In what will always seem like a strange cosmic coincidence, my mom, a petite woman with short blonde hair and a tender smile, died the same week my daughter, Lulu, a little munchkin with blueberry eyes, was born. While I will never know for sure, I cannot help but think the instantaneous connection I felt for my infant daughter was directly related to losing the woman who had given birth to me.
The last weeks of my pregnancy were the last weeks of my mom's life. While I prepared to give birth, she did not call incessantly and send presents as she had done days before the birth of my toddler son, Spencer. Instead, fragile and preoccupied after a five-year fight with pancreatic cancer, my mom climbed into bed and prepared for her death, while also insisting to me that she couldn't wait "to see the baby."
When I called her for short chats, we did not talk about my contractions. We talked about her pain. I was the one who asked "How are you feeling today?" And when the answer to that question became more and more convoluted, my husband and I made the three-hour drive -- against doctor's orders -- to visit her.
Before sending me home, my mother placed a shaking hand on my enormous belly, rested it there for ten seconds as if blessing her granddaughter, and smiled at me for the very last time.
We raced home. Twelve hours later -- on a sun-drenched June morning -- my daughter was born. I was six centimeters dilated by the time I arrived at the hospital. I pushed for three short minutes and little Lulu (her full name is Logan) slid down that birth canal as if surfing. If my mother willed herself to stay in the world as long as she could, her granddaughter willed herself into it as fast as she could. Still, she was cranky upon arrival -- more so than most newborns, the overly frank nurse on duty confessed. But the ease with which she came suggested to me that she was going to be easy-going like her grandmother, who had more names in her address book and more party dresses in her closet than anyone I know.
In the photos taken of me shortly after Lulu's birth, I am sitting in the maternity ward, looking bedraggled and exhausted, wearing my mother's terry cloth bathrobe, and clutching Lulu tightly to my chest, as if I am afraid she too might disappear. In each shot, I have a wide, beaming smile but my eyes are tight and small. And there are dark circles under them from the sleep I missed those nights before Lulu's birth, as I stumbled countless times to the bathroom to pee and then stayed awake for hours afterward, praying my mother would survive long enough to get the call about the baby.
When I did phone to tell her the news, my mother's voice was low and scratchy, as if she were the one who had just given birth. Luckily, her morning dose of medication had dulled her pain but not her ability to comprehend. She received the news with a phrase that seemed odd coming from a woman facing death -- "I'm so happy" -- but that I understood instinctually. Two days later, we got the call about her. She was 66.
A mother's spirit lives on
For days I clung to Lulu's little body, seeing my mother in her every gesture. I scanned my baby's face for my mother's petite features and clocked her moves in hopes of finding my mother's cheerful disposition. A mere smirk told me my mother's spirit was among us. I held photos of her as a little girl up to Lulu's face. "Look. She has my mom's lips. Do you think she'll have her sense of humor?" I asked my husband.
At my mother's memorial service, I wore Lulu in a baby carrier as if she were my protective shield. I greeted my mother's friends with a brave smile. If they thought I wouldn't make it, I wanted them to know Lulu would help me. And she did, unknowingly and without effort. Her utter dependence, her eagerness to nurse, her clinging fingers and wails for food that only I could satisfy, made me feel like more than just a mother fulfilling her obligations, but a daughter passing down love that would otherwise have dissipated. I bathed and fed her, clipped her toenails, and dressed her in booties, T-shirts, and clothes my mother had bought for her. I was awash in her love and my infatuation with my own daughter. And that rush of emotion soothed me deeply.
For all of us, there is something otherworldly about those first days at home with a newborn. You are recovering from the birth and pumped up on adrenaline or exhausted beyond belief. No matter what the details of those long, sometimes painful and confounding days, there comes a moment when you think that this creature lying peacefully in her bassinet must truly be a gift from the heavens. My son's birth left me delighted and ecstatic. But when Lulu came home, I couldn't help but wonder if she wasn't a giving to make up for a taking, something truly divine.
Days passed quickly. I was often so caught up in the caregiving that I scarcely had time to think about my mom or to notice that when the phone rang it was never her. The summer slowly turned into fall. And it was only at night, when I would find myself alone in bed with Lulu propped up on a pillow nursing ferociously, that my mother's death would feel like such a terrible loss.
How, I wondered, could I care for this baby girl, without her help? I worried about who would teach Lulu all the things my mother knew how to do so well: set a table, write a thank-you note, pull an outfit together in seconds, and make everyone -- even the chemotherapy nurses -- feel welcome and cherished. That's when I would cry, wondering if my mother could see us.
Then, on a bitingly cold November morning, something happened that made me stop wondering. The house was filled with Lulu's gassy cries. And my usually happy-go-lucky toddler had embarked on a morning-long whine about an empty sippy cup, a lost puzzle piece, and a Dad who had dared to go to work. Dirty dishes clogged the kitchen sink and there was soiled laundry cluttering the pantry floor. I pulled my hair into a ponytail, plopped the kids in front of a Baby Einstein video, locked myself in the bathroom, and sat down for a good, long cry. Then a conversation I'd had with my mother a few weeks before she died suddenly came back to me. "When you have the new baby, things will feel overwhelming. You've got to make sure every day you get out of the house before noon. I don't care how cold it is."
I dressed Spencer, pulled on my coat, and strapped Lulu into her Baby Bjorn as tears ran down my cheeks. It was 11:45. My mother, always on time, always meticulously dressed, always carrying a perfectly organized purse, had attempted to prepare me. Her advice: At times like this, pull it together. "Don't worry," I heard myself tell the children. "We're getting out of this house. I don't care how cold it is."
That afternoon, as I walked through the neighborhood with one child in a stroller and the other on my chest, I recalled my mother's last visit to our house. She peppered her talk that short weekend with advice and words of wisdom, subtly -- perhaps inadvertently -- preparing me for life without her: Get organized, keep busy, get dressed every morning, take time for yourself. "You're doing a great job," she had said. "I'm so proud of you."
Stopping in front of a store to adjust Lulu's wool hat, I spotted our reflection in the glass window. I saw a young mother looking down into her daughter's face, checking to make sure she was warm and snug, that her hat wasn't covering her eyes or exposing her little ears to the cold. I secured the hat and planted a kiss on Lulu's forehead. "You're going to be a great mother to a daughter," my mother had told me that weekend. At last, standing there alone without her, I saw what my mother had seen. And finally, I could hear her.
Kyle Spencer is a freelance writer and mother of two in Brooklyn, NY.