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Losing a Mom, Gaining a Daughter

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.