The Tender Place of Motherhood

As an expectant mother nearly 30 years ago, I could never have anticipated what would unfold over the next three decades. Never – absolutley never. I listened carefully even to unsolicited advice. I read manuals on caring for babies. And I observed with the keen eye of a social scientist how mothers interacted with their children – nurtured them – comforted them – redirected them – developed independence in them – loved them. No matter how many resources I had available to me, I knew I could not prepare for every scenario.

The best decision I made, however, occurred during a high school volleyball game. Carrying my bag of popcorn, I settled next to a woman for whom I had great respect. Jane, with her her husband, Marv, was raising seven children of her own while running a home daycare – a daycare many of my students had attended and on which they reflected with nostalgia and love; their experiences intrigued me. I had the privilege, in fact, of having had 5 of her children in my English classes, and valued their work ethic, their reflective and compassionate and respectful dispositions, and their intense love of their family.

As Jane and I watched her daughter take the volleyball court, our conversation turned to motherhood and her philosophy of raising children. She observed that nurturing children required intense love, consistent and high expectations, and immense amounts of grace both for the children and for the parent. With a subtle smile, Jane reflected on her expectations of her children, requiring them to participate in the running of the home through chores as well as teaching them the importance of studying – not just completing homework. In the end, she said, “Heather, you can never love your children too much. It will be okay.”

Since that moment in the fall of 1992, I have had the privilege of watching two vulnerable infants unfold into independent, strong-willed, passionate, and compassionate adults. Two humans for whom I would do anything.

I have messed up a million times – yelling when I should have taken a deep breath – filling their schedules too full when I should have told them to simply rest or go outside to play – asking them to be strong when I should have held them while they cried. In those moments, especially in the most heated ones when the stubborn sides of our personalities locked horns, I have learned the art of grace – both in the asking for and in the giving. Again, despite having access to resources and excellent mentors, much of parenting occured in the moment. Always, however, my love for them was unwaivering. In fact, with time, it has only deepened.

Through every step of motherhood, I gained an important life lesson – perhaps the most important of them all. I learned to savor both the bitter and the sweet. For example, there is angst watching a child’s heart break, but knowing they will emerge stronger and more intent on the characterstics they need in a life partner. And the journey is filled with a plethora of these tender, bittersweet moments. As I watched my children drive off for the first few times in their own cars, I experienced elation at their new found independence and fear of realizing they no longer fully needed me. And I celebrated — yet wanted to hang on tighter– as my adult children began their lives after college with new jobs and the purchase of their own homes, trying to walk beside them for as long as I could, but falling farther behind as their strides widened.

Unfortunately, nothing can really prepare a parent for what unfolds. And even in that, bittersweetness resides. Every new human enters the world uniquely themselves – without a manual or even a cheat sheet. The ones in whose charge they are left must figure out what is best in the moment – often without all of the information and certainly without the required resources. In best case scenarios, deep roots develop and parent-child relationships develop and deepen over time. Nothing, however, is guaranteed.

Most recently, my journey as a mother took a path I could never have imagined as I carried my children to term. Just a few days before Christmas this past year, I sat for hours beside both of my children in a dimly lit room we had transformed into Elizabeth’s room. I watched my son – my youngest- rub his sister’s leg, whisper to her, and cry as Elizabeth succumbed to the grip of brain cancer. And while I sat in the room next to the two humans I love more than anything, I felt separate from my physcial body.

So this is what motherhood is, I remember thinking. It is the space where one can simultaneously hold the bitter moments of death and the sweetness of having loved two humans more than life itself.

While my heart aches at the loss of my daughter, it breaks even more when I think about my son experiencing death at such a young age – realizing he has lost his only sibling. And yet, even in these moments of anguish, I continue to experience thanksgiving in having rasied two children who love and respect each other – of having mothered a brave woman like Elizabeth even if it was for too short of a time.

