She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies . . .
Lord Byron (George Gordon)
When I was 13 I sketched my mother’s profile in church. Regal, she sat with her chin tilted upward, receiving enlightenment from the pulpit, her features arranged serenely. Thick, auburn hair hung past her shoulders. The long feathered bangs of 1976 framed her face. To me she was breathtaking. She was the sum of her parts and more; soft hands that soothed, full lips that pressed to a fevered forehead, arms that embraced, a gentle voice that lulled away hurt.
Today the pencil drawing, its edges burnt and the pulp decoupaged onto wood, hangs in her apartment, my adoration for her captured; a living thing. From floor to ceiling, photographs of her children line the walls. She wraps us around her like armor to do battle with her longtime companion, multiple sclerosis. From 2,000 miles away I resonate her pain. I mourn her loss, little by little. Attacking itself, her body betrays; her mind, too, keeping its secrets and misplacing her memories.
She told me she is second-guessing every decision she’s ever made. Her peace is found in surrender now. She bravely lets go, again and again and again. In her suffering, my mother grows wise; as her body fails, her heart sings. Regal and serene, she is breathtaking to me.
20 years ago when I was young and broken, I met my second mother. She was the age that I am now, the heart of a boisterous family that gathered around the table, laughing and eating and taking pleasure in one another’s company. She lavished me with her gifts and encircled me, opening wide to reveal boundless love. To me she was beautiful. She took me for her own. Two years later I married her son and I took her name for my own.
Now she sits in a hospital bed, bald but for a soft fringe around her hairline, wispy bangs that peak out from under a pink ball cap. Enlivened by a visit from the girls, she entertains, cocking the bill of her cap to the side like a gangsta grandma. It was blocking her view, she says. Before surgery I come to her side. Before she is laid open wide on the table—vulnerable and mortal—our hands hold, our eyes meet. She is afraid, but strong. Noble and courageous, she is beautiful to me.
My heart cleaves; my own mother, half a world away where I cannot get to her, and my mother-in-law, here with me, each fragile and compromised. I hold tightly to the present as if I could suspend us all but it won’t be stayed. Time flows steadily on and someday I will be without them both.
Too painful to articulate, I cannot give voice to it. But children haven’t yet learned the art of pretense and grandmothers have earned the right to drop it. So when my youngest says, “MeMe, are you going to die?” my mother-in-law’s response is, “Honey, we’re all going to die someday. But I’ve got to watch you grow up, so it’s not my time yet.”
And recently my mom comforted my oldest—her adult granddaughter—speaking of death without fear, “I’ll always be with you. Watch for the signs. I’ll visit you in your dreams.”
I am still a child, who needs her mother. I seek her essence to reflect the solidity of my existence. The profound relationship is reduced to a simple truth: it matters not what a mother does, it is who she is that draws her children close to her. The purity of a child’s love is without condition. She is my mother and I am because she is.
My vision shifts and the child’s perspective merges with that of a mother; one in mid-life struggling to face and overcome obstacles brought on by having a child with special needs; a mother who struggles to meet all her children’s needs. One who comes up short again and again and again.
The epiphany lands softly. Understanding floods my senses and my body breathes this knowledge: what I do is insignificant. I need be nothing more than myself. What my children—all of them—want most from me is my presence and my attention.
“Mommy, are you there?
“Mama, do you hear me?”
“Mom, do you see me?”
I am the witness that affirms their substance. I am the anchor that secures their craft. I am the love that lights their world. My presence is enough.
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