“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.