I have a memory of being very young and quite frightened as I sit on my mother’s lap. We are on a boat of some kind and I can feel the rocking of the craft on the waves. My mother comforts me as I cling ever closer to her chest. There are many people around and all of them are chattering and unwittingly making me feel quite nervous. The sea breeze is brisk and I don’t like the way that it stings my face, so I bury my head in my mother’s gentle caress. Suddenly everyone is moving toward the railing of the ship, even my mother who appears to be happy and excited as she carries me toward the crowd that is cheering and pointing at something that is confusing to me. Whatever it is seems gigantic and I don’t want to look at it, but my mother’s soothing voice convinces me that I am safe. I quickly glance just long enough to see a huge object seemingly floating in the water. Then the imagery of that long ago recollection instantly stops in my mind.
I have often wondered where I might have been on that day. My mother seemed to think that we were on a vacation trip to New York City. My vague description of my recurring vision led her to believe that I had somehow remembered going out into the harbor to view the Statue of Liberty. Still she had her doubts because I was well under two years old when we took that trip together, so she often mused that perhaps I was recreating an image from a movie that I had seen and attributing it to my own life. Somehow I believe that the incident was absolutely real and so scary to me that I was able to relive the scene even decades after it had occurred. Mostly my thoughts of that day are reminders of how safe and protected I felt in my mother’s arms, a feeling that never changed in all of the years that I have journeyed in this world.
Mothers have been on my mind of late. Three of my friends have recently lost their moms. Another is agonizing over the anniversary of her mother’s death a year ago. Her grief was renewed as the date that her mother left this world approached. In her honesty about her sadness and her descriptions of the wonderful things that she and her mother shared, I have found myself realizing that a mother’s love is unique in its intensity. A mom is eternally connected to her children in a spiritual way that transcends even death. I know that I have felt my mother’s enduring presence in my heart again and again in the six years since she has been gone. I find that I actually understand her more in her absence than I ever did when I was rushing around and taking her for granted. It is not difficult at all for me to identify with the men and women that I know who are filled with a mixture of sadness and joy as they are reminded of the unconditional love that their moms showered on them.
It’s funny how we find ourselves thinking of small moments that meant so much to us whenever we begin to think back on the influence that our mothers had on our lives. I always return to a cold February when I was nine years old and bedridden with a high fever and a measles induced rash. I felt weak and my head pounded incessantly. My mother kept me warm under quilts that my grandmother had made. She constantly checked on me and brought me cool drinks and homemade soup to keep me sustained at a time when I had no desire for anything other than sleep. Best of all she hugged and caressed me and softly assured me that I would soon be well again. Even in the middle of the night as I tossed and turned uncomfortably she was there watching over me. I needed her so, and she was my guardian angel.
Thinking back I realize that this happened only months after my father had died. Mama had somehow managed to create a safe environment for me and my brothers in such a short time. She had set aside her own tears and worries, at least on the surface, so that we might feel confident that all would be well. She must have felt overwhelmed by the responsibilities that had so suddenly fallen upon her, and yet she never let on that she was even remotely concerned. She threw herself into the task of parenting all alone, never even hinting that it might be quite difficult. All I knew back then is how much I loved her and how good she always made me feel.
Mothers can be such imperfect beings but somehow those of us who are their children ultimately see only the perfection of their love. They are our mentors, our muses, our cheerleaders, our rocks, our security. No matter how many mistakes that we make their love endures. They see us without the criticisms that others may heap upon us. They believe in us and want all that is best for us, but mostly they just want us to know that they will never leave us, so I always understand the profound sense of loss that occurs when someone’s mother dies.
Sometimes it is the other way around. A mother loses a child, an unnatural event that is capable of tearing a woman’s heart from her soul. I often think of my grandmother Minnie when my father died and the startling pain that remained etched on her face from that day forward. I thought of her when my friend Tien lost her baby boy Jhett. I sense that there are few greater tragedies than the untimely death of a child, and even though I have witnessed the great courage of those who have endured such misfortune, I also have seen their quiet desperation and undying love for the children who might have been.
It is important that we acknowledge the feelings of children who have lost their mothers, or mom’s who have lost their children. The mother/child relationship never really dies and so the emotions that surround the memories are raw and real. Our role as friends is to simply be supportive and willing to embrace the feelings that they have, no matter how deeply sad they may seem to be. In many ways the person who is willing to admit to their overwhelming emotions is actually just being honest. Our society tends to look away from grief and want people to pretend that they are stronger than they really are. Being able to admit to feeling crushed by loss is actually a healthy way of dealing with reality.
My mother was always the stoic, the person who gave the impression that all was well. I suspect that she did this to shield me and my brothers from the many worries that stalked her. When her mother died she finally decided to let all of the world see her true state of mind. She sobbed openly and spoke of her mom incessantly, so much so that one of her brothers cautioned her to get a grip on herself. By that time in her life she had been treated for bipolar disorder for many years. She went to her psychiatrist concerned about the intensity of her grief. He assured her that she was finally reacting in an incredibly healthy and normal manner and he congratulated her for learning how to deal realistically with the feelings that are so much a part of being human.
Yes, our mothers are such special people. They are our first teachers and the people who like us just the way we are. It is indeed perfectly natural for us to miss them when they are gone and to want to remember them, sometimes even with tears in our eyes. Be kind to those who have those moments of remembering how much they miss that relationship. It is something to honor and embrace. Be the person who allows them to express themselves. Be the person who understands. Help them to embrace their grief.