’t end up making it out of the rehab in time to witness her grandson’s birth, but she eventually made it home a few weeks later. When her strength didn’t resume as we had all expected, her oncologist paid a housecall to let us know that the cancer had spread even further, and that she should cease all treatment and start hospice care. She slipped into a coma one evening as my newborn son, Henry, and I lay beside her, and she died the next evening, with my brother and me by her side, having given us time to say our goodbyes, tell her how much we loved her, and reassure her that we would be okay.
The Mother’s Days since have been tinged with bittersweet longing. While I’m crazy about my boys and appreciate however they want to celebrate the day, I miss having someone to honor. Sure, I call my dad’s partner and wish her a happy Mother’s Day and send my favorite aunt (my mom’s youngest sister) a pair of earrings much like ones I would have chosen for my mom, but there will always be something missing. Maybe it’s because I was raised by a single mom, but I always felt the need to really make something of the day for her—to show her how deeply I felt she was doing a great job. And now I also miss her vote of confidence in my parenting, since it felt like it was coming from the pro.
I try to keep or create who she was for my boys, who didn’t get to really know her. My older son, Ben, has vague memories of her (or maybe just memories of what I’ve told him they did together, since he only two when she died), but my younger son Henry just a few weeks old when she passed away. She was too weak to even hold him.
I tell Ben of how my mom used to chuckle when I would call her nearly crying in frustration at his stubbornness; not only would she would remind me that I had been similarly temperamental, but she genuinely reveled in his strong personality. And her laughing, while maddening, helped me to better appreciate him by seeing him through someone else’s eyes. When he rides his balance bike, I remind him that Grandma Heather gave it to him, somehow foreseeing that a gift that would grow with him would allow her to remain tangibly present in his life after her death. In the evening, when Henry climbs into his big brother’s bed to cuddle and read before bedtime, I might ask him if he knows that he was born in that bed, his grandmother’s bed and a bed that had welcomed two other generations of my family a century ago. And as my boys fall asleep, it’s to the sound of my off-key rendition of lullabies she made up and used to sing to me, songs I hadn’t heard or thought of in years but which began to ring in my ears after her death. And of course we keep photos of her around the house—her house, actually, since my brother and my family and I moved back in following her death.
Although Mother’s Day is one where I can’t help but feel her loss, the times I miss her most are during the highs and lows of parenting—when one of my sons reaches a big milestone like walking or learning how to read, or at the end of a long day when I’ve lost my temper. It’s at those moments that I wish I could hear just how proud she would be, or be reminded that having a bad day doesn’t make you a mom failure. I miss her take on it all.
And so, on this Mother’s Day (and the other 364 days this year), I’m trying to be the mom my mother taught me how to be, both for my sons and for myself, even as I wish she could cheer me on. I was taught by one of the best that it’s not about doing it all (she couldn’t, as a single working mom) or being there for every minute (again, it literally wasn't possible), but it’s about being fully present for the stuff that matters. I try to hear her voice in my head and give myself a break when I know she would have encouraged me to do so, congratulate myself for my part of the incredible mini-men my sons are becoming. Mostly, I just remind myself to slow down and enjoy the kids that she would have so adored.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.