Mother’s Day is here. An emptiness erupts inside me on Mother’s Day, and it has for 55 years — since my mother died, when she was just 40 and I was only 15. She had leukemia, which in those days meant no hope.
But this year Mother’s Day will be different.
Though I am the oldest of my siblings, I have only a few obscure memories of my mom. My younger sister and brothers recall details — the softness of her hair, her laugh, how she loved cherry vanilla ice cream, or how she pulled the shopping cart to the A&P. But I have almost nothing in my own memory except the information they’ve shared.
I have been told I was traumatized by her death and involuntarily blocked her out of my mind. The theory never rang true to me, though. I have since experienced death taking my closest family members, including my wife, a stillborn daughter, my dad and my two youngest brothers. I always managed, fortified by my Catholic faith, to move through the grief process and learn to accept what happened. But with my mom, things have always been different.
I finally realized why my grieving process got stuck in the mud, even with the passing of so many decades. It was because I never got past focusing on how her death affected me. I let myself be selfish.
I never gave any consideration to what must have been going through her mind as she lay dying at the age of 39. Then, and afterward, it was always about me.
That me-focus was what erased her from my memory. That was the cause of my emptiness. I felt sorry for myself when she died and kept feeling sorry for myself, year after year after year.
I needed help (even if I didn’t realize it) and finally, unexpectedly, it came. On a phone call with my daughter Mary, she casually remarked, “Hey, Dad, do you realize I’m going to be 39 on my next birthday?”
Her simple comment felt like a lightning bolt. My own daughter was going to be the same age as my mother was when she was slowly being killed by an insidious and merciless disease. I had never thought of my mom as a 39-year-old woman with five kids. She was just my mom, who died on me.
Mary, who also happens to look a lot like the grandma she never knew, had only asked me a simple question. She had no idea that it removed the veil from my silent grief and set me on my journey to discover the woman and person who was also my mother.
Following decades of self-pity, I began to quietly ponder this woman who carried me in her womb, nursed me, fed me, bathed me, held me and hugged me, the woman who cared for me and my siblings through mumps, measles and chicken pox (none of which I remember), who cleaned, washed and ironed clothes, cooked, shopped and also fit in a part-time job … and how she must have felt as she prepared to leave her family behind while facing death. How awful and terrifying that must have been for her.
How did she hold her 18-month-old son on her lap and look at him without going hysterical, knowing soon she would be gone? How did she handle thinking about her six-year-old, missing his front teeth, who she would never give a sweet hug to again? She had a 10-year-old who was in fourth grade and always needed his mom to help him with his homework. Would his dad help him? Probably not; he was so lousy at spelling and grammar.
And there was my sister, her “little” girl. But she was 13 already, and growing up. She would need her mom to talk about woman things. How did she bear the knowledge that her children would soon be motherless? What did she say to our dad, her husband and lover, as they lay together in bed, in the dark of night, waiting for the inevitable, as their five kids slept?
Sunday morning at Mass, priests across the country will talk about mothers, living and deceased. This year I will be proud of the God-loving, faithful, kind and courageous woman who was my mom. I may only have a few scattered memories of her, but it doesn’t matter anymore. Because now it’s not all about me.
On this Mother’s Day I will thank God for that phone call from Mary. And I will thank him for my Mom.
And to all the loving, caring moms everywhere, God bless you all and Happy Mother’s Day.
Larry Peterson is a Christian author, writer and blogger who has written hundreds of columns on various topics. His books include the novel The Priest and the Peaches and the children’s book Slippery Willie’s Stupid, Ugly Shoes. His latest book, The Demons of Abadon, was published in April 2016. He has three kids and six grandchildren, and they all live within three miles of each other in Florida.