The Gift of Motherhood

On this Mother’s Day I feel especially grateful for my family. My mother is still alive at age 92. Both of my daughters are now mothers themselves, and when they ask me what I want for Mother’s Day, I can’t think of anything I don’t already have. They have given me the best gift of all, my three granddaughters.

Looking back over the years, I know I had many failures as a mother. But I loved my daughters from the first moments I held them, and my love for them has just grown stronger over the years. I don’t know how they learned to be such incredible mothers themselves, but I am not giving myself any credit for preparing them for motherhood. They have trusted their instincts over and over, and those instincts have yet to fail them.

My youngest daughter was the first to have children. My granddaughters are now ages five and nine, and they are wonderful girls. My daughter is a stay-at-home mom who volunteers at numerous school activities, has offered her children opportunities to play sports, take dance, gymnastics, and swimming lessons, and learn to play an instrument. She has protected them, taught them, played with them, and kept them healthy. She cooks nutritious, organic meals, limits snacks and television time, encourages reading and activity, and loves them with all her heart. It hasn’t been easy. Her husband travels a lot, both in this country and out, and spends several evenings a week at dinner meetings. He works hard and is a great dad, but she has had to cope alone many times when his presence would have made things easier. Even though motherhood for her is often overwhelming, that is really because she takes it very seriously and puts everything she can into it. Her daughters are very lucky to have her as their mother.

My oldest daughter is new to motherhood. Single by choice after some very painful failed relationships, she has concentrated on her career. But in recent years, she has been talking about her need to have a child. I admire the work she has done to prepare herself for adoption. She took weekly classes, read numerous books, joined support groups, and hoped. Single mothers are often not the first choice for child placement. She knew this. She expected a wait of three or four years or maybe more. But the week she got her certification to adopt a child, she met the seven-year-old girl who would become her daughter. They were a perfect match. Maria and her siblings were taken from their parents, separated, and placed in foster care. They had been abused and neglected, children of drug-addicted parents. Maria was put in a separate foster home, later taken from that home and placed in a shelter for months, waiting for someone to love her. That person was my daughter.

Figuring out how to mother a seven-year-old without the previous six years of experience was not easy. I guess it’s like walking through a mine field, and when the child has a history of abuse, there is just no telling when an explosion might occur. However, despite Maria’s many nights of crying, despite frequent meltdowns over seemingly insignificant things, my daughter has loved Maria, held her, comforted her, talked to her, guided her, and provided her with opportunities she never had before. She now has access to food, she has had her first birthday party, her first real Christmas, her first Easter basket and Easter egg hunt, her first art and music experiences, her first swimming and gymnastics lessons, her first bicycle, her first dog. The list is endless. She has new clothes, shoes that fit, hair cut and styled in a salon, friends in school, and a new family who loves her unconditionally. She is not with her siblings but she has seen them. She will never be with her parents again, but she has a life like other children have now. Within a few days of meeting my daughter, she held her hand and called her “mommy,” a word I suspect was the most wonderful word my daughter has ever heard.

I am so proud of both of my daughters. They call me frequently just to share, although I sometimes probably offer too much advice. I was both at times a stay-at-home mom and a working mom. I know the challenges. Parenting in this crazy, often dangerous world today is not easy, but my daughters are succeeding at it in wonderful ways. I am so lucky to have been given the gifts of my daughters and my granddaughters. Even though they live far away and I don’t see them enough, I carry them always in my heart, and so today I celebrate motherhood for us all.

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Another Mother’s Day in the Nursing Home

My mother was admitted to the nursing home three years ago after spending a year in and out of the hospital. She is in fairly good health this year in spite of advancing dementia. At 92, she goes to activities, enjoys the music programs, has made a few friends, and is well cared for in spite of daily complaints. Now that spring has arrived, we sit outside during my daily visits and enjoy the sunshine and the beauty of blossoming trees and flowers.

My husband and I spent two months in Arizona this year visiting my daughter and her newly adopted daughter. While we were there, my mother’s behavior radically changed, most likely to an untreated urinary tract infection. She never did like her roommate, delusions getting the best of their relationship, but one day she got upset with her and kicked her. The Department of Health was notified and laws required her to be removed from her room and put in a private room. She went to pieces. She believed I had abandoned her and she had done nothing wrong to deserve this. She was angry at everyone, especially me. I considered coming home, but a psychologist was called in and she worked with her to calm her down and reassure her that I was coming home, giving her a specific date. The staff at the nursing home had given me some poor advice. They recommended at first that I not tell her I was gong away and then I should not tell her how long I was going to be gone. That was bad advice. When I returned, she had settled into her room. I decorated it for her, she made friends with the woman across the hall, and she is now content.

This Mother’s Day I will bring her lunch since I can no longer safely take her out to eat. She needs only soft foods, so I will make her favorite potato salad and strawberry shortcake and sit outside with her for a while. I know I am lucky to still have a mother on this Mother’s Day, even though in some ways, she is not the mother I used to know. Times change as we age and maybe sadness is an emotion that just increases as years pass. I don’t know how many more years I will be able to spend with my mother on Mother’s Day. She is still strong and physically healthier than many of the other residents in the nursing home but not as strong mentally as many others. Words elude her and delusions continue. This Mother’s Day is also the date my father died. She won’t remember that and I won’t mention it. After I visit with her, I’ll go visit my father in the cemetery. I’ll tell him how well she is doing. I’ll tell him I feel lucky to still have her. I’ll tell him how much I miss him every day. I’ll put some roses on his grave, my parents’ favorite flowers, and say good-by once again.