No other life experience has fully captures the flavor of bittersweetness quite like watching my children sit together in death – one trying to hold onto his sister, and the other letting go. This specific moment offers me the intense reality that this is motherhood – parenthood – and I am doing the best I can. In the end, Jane was right. My work as a mother is important. I had nurtured these two individuals into adulthood, and even if the story isn’t written the way I had imagined it should be, it is my story. And everything is okay.

I’m joining an open community of writersover at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

To See the Face of God

The following post is a modified version of the “remembrance” I offered at my daughter’s celebration of life on January 30, 2022. Elizabeth Anne died on December 21, 2021, just hours shy of her 29th birthday.

“Take my love/For love is everlasting /And remember the truth that once was spoken/To love another person/Is to see the face of God.”

When my daughter, Elizabeth, was a preschooler, I took her for the first time to see the musical Les Miserables – and these beautiful lines tie the entire theatrical piece together as all of the actors merge on stage in the finale.  The line “to love another person is to see the face of God” hangs in the air as the full chorus joins.

For those who have not had the joy of experiencing this three-hour musical, the storyline is based on the 19th century novel by Victor Hugo.  It is a story of redemption – of love, not just between partners, but the deep love between parent and child and the love that connects humanity – of revolution – of kindness – of second chances – of untimely death – death before life even really begins.

Despite being precocious, I’m pretty sure my 5-year-old didn’t grasp the full message of the musical, and yet, the lessons were not wasted on her.  Time and again, Elizabeth waged her own revolution – a revolution of kindness and action.  She believed in the inherent good of all people, and she believed that collectively we are called to make this world a better place.  Les Miserables created a space for my daughter to realize how deeply intertwined all of our lives are.

It is no surprise, then, that after being diagnosed with a brain tumor her junior year in college, Elizabeth wanted to control the narrative – to use her story to teach others to live – to help others realize their own interconnectivity to others.  As her mother, I marveled at her inherent ability to bring people together – to inspire them to live their best lives – to control their own actions and reactions to events over which they have no control.

For the last 8 years, Elizabeth was determined to NOT be defined by her brain tumor.  It was early – perhaps days after her seizure in Denmark – that she adopted the mantra, “She stood in the storm, and when the wind did not blow her way, she adjusted her sails.”  In fact, she used the tag line “Adjust Your Sails” to center her own story, and to teach the rest of us that we are not defined by the circumstances of life – that we choose our responses – our actions – our words.

To say that her journey was an easy one or one that wasn’t filled with fear, sadness, or even anger, would not be honest.  Elizabeth – like all of us – had anxiety about the future.  In 2019, when we believed she was simply going to have a second brain surgery, the neurologist’s news that she had an inoperable second tumor as well as an invasive cancer of her spinal fluid took her breath away.

And yet – even in the midst of facing stage four brain cancer – she looked for ways to use her journey to teach the rest of us how to truly live – how to pay attention to the tiny details of life – you know, the ones we often miss or take for granted:  the snuggles or kisses from a doting dog, the joy of music, the gift of ice cream, the bear hug from a friend, the soft touch of a hand on the shoulder, or the beauty of flowers.  She taught us not to get hung up in the things over which we have no control and to understand that at the end of the day, love is really the only thing that matters.

Over the past two years, Elizabeth and I had the gift of spending a lot of time together.  We talked about her hopes and dreams that would never transpire.  We talked about all she had accomplished as a young person, and we talked about the legacy she was leaving through her passion for raising funds for brain tumor research.  After all, not many people facing their own mortality weave hundreds of hot pads to raise thousands of dollars.  We talked about how the lessons of her life and the Adjust Your Sails mantra were reaching people she would never know.

And we talked about the moment when family and friends would gather to celebrate her life – the moment when I could share what she wants the world to know:  to remember that we have one shot at every day and those days are limited; to spend time on relationships that matter; to let go those situations or relationships that don’t bring us joy; to see the good in the world; to be the good through our actions and our words; and to love deeply.  After all, “to love another person is to see the face of God,” and because loved and have been loved by Elizabeth, I have seen the face of God.

Elizabeth Anne filled this world with light and love