Tuesday, October 30, 2012

For Esther

When you're a child, you perceive time differently. As a kid, I could only have imagined anything beyond the age of 11. Imagining life as an adult was difficult and 15 years was an unfathomable amount of time. It sort of still is. Yesterday marked the 15th anniversary of my mother's death. There are times it feels like yesterday, and other times were it feels like it's been longer. I like to use her birthday (3.31) and the anniversary as a time of reflection. This year has been making me think about mothers.

Mom was diagnosed with cancer (Hodgkin's Disease) when I was 6 years old. My situation as a child was already unique because my parents were significantly older than my friends' parents. Mom had me when she was 42. That meant there were limitations, a generational gap larger than most and somewhat old-fashioned child-rearing. People often mistook my parents for my grandparents. We also didn't have money. I didn't really take notice as a young child, because I always had clothes and food and a place to sleep but my parents had no savings and we didn't have the latest and greatest. When mom got sick, I believe she knew she had to cram a lifetime of lessons into a few short years, just in case. She was a stay at home mom, which is so reflective of that old-fashioned way of life. Dad had to work, and my special needs brother could not always lend a hand in the way that was needed. While mom was still feeling well[enough] I learned all the essentials: cooking, cleaning, ironing. I could press my dad's shirts  at 8 years old. I would prepare full dinners for my family when mom was too tired and sick from chemo and dad was working. I'd get home from school do my homework, and then my home-work. I learned to respect my parents, how to handle my brother when he had one of his meltdowns and could run to the corner store at age 8 or 9 and grab milk, bread and whatever we needed with that little book of paper food stamps.  She helped with homework when she could; she was a former teacher, so I already had a strong foundation. I never went to preschool- she taught me to read at home so by kindergarten I was well ahead of my peers. These lessons were so valuable, but there are others she taught me and that I have learned since that have shaped me and stuck with me.

An early baking lesson. My apron is adorable.
I can clearly remember mom and dad telling Steve and I that she had cancer. It was a word that as children that young, we could not really comprehend. From what I remember, my parents did a great job explaining what was happening inside mom's body, what we might expect, and what it could mean. That early on, we never talked about it being a death sentence. I struggle to recall any mention of death until closer to the end, when she started getting worse. One of the lessons my mother taught me was about compassion. In kindergarten (back then we only went for half a day) and half-day Wednesdays in 1st and second grade and other times when I wasn't in school, mom would take me to appointments with her. Sometimes it was check-ups, but most often I'd accompany her to chemo sessions. I sometimes wonder if people thought she was crazy; that it was too much for a child so young. Today, I am grateful. She told me that the people in the room had cancer like her, though maybe a different type. She told me some might be bald because of the medicine or look really sick. She prepared me to deal with illness in a powerful way. I became a gopher of sorts; bringing Saltines and water and ice chips to the patients in the leather recliners. One time I covered a woman with an afghan because she was sleeping. Another woman asked me to change the channel on the TV to "All My Children." Thus, my introduction to soap operas at age 7. I can remember the smiles, both on mom's face and the other patients. I must have known other kids didn't do stuff like this, but maybe I didn't care. It was normal to me. Many years after mom died, when I was nearing the end of high school, I went back to the oncology ward to visit. Her doctor was still there, and some of the nurses. Dr. Erickson embraced me. We talked about mom and and her time there. She told me that I had made a huge difference in the life of those patients. When I couldn't be there, some of her patients would ask where I was, when "Esther and her little girl" would  next be in. She said I had delivered hope, a positive light in the midst of such sadness. I knew then what my mom had been teaching me was compassion for others.

Eleven is a tricky age. Old enough to know what's going on, but also so young. I was in 6th grade. That's the age where I started thinking boys were cute and where I had gathered so many of my best girlfriends. When she was in the hospital in those final weeks, I utilized all she had taught me. We had so much help from our church, but I found myself stepping into the "woman of the house" role. I was grateful for what she had taught me. What I would really miss later are the things she didn't get to teach me. We never went bra shopping, I never asked her about boys. She didn't get to tell me about sex (school and friends and my dad [bless his heart] did that) or about her first loves before my dad or about her childhood. I don't know anything about her political stances or whether her difficulty getting/stay pregnant after my brother was due to her age, or some sort of reproductive issue. Dad did his best to relay stories my mother had told him as a way to teach me about her and keep her spirit alive. But eleven years old was too young to ask about somethings, and so it never occurred to me, nor did it to her. I realize now that I did learn from her even after she was gone. I learned how to ask others. I also learned how to teach myself; to be independent and strong.

I had help filling in some of those gaps. Over the years I have had so many great female adult role models; friends' mothers who stepped to the plate to be there for me. This is how I learned about menstruation, got my first training bra and heard about boys. If not for my friends and their parents, I'm not sure where my life would have gone. My best friend Aimee and her mother Susan (my favorite FARM) were pivotal for me in those early years have remained so to this day. They are no longer friends, but family. It's what happens after 16 years of friendship and support. And now I am lucky enough to have my mother in law Martha, who is one of the best moms I know and whom I love very much. I am certain she and my mother would have been friends. But I miss my own mother; and I always wonder how she would have taught me about these things. It makes me think about what it means to be a mother. Surely, in the short time she had, she taught me all she could; all she thought was appropriate. She instilled in me the ability to discover other lessons on my own, knowing she wouldn't  be there forever. I know I have missed so many pivotal mother/daughter moments, but isn't a mother's job to teach, and protect and love? I have no doubt she did all of these things. My dad did the best he could alone, and my mother gave me a strong enough foundation to pull us all up from the darkness. So yes, I've been without my mother longer than I have been with her, but she did her job, and her love and her lessons will be with me my whole life. They will shape the kind of mother I will be. Even if I am not sick (I pray to God my children won't go through what I have) I will teach my children valuable life lessons. I will expect my family to share an evening meal together every day. I will teach them compassion; maybe I will have them volunteer at a hospital, reading to sick children. Being a mother is the most amazing and difficult job in the world. I was lucky to have one for 11 years, and lucky still to have inherited Susan and  CeCe and Claire and Martha.  There are days I worry that I won't be a good mom; that the fact that I didn't have my own mom for so long will mean I over or under compensate and my children will be unhappy. People who know me well assure me this will not be the case. I hope they are right.

That poor kitty. I think his name was Tiger. 

My mother was an amazing woman. As the years go by, I see that more and more. I also am forgetting a bit; I cannot recall what her voice sounds like. People with children tell me that when I am scolding or praising my own children, I'll hear my mother's voice then. I hope that's true. But what I will always remember is that she loved me enough to teach me what was necessary, that she was strong and brave in her battle with cancer, and that with her age came wisdom. I think I love her now more than I did then, and since she is not here for me to share it, I have to show her by living my life to make her proud. Being a mother is a gift, one I cannot wait to receive. To all the moms I know out there; THANK YOU for doing the world's best and toughest job. To any parent, or anyone that acts as a parent, thank you too. I was a motherless daughter for much of my life, but only physically. I know she was with me. And so, in Esther's honor, hug your children, brothers or sisters, nieces or nephews a little tighter this week. Being a mother and a caregiver and a teacher was her life, and the best way I can honor her is to share the love.