I lost my mom on July 6, 2020. It wasn’t directly caused by the pandemic, but I suspect the virus played a part indirectly. My mom had so many health issues that when COVID-19 struck, she and my older brother (her constant companion and incredible caretaker) were forced to shut themselves away from all the things they loved to do.
My mother has always fully embraced life. There have been some hard knocks for her to endure, but she’s always gotten back up and fought hard to keep going. The year 2020, with its terrible capacity for destruction, proved to be the exception. It carried my mother away in the wee hours of a Monday morning.
I always knew losing my mom would hurt, but when the wave of grief struck me, it was harder and more painful than I could ever have imagined. My mother and I have had a difficult journey together. I think it started out positively. She instilled in me a love of creativity, richly populated with the enchanted realms of make believe. She also introduced me to the idea that everything was possible if you wanted it badly enough. It was an ever present theme in the stories she read to me, the songs she sung to me, and the games that we played. But then, our lives took a dramatic downward turn. Like a proper Grimm’s fairytale, the catastrophes that struck our family were threefold. First, my grandfather (who she adored) suffered a heart attack and passed away. Not long after, my older brother, then only six years old, was hit by a car and suffered a serious concussion. The final blow was the failure of my parent’s marriage. All of this devastated my mom. She still believed in impossible dreams, but I think what changed was how much she needed for these dreams to become reality. I think it is where my mother and I took our first misstep, one that would haunt us for decades.
During my mom’s funeral, as I listened to the eulogies, I realized that there were two very different versions of my mother out there in the world. One was of a courageous woman who never let life defeat her. She was a single mom who struggled to put herself through graduate school, earning her PhD in early childhood development. She was a woman with a gift for helping children to learn, changing so many lives that her desk drawers are crammed full of letters sent to her from grateful students and parents. She also possessed a protective energy that drew every stray cat and wounded bird in the neighborhood to her doorstep. It affected the many pets she had over the years, including the parakeets in her yard, who turned out to be shockingly fertile. Every time I would visit, more would appear in the large aviary in her yard. She was a garden witch. Every green thing she touched grew and flourished. Walking into her back yard was like stepping into an enchanted garden, guarded by large redwood trees shading and protecting the yard and the aviary.
As I listened to the eulogies I realized how much of what I like about myself now I got from my mother. But, my experience of my mom as I was growing up was a different one. I have always felt that I was very unlike her, more like my dad. She was lively, flirtatious, a great beauty who was always noticed when she entered a room. I was none of those things. But, I felt like she wanted me to be. She was always trying to improve me, and it felt to me that she was never able to just accept me the way I was. The end result was that I got very defensive. It got to a point where she couldn’t say anything to me without me taking it the wrong way.
As the years went on and I married and had children of my own, I did look for ways to improve our relationship, and so did she. Things did get better, but our long, painful history together still stood between us, stopping us from fully trusting what was really in each other’s’ hearts.
Seven years ago, my mom had a stroke. It was a bad one. She fought hard to gain back what she could of herself, but she never really walked again, and it was more difficult for her to express her thoughts. She could do it, but she had to really work at it, think about what she said before she could give it voice. It didn’t leave any room for her critical voice. She had to save her strength for the things that mattered most to her. For the first time in many years, what I heard from my mom was how much she loved me, how much she wanted to be with me. That was all I ever really wanted to hear from her. It took us the better part of both of our lifetimes, but we were finally able to put the past aside. For the last seven years of my mom’s life, we were at last truly able to enjoy the truth of what bound us together.
When it became clear to me that my time with my Mom was running out, at first, I was frantic. The need to go see her was so strong, but with the pandemic, it was clear that there was no way to safely do so. It was a very bitter pill to swallow, but I’d learned from my mother that obstacles were meant to be overcome, so I looked for another meaningful way to be with her.
My mom has always loved my singing. Long before I was brave enough to share my voice with the world, she was always asking me to sing for her. I wish I could tell you that I happily obliged her, but the truth is I was embarrassed to do it. If I could rewrite history I would tell that little girl to take the risk, to get past the embarrassment, and sing for her mother. I was fully an adult before I realized that my mom didn’t just love to hear me sing because it made her proud of me. My voice was something much more than that to her. It was a direct line to her heart, to her spirit. In my mom’s final days, when I couldn’t be there to hold her hand, I held her in my heart and I sang to her. Sometimes she sang with me, sometimes she was too weak to listen to more than a song or two, but every time I sang, she came back to me and we reestablished that vibrant connection of love that flowed between us. On the last night of her life, I sang to her. I didn’t know it would be the last night, but I knew that time was running out for the songs I would sing to her. I sang with my heart full of all I felt for her. I told her how much I loved her, and she told me she loved me. I hope I made up for that little girl, because I held nothing back.
My mom’s funeral was done via Zoom. I sang to her one last time, from my living room, with my daughter, Jamie singing with me in case I faltered. We sang one of my mom’s all time favorite songs, “The Impossible Dream.” The words that moved my mom most were these: “To fight for the right, without question or pause, to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.” If you want to know what legacy she passed along to all three of her children, it is here in this song, this strong belief that you never stop trying.
As I grieve for her now, I find myself reflecting on how we are all both light and dark. What hurts me the most, as I think about this, is that I spent so many years trying to protect myself from her darker side, and that I missed out on what was also right in front of me, the light we shared. I take some comfort in knowing that we never stopped trying. We came to it late, but together we found a way to change direction, to open our hearts. No matter how heavy my regrets, my experience with my mom has taught me that the journey from dark to light is no small accomplishment. It required us both to not just change our minds, but to change our hearts. Some people call this a miracle. I think they might be right.