I don’t want to miss this. My kids are young, and I’m the most important person in their world (other than Dad of course). Some day they will have their own lives and wives and babies and won’t need me anymore. I imagine one day I’ll be a sixty-year old woman looking back and maybe I won’t remember what it was like to be annoyed. It was a wonderful time, I’ll probably say.
But today I had to go upstairs and punch pillows as I grunted behind clenched teeth. This was right before I locked myself in the bathroom while my two-year old screamed and punched the door on the other side. This is so hard, I mumbled with my head cradled in my lap. “Mommy, mommy!” he yelled, banging on the door. There I was, on the other side of the door, trying so hard just to breathe and not completely explode. I have cried on a few bathroom floors, but this one felt as though I had traveled full circle.
Many years ago, I came home from high school to find my mom doubled over on the couch. She had been throwing up. As a woman who hid her illness for nine years and soldiered on to malls, hockey games, and countless social get-togethers with my dad, she was over it.
“I don’t think I can beat this thing,” she whispered in my ear as she pulled me in for a hug. She had never spoken this way. My mom hadn’t even told us that she had cancer—she just had a ‘blood problem’.
After abruptly pulling out of the tight embrace, I said I had homework to do. I went down to the basement bathroom and cried so hard that I threw up. As my pale, bare legs lay heavy on the tiles, a seed of loneliness was planted within me. I regret now not hugging her longer, staying with her, getting her some tea: anything to prolong just being with her. But I was a child—I only knew how to cry my own tears.
I couldn’t have known then that the hole in my chest would only get bigger and that my loneliness would be married to the fact that I was motherless. I will never know love like this again, I thought, as I sat next to her hospital bed for the last time.
Years went by and through friends, parties and new places, I found some reprieve from the absence, but it was always there behind it all. I think back to the days in the East Village, sipping on a Stella in the blaring sun; the scent of sweat and garbage lodged in my nose, and the sounds of horns blaring in the distance. It was there.
It was there when I was singing in bars; getting critiqued in writing workshops; drinking wine with my girls; meeting that ‘English Dude’ who later became my husband; walking down the aisle with my dad on my wedding day; hailing a cab with a towel lodged in my underwear after my water broke.
But this lack, this void, was never to beat me or to be my identity. I never wanted that ache to guide me or tell me what to do. Just as being sick for my mom was never to be her legacy. She was strong, vivacious and most of all: a fighter. She once took my sister and me out to The Gap after a chemotherapy session to shop for school clothes. So clearly, I recall her matching a sweater to socks and then placing a white blouse underneath it. “It’s perfect,” she’d said. Meanwhile, her face was green, and she was panting to catch her breath. She kept the pace of a healthy person, transitioning effortlessly between mother, professional, friend and wife.
How many years of hard work had she put in with us kids? The nights I woke her up; the kisses on my knees; the irrational tantrums. Had she forgotten what an a-hole toddler I was by the time I asked her what we were doing for my sixteenth birthday? Had those stresses seemed insignificant, laughable even, compared to the predicament of being in the hospital dying and not able to plan her daughter a sweet sixteen party? I would assume so.
I imagine that she looked back upon those years with her young kids as a wonderful time, a time of innocence and joy. Is it easier to gaze into the past at the ‘small stuff’ and subconsciously erase the hardships, the strains? And even though I’m in it right now—the sleepless nights, the barf, the tears, the irrational screaming—it is small. And I’ve been through big. I crawled into a hospital bed with my Doc Martins on and laid my head on my mother’s chest, saying goodbye forever. I should know the difference between the two experiences. And yet some days it just feels so big.
But these frustrations, the ‘hard work’ of early parenthood doesn’t qualify as being the ‘big moments’ in baby books. Today, you screamed at me and bit my leg. Last night you woke up fifteen times and I told your dad that I was ‘soooo done’. These are just things I tell my sister, my friends, in a moment where I’m caught up in the labor of it all. Because, at times, this is what it feels like: labor. I work for these little people. They call, I run. They tug, I listen. They cry, I comfort. And some days, it feels really hard to give of myself when I feel I’ve nothing left in me.
I look back at that day when my mom realized she wouldn’t survive. I imagine her tears were not just because she was going to lose her life, but also because I would lose a mother. I now understand that.
And as I sat on the cold tiles of my bathroom floor depleted with my toddler still clawing at the door, something occurred to me. I didn’t feel the ache of loneliness within me, the sick feeling in my belly that I was alone. That gaping hole in my chest that had been exposed for almost two decades was now closed. It’s like I was out there in the world for so many years being motherless and then one morning I peed on a stick and suddenly I was a mother.
Other than my patience and hours of sleep, I wasn’t losing anything either. The cruxes of my issues were so very small compared to the enormity that had occurred so long ago. The virtue of crying these small tears doesn’t completely register in that moment, however, it never does. The realization arrives later on when everyone is giggling and rolling on the floor. My toddler says, “My penis makes me happy.” I say, “I know sweetie. Now hands out of your pants.” He then leans in for a cuddle for no reason while my 11 month-old blares a toothy smile from across the room, and suddenly something shifts. It’s this happiness that comes from having something in my life that is bigger than me. The big beats out the small. So, I think of my mother on that couch, tired and defeated, and I feel ridiculous for not being happy all of the time.
Although, how can one be unequivocally happy every day? It isn’t possible. Nobody can be calm and positive and happy every single day. Parenthood is hard and some days it really kicks my ass. But I do know that the profound love between a mother and her children isn’t just giggling on the floor—it’s also learning how to cope and be the best you can possibly be in the face of total irrationality and some day, death. It’s shopping in the middle of the winter after a chemo appointment, because you want your daughters to feel good even though you feel like hell. It’s about being pushed so close to the edge of sanity, but turning around to hold your kid’s hand even though he’s biting your leg. This is love.
And when I pick myself up off the floor and open the door I see this beautiful vision: my life. I take him into my arms and sit on the floor, kissing his cheek and telling him how much his Mommy loves him.
I’m sure I’ll look back later in life and see these tough moments with the children as smaller than they feel now. Unfortunately, my mom didn’t get to grow old and reminisce. Maybe together, we would have looked back on that time and talked about how it was just part of the battle, part of the journey. She could have told me how scared she had been, and that I should never miss a moment with my kids because of frustration.
She would have been right. She probably would have also told me not to take the challenging moments so seriously, that it will all go by so quickly. And even though she isn’t actually here to say these things to me, for some reason I just know them. I had an amazing mother just long enough to teach me this. I know I don’t have to wait until I’m sixty years old to say, it was a wonderful time, so I’ll just say it. This IS a wonderful time.