Now that I am getting thisclose to turning forty, it seems I am hearing more and more about a young parent around my age dying leaving a spouse and small children behind. It really makes me think about my life.
Like all parents, the thought of not being around to raise my children is unbearable. You have children with the plan to love them and raise them until you are very, very old; it seems unfathomable that things happen to undermine the wonderful gift that being a parent is. I know all too well what it’s like to be a happy, carefree child not knowing that disease or death are a part of life, and then suddenly these painful realities are your life. My mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) when I was eight. She had a difficult battle with MS for nearly twenty-two years until her body finally let go in 2001.
The disease came on full force and unlike some with MS, my mom had the most debilitating kind. Within a few short years she was completely helpless. My grandparents moved in to help my dad take care of us. Taking care of my mom was tough, even with my grandmother’s help, because I desperately wanted someone to take care of me. Most ten year olds do not have to help their mother into the bathroom, into bed, in and out of a wheelchair. In fact, no one I knew had a parent with a chronic illness. Her illness was an unwanted member of our family. It nearly tore us apart and still decades later, my throat closes up and an ache pierces my heart when I think about my mom.
I am keenly aware of the hole that a mother creates when she is not a vibrant figure in your life. When I think back on that time, there’s a distinct magical feeling about my childhood before my mom’s diagnosis and then the deep sadness after her diagnosis. My mom had plans for her life, I’m sure of that. She had beauty, grace, creativity, and a fun sense of humor. She loved my sisters and me dearly. She would sew from scratch dresses for us to wear for every holiday and required us to sleep the night before in pink plastic curlers. The stereo was constantly playing and we were always busy doing crafts at the dining room table. My favorite was making snow angels using wooden clothespins for the body, cotton balls for the hair, and cupcake holders for the wings. Mom would draw their tiny, smiling angel faces with a perfectly still hand before placing them on the Christmas tree.
Because of mom’s illness my sisters and I are prone to sobbing randomly. One of those times my younger sister and I were at the movies watching a not so good romantic comedy that had one moment of truth. The main character came to the realization after years of feeling lost and unsure of who she was, that she was actually longing for her mother who had died when she was young. Immediately we were both sobbing uncontrollably for we knew all too well what she meant. This one serious line in this supposed comedy laid us flat out and we sobbed for the remainder of the movie. That’s how it is, one minute you are on top of the world laughing, and the next you are a puddle of tears.
The frequency of crying has decreased through the years luckily. It certainly helps that my sisters and I are mothers of our own, and with being a mother comes certain insights. For instance, I now know that my mom probably forgave me for being a jerky teenager. Just as parents embarrass all teenagers at one time or another, I shouldn’t feel guilty for being embarrassed by my mom’s wheelchair.
My biggest regret though is wasting the time we had together. I wish I could go back to my childhood and just talk to my mom. I wish I asked her to tell me about her childhood. I wish I knew more about her hopes and dreams. We had all the time in the world to talk. MS did not take her voice away until about seven years before she died. Why didn’t I appreciate the very short time we had together? All those years wasted because I was mad I didn’t have a “normal” childhood. Physically she couldn’t do the usual things others could, but she could’ve been my confidant. I could’ve used her shoulder to cry on. She would’ve been thrilled to have me sit in her lap like the good old days when she called me her “cuddle bunny.”
Alas, this will never happen, but fortunately I have three wonderful kids who all but erase my sadness. There are often nights when I just sit and stare at the three of them. Memorizing their little faces; the smell of Johnson and Johnson soap in their messy blonde hair; their tiny puckered red lips and huge blue eyes filled with wonder. I sit facing them, adoring and agonizing over every detail, as they stare up at the TV. They have no idea that I do this. It’s my ode to my mom, to cherish every detail and every minute as I feel she would do, given the opportunity all over again.