What Mother’s Day Was

May 13th, 2017. 9:24am and 62 degrees Fahrenheit. Weathermen have been threatening thunderstorms for two days, but so far the only action we’ve seen is dark overhead clouds and exhausting humidity.

Weeks ago I knew this would be hard. I told my partner that if I prepared for it, I’d be better off in the long run. This is a tactic I learned in bereavement counseling. My counselor, “Ben”, said if we accept that it will be difficult and we prepare for it, it won’t take us by surprise. And I’d seen this logic play out already, seeing as we’d somehow survived the Christmas holidays.

So, I began preparing. And at 11pm on Thursday, May 11th, it all came crashing down. The tidal wave of sorrow, regret, anger, frustration, and disappointment washed over me, and even though I’d said and thought all those same things several times these past 9 months, the tears fell anew and the pain was just as raw as the first time.

I wanted to get this grief out of the way so by Sunday I could focus on just my own motherhood. I have an incredible kid who is the fiber that holds my heart together. With her birth she sewed me up, tying parts of my identity together with her existence, and I can not imagine being me without her being her. Motherhood is, for me, the best thing I will ever do. It is my life’s work. So, Mother’s Day is a celebration of that work.

I remember all too well, however, what Mother’s Day was before my kiddo.

Mother’s Day was nasty phone calls because I didn’t call her first. It was ugly emails, ripping me to shreds, reassurring me that my siblings were superior to me, had always been, and would always be.

It was the expectation that I worship her and say nice things about and to her, despite the abuse of childhood, despite the neglect, despite the manipulation and selfishness. It was pretending she didn’t used to leave us for entire weekends, alone in a house, as minors, so she could shack up with her boyfriend. It was never talking about the bruises I wore to school one morning because I rolled my eyes. It was never daring to hold her accountable for not wanting to be a mother in the first place, something she admitted to me months before her death.

It was lying. Mother’s Day was lying. And I hated to lie. Especially about bruises, about heartache, about shame, and about mistakes.

So, some years I didn’t call. I didn’t send cards. I didn’t write. Some years I hid in my tiny one bedroom apartment, hoping and praying maybe this year she’d just let it go, wondering which was worse: lying about the kind of mother she was, or dealing with the fallout of not lying.

And when she died and they held her “celebration of life”, my brother and I decided that we wouldn’t lie anymore. Oh, the hell we caught for it. Strangers who know nothing of the bruises, the abuse, the neglect, the profanity, the fists, the broken vases and plates, the threats, the accusations, and the unending avalanche of lies….they hate us.

Because they will never know that Mother’s Day was our annual reminder that our mother didn’t fit on a cheery Hallmark card. She wasn’t their mother. She wasn’t even their friend, because real friends know things about you that they will never know. She was so, so good at keeping secrets. She was especially good at keeping the most important one: she wasn’t cut out for mothering. And even months before he death, she couldn’t bring herself to really care.

On Mother’s Day last year, months before she died, she wept as she confided to me that she knew her treatment of my brother and his wife, a woman of color, wasn’t right. Racism has always been a driving force with her husband. She sobbed as she told me she felt so much shame, she felt so bad for what they’d been through at her husband’s hands, she felt guilt for not standing up for them.

I saw her humanity and I saw so much authenticity and for the first time I thought, “Yes. Finally we’re getting somewhere.” I encouraged her to apologize to my brother and his wife. I told her they’d forgive her, that my brother loved her, and if she could just apologize, there would be so much healing. “Mom, it’s okay. We all know how he (her husband) is. They know. They love you. And you love them. It will do so much good just to hear you apologize, Mom.”

And she said, “No.” She told me, “I just…well, I did the best I could. Everyone just needs to accept that I did the best I could.”

On her final Mother’s Day on this earth, my mother still refused to be the kind of mother we needed: an honest one. So, she died before delivering that apology. She died before apologizing for anything. She died before making it right, doing the right thing, being on the right side of our personal family history.

Mother’s Day was the reminder of everything she could have been…and simply chose not to be.

But, that’s what it was. And this first Mother’s Day without her, I’m ready to stop reliving what it was and focus only on what it is and what it will be. From this weekend forward, Mother’s Day is me being everything she couldn’t be. Mother’s Day is remembering to admit when I’m wrong. Mother’s Day is accepting that my daughter will have problems with some of my decisions. Mother’s Day is respecting her identity and placing value on her experience. Mother’s Day is allowing myself and my daughter to be flawed, and imperfect, but trying. Mother’s Day is looking into those beautiful eyes and knowing that no matter what, she will always be my favorite accomplishment. Mother’s Day is saying you’re sorry. Mother’s Day is always saying, “I love you.”

Mother’s Day was pain. But, Mother’s Day is and will be joy.

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