When my mother died, I, who had been fairly stoic during the months of her final illness and hospice care, started wailing, shrieking really, uncontrollably. I couldn’t help it, even though as the big sister I felt guilty for calling attention to myself when my three siblings were suffering just as much as I was.
Although I knew my mother would die, indeed I had prayed just hours earlier that death would take her, because she was in a coma and the wait for the inevitable was agonizing, still, the sudden reality of the separation hit me with a wild terror.
Once I was able to calm down a bit, I looked at my brother, who was sobbing, and said: “I just don’t know how to BE in the world without her.”
That kind of sums up for me what it means to be a mother. We come into this world in our mother’s womb; we have a relationship that, though we cannot remember it, resonates, I believe, in our subconscious. Through life, though our relationship with our mother may not be perfect or even always good, she is a unique presence. For many of us fortunate ones, she is a constant, abiding presence, and a source of true unconditional love.
How many of us, even as adults, go to our mothers or yearn to when we have a problem or worry. I often did, and she never really tried to solve what was bothering me, but she listened, and in her listening with that love and confidence in me, I felt better, comforted and calmed.
Interestingly, as my mother was dying, she went back in time, not to her marriage (my Dad had died 15 years previously, and she was devoted to him), but much further back to life with her mother and two sisters. Perhaps it was partly because hers was a female household: her father had died when she was two, and she had no brothers. In her last days, when she was slipping in and out of the here and now, when she knew what was going on she was very scared of dying and terribly agitated, but at one point she got quite peaceful and looked at me with a radiant smile. I leaned over the bed to talk to her and she thought I was her sister Nancy, and she talked about “Mom.” She went back to a place and time where she felt safe.
Similarly, my mother, a devout Roman Catholic, had several close priest friends visit and anoint her in her last days. She loved and admired these good priests. Knowing her deep faith, I expected her to have some spiritual sense of calm, but she didn’t–she was still painfully troubled. The hospice social worker talked to us about it–a bit puzzled–what could help her? I thought I knew—she needed a mother. Her good friend, a mother superior of an order of nuns, was in Spain on World Youth Day and so unable to come –but she came immediately on her return, and had a private visit with my mother. That was the turning point—I don’t know what they said, but after she left, my mother had a new peace. The agitation diminished and she finally allowed herself to accept what was happening. She died three days later, slipping into a coma only after she knew her four surviving children were all there at her side.
It is now three years since my mother died, and the initial grief has been softened by a wonderful confidence that she is with us. I feel her loving presence; I speak to her often in my heart.
I am the mother now of three teenagers. Most of the time, I am caught in the everyday with them. I used to think I’d literally die of worry when I was a Mom—how would I let my children out of my sight? But as you mothers (and fathers) know, you get used to things in steps—and in order to let your children do what they need to do every day, you just can’t dwell on the big fears. You cheer them on when they succeed and are happy, you mourn with them when they suffer, but sometimes your highest calling is just being—being their Mom whose love is abiding and patient. I hope and pray that I will be with them, here, for a long time—but what’s most important, and I know goes beyond this world, is that they know, as I did with my Mom, that they are loved unconditionally by the woman who has held them in her heart from the earliest days of their existence.