Another Mother’s Day in the Nursing Home

I know I am lucky to still have my mother. I am lucky to be able to spend Mother’s Day with her again this year. I plan to bring her some of her favorite foods—potato salad and strawberry shortcake, using her recipes to make them. It’s a warm day, so we’ll be able to sit outside for a while, watching spring arrive, listening for the songs of birds she loves and no longer gets to hear very often.

For her 85th birthday, I threw her a large family party in the community room of the senior housing complex where she used to live. We had a great buffet, played her favorite music, gave her gifts, and enjoyed being together as a family, a rare event lately.  The day after the party, we took her to Ogunquit, Maine, a favorite place for both of my parents years ago. She enjoyed everything, and in late afternoon, she would take a glass of wine, sit in a lounge chair on the knoll at the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, and totally relax. I am so glad we had that time together before all memories began to leave her, like leaves falling from the trees in October.

Today at age 91, she no longer has memories of family or the life she had with my father in Florida. She confuses her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She doesn’t remember her nieces, one of whom she took in along with her small child to save her from an abusive husband.  Her niece remembers her kindness, and many others do also. But now she is angry and at times mean-spirited due to her dementia. She can’t help it, but it is in strong contrast to the mother I used to have, the one who always thought of others, baking for them, helping them when they needed it, consoling and supporting her daughters during their fight against breast cancer. Today the mother I knew is gone. The love she had for others has been replaced by anger, fear, and delusions.

I’ve been thinking today about the three people who died in the hot air balloon when it caught fire in Virginia. I heard the stories from bystanders who told how they heard screams and cries of those who suddenly knew they were about to die. How awful it must be to know death is coming unexpectedly. Is that really different, I wonder, from the slow, agonizing, painful death from cancer, knowing it is coming but unable to hurry it up to end the suffering? Is it really different from the slow death from dementia, the loss of memory and function as the brain slowly dies. Is that different from another kind of death where hopes and dreams are gone, leaving one with a struggle each day for mere existence, a death where it’s not the brain that’s dying. It’s the heart.

Mother’s Day 2012–Mother’s Day 2013

“A mother is the truest friend we have, when trials heavy and sudden, fall upon us; when adversity takes the place of prosperity; when friends who rejoice with us in our sunshine desert us; when trouble thickens around us, still will she cling to us, and endeavor by her kind precepts and counsels to dissipate the clouds of darkness, and cause peace to return to our hearts. ” ~Washington Irving

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Last Mother’s Day was supposed to follow the traditions of previous years—a Mother’s Day brunch with any family members who could make it.  Since the family is scattered from coast to coast, that is never easy.  We planned to have brunch at a local golf course, one of my mother’s favorite places.  We had reservations for my mom, my husband and me, my oldest daughter, my niece and her husband and two sons.

My mother had several TIAs during the previous year beginning on her birthday in August.  Ever since her first one, she had a visiting nurse service and physical therapist nearby.  The morning of Mother’s Day she called me for help with something.  After I got there, she began to slur her speech and then giggle uncontrollably.  I called my husband, my daughter, and her nurse, unsure what to do.  Her nurse arrived within a few minutes, took her blood pressure, checked her reflexes, and told us she was able to go to brunch.  I thought she should go to the emergency room, but her nurse reminded me that other visits to the ER had not resulted in any treatment for her.  She was just sent home after a few tests.  So we went to brunch.  I don’t know how much she was aware of during the brunch.  I helped her get some food and she tried to eat.  She had some vision problems due to previous strokes, so she couldn’t find her food at times.  She seemed to be alert and was enjoying being with her family.  I thought at the time that it might be the last time we could be together for brunch.  I was right.

I still wonder if we had skipped the brunch and gone to the ER, if she would have felt better later.  I don’t know.  She had to be hospitalized a few weeks later with more problems, and then she was not allowed to go home after that.  I didn’t have a bedroom on the first floor for her or a full bath she could use.  She needed round-the-clock nursing care and she didn’t have enough money for that.  I spent days visiting assisted living facilities and memory care units.  No place would take her because she didn’t have enough money for more than a few months of care.  I was told to find a nursing home for her.  She was transferred to the nursing home a few days later and has been there since last May.

This Mother’s Day my husband and I are going to take her lunch from one of her favorite restaurants.  We will sit in the courtyard if it is warm enough and share lunch.  No other family members are able to join us.  I feel so lucky to still have her in my life after all she has been through in the last year.  She has been a wonderful mother to me, and I treasure all she has taught me about life and love.

I know this Sunday there will be mothers who will spend the day alone.  I know there will be women who can’t become mothers who long for children every day.  I know there are sons and daughters who have lost their mothers and won’t be celebrating Mother’s Day the way they did in the past.  It can be a sad and lonely day.  I hope that anyone who still has a mother will find a way to show their love for her.  It doesn’t have to be with a gift.  Maybe just a hug and some meaningful words will be enough.  A brunch is nice, but it’s just an activity.  Maybe every day should be Mother’s Day, a day we show our appreciation for all mothers give to their children, even after we become adults, because motherhood never ends.  My mother will continue to be a part of my life even after she is gone, but I will cherish this Mother’s Day with her because I am afraid there won’t be another one.  It’s enough that today I will be with my mother for one more Mother’s Day.