If you are reading this, I must have survived Mother’s Day.
I love being a mother more than anything, even on the days that I threaten to put all four of my sons in a cardboard box in front of Ralphs with a sign that says “Free Puppies.” That might have worked well for me last Mother’s Day, because the refrigerator broke down the week before, and the replacement came in a box that was actually big enough to hold my puppy pack of boys.
It’s just that the logistics are complicated. We have five mothers to honor among our collective four sets of grandparents and great-grandmother. With all the families involved, our Mother’s Day negotiations begin before St. Patrick’s Day. Predictably, the day also coincides with the breakdown of a major household appliance. This year it’s the washing machine. Think about that a minute. Four sons. Stinky athletic socks.
The emotions are complicated as well. Past the despairing Mother’s Days following lost pregnancies. Gone also the wistful pregnant Mother’s Days, and the simple, sticky toddler Mother’s Days. We are conspicuously missing a mom (the mother of my step-sons), and two of the grandmothers have outlived their own children. We do not dance around the weekend (you know me that well by now), but our Mother’s Day dance requires a great deal of sensitivity and strength and flexibility. A lot of stamina. And a little caffeine.
People often assume that I met my husband Tim in a grief support group. I didn’t. He never went to any groups; he says he’s not “group guy.” I attended a suicide survivors meeting once and never went back; I guess I’m not a group guy either. The short story is that we were set up by a mutual friend. The long version includes a combination of broken hearts, open hearts and boys’ conflicting sports schedules, somehow colliding on Mother’s Day 2008.
In the early months following Sam’s death, I was easily distracted and often reduced to tears. The death of a spouse is omnipresent. More than once as I stepped into our closet, I was sabotaged by his suits, ties and shoes, waiting there expectantly. But hopelessly. I sank to the floor and dissolved into tears, emerging a half an hour later without any recollection of what I had intended to retrieve in the first place.
“Susan” is the kind of friend who took me to coffee, insisted on doing laundry for me, and brought me cozy new pajamas. She also noticed my closet conundrum. With my knowledge and consent, she arranged for another friend to take me to lunch, and while we were out, Susan carefully packed all of Sam’s belongings, labeled the boxes and stacked them neatly in the garage where I could sort through them in my own time. Then she went back to my closet and organized all of my clothes and shoes, spreading them across the racks and shelves, so that there were no obviously empty spaces.
Sometimes she would talk to me about her friend Debbie, who recently died (cancer), and the husband and boys she left behind. She thought Tim and I might appreciate talking to each other. We were, after all, in the same leaky boat.
I told her not to give him my number.
Meanwhile, across town, Susan and Tim were working together to complete the project that she and Debbie had started. Susan mentioned her friend Charlotte, struggling with the loss of her husband. Tim said he would be open to talking to me.
I said “No, thanks.”
The first Mother’s Day after Sam’s death, surprisingly, I had a really good day. My kids and my parents spoiled me rotten. They gave me a Kindle — one of the very first ones — and the boys even used their own money to give me a certificate to “buy” books. I didn’t cry once that day, which was a significant first. Until…I thought about this man I did not know and his two sons on their first Mother’s Day without mom. I burst into tears and cried for half an hour.
I wrote an email to Susan, asking her to let Tim know that I imagined the day sucked (or words to that effect), but that there are people who care. It was primarily a mother’s prayer for broken-hearted boys, motivated by compassion or perhaps just a confused and selfish dread of Father’s Day on my horizon. I must not have been thinking clearly because I also agreed to let her pass my cell phone number along.
The first time Tim called, sometime between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I was standing at the back entrance to the boys’karate studio, watching their closing ritual. I normally would have let the call go to voicemail, but I was curious about the number which I couldn’t quite place. Tim introduced himself and asked if he was calling at a convenient time.
I said “No.”
I asked if he could call back later in the evening, and he said, “No.”
Single, widowed parents with young children don’t have much time or inclination for small talk. But we were honest. He did call again, later in the evening, after his son’s basketball game, post dinner dishes and following bedtime routines, probably with a scotch in his hand. The first question he asked me, “Can you sleep?” No. “Can you focus?” No.
We then proceeded to talk for an hour. Small talk is overrated. We told each other our stories. He and Debbie were high school sweethearts; when she died at age 41 they had been together for 25 years. We fretted about the children. We laughed at the morbid and inappropriate. Susan was right. It was nice to talk to someone in the same leaky boat.
And that’s where we began.
Before her death, Debbie told Tim she wanted him to continue to live his life and to find love and joy. He said “No.” As the story goes, she told him not to be an idiot. She may have actually embellished that thought with one of Uncle Jose’s colorful words. She wanted him to find a woman who was already a mother, because she believed that a woman with children of her own would understand how Debbie felt about her sons. I admire this woman who loved her husband so much that she gave him permission to love again, and I am deeply honored to be the woman who loves him. And his sons.
On Mother’s Day, our sons (the ones who have lost their mother) are our first priority, followed closely by the grandmothers. I buy flowers for everybody, including Debbie, who is like the Elijah at our Mother’s Day table — there is always a place reserved for her presence. We have been known to honor her by going to her favorite restaurant or toasting her with a Diet Coke or taking flowers to her grave site. We usually avoid church. Whatever the boys need. Frequently, we attend breakfast or lunch organized by another family member. We also host a dinner including as many grandmothers as would care to join us. It is a full, exhausting day, physically and emotionally.
And I am grateful. One of the lessons I have kept from those painful, longing years before I had sons to call “mine” is that children are a gift from Life, not a creation of my own. To be the mother in all of my sons’ lives is a privilege. I didn’t know I could fall so head over heels for children I did not give birth to. I try to treat them all equally — once in a while I throw my eyes and arms toward heaven and beg for Sam and Debbie to talk some sense into their sons.
I have my moments. This year it was an unexpected call from our college boy and the fact that Thing 2 tied the Windsor Knot in Thing 4’s tie. But for the most part, my favorite Mother’s Day moments do not necessarily arrive on the second Sunday in May. Last summer, driving to Lake Arrowhead, one of my step-sons said, with the eloquence of a teenager, “You’re not my mom, but …you’re my mom. You know?” I do.
I’m not his mother, that’s true, but all the mothering that happens in our home —that’s me. I make doctor appointments and give advice. I sign permission slips and throw the occasional fit about the socks all over the floor. In fairness to the children, one of the cats has a thing for socks. He stalks them, lures them out of corners and laundry baskets, captures them and then proudly displays them across the living room, much to the puppy’s delight and my own dismay. I make a lot of chicken soup, bake mountains of cookies, and do loads and loads of laundry. I spend so much time marketing that I feel like I should pay rent at Trader Joe’s. I wouldn’t trade it. I feel grateful and satisfied to be physically and emotionally able to do the heavy lifting of motherhood. It will not last nearly long enough — Thing 1 is already in college, and Thing 4 is not that far behind.
Another Mother’s Day moment occurred this morning as Thing 2 and Thing 3 each kissed me goodbye for the morning and walked out the door, shoulder to shoulder, the younger one now a few inches taller. It could be that I’m just looking forward to some quality time with my new quiet washing machine, which arrived Friday, but I think it’s more than that. One boy holds the car keys, the other two lunch bags, both Things teasing each other and admiring each other, bumping into each other. Like puppies. They are doing everything they’re supposed to do, growing into kind, hard-working young men despite Life’s unfairness and difficulties. I look up to them for more reasons than that they are both taller than me. Different fathers, different mothers, brothers just the same.
I could not be more delighted with these boys. I imagine Debbie is pleased as well.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And beautiful mothering moments on random days of the year.