“How was your day, Sweetheart?” she asked.
“Mommy, the kids at school were teasing me.” I responded, through sniffling and tears.
“Come in the kitchen, I’ve made some chocolate chip cookies,” she said as she wrapped her arms around me in a big embrace. Chocolate chip cookies always made life better. Especially on rainy days.
With a plate full of cookies, and a large glass of whole milk, I followed her into the bedroom where her ironing station was set up. My dad was a traveling salesman and inventor. Gone many weeks. Home on some weekends, he would switch out suits, steal kisses from my mom, and try to fit into our life.
Being the youngest of six children made it impossible to enjoy private time with this woman I called “Mom.” I’d run home from school as fast as I could to relish these special moments with her. She’d talk, and I’d listen, as she ironed day-after-day. A cigarette always found its way to the ashtray. Circles of smoke would float into the air and surround her, as words fell from her soft mouth. There was something magical in the process. She’d take a deep breath in, pause, and exhale. Somehow this ritual gave her clarity.
Over the years, these moments of special interaction became scarce. I found friends, poetry, and studies. She retreated further and further into herself. Dark periods of depression held her captive. The storms of a cheating husband, spiritual bondage, the death of a child, and the hormonal changes of her aging body were more than she could bear.
One day she left with nothing but the clothes on her back. A few days later, we found her roaming the streets downtown. She was temporarily hospitalized.
At the age of 15, I was sent to live with an older sibling in another state. I carried a dark void for many years. How I missed the long afternoons listening to my mom talk about adult things. I missed the swirl of smoke that enveloped her face and danced around her words.
Over time, conversations were replaced with dark shadows. I was trying to find my way through the maze of life. She was trying to survive her own hell. Not understanding her pain, I allowed anger to harden my heart. My life moved on. But the pain remained tucked away in the dark corners of my soul.
Two years ago I lost my mom to lung cancer. In reading her journals, I now know that she struggled with emphysema for many years. Dark depression, bondage, and lung disease. In spite of her internal hell, she was an amazing interior designer. She worked tirelessly to ensure that her surroundings were immaculate. She also had a passion for gardening. She worked very hard to breath life into everything she touched.
She was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer on my 40th birthday. Knowing that our time was limited, we were able to sort through our past, and develop a life-giving relationship.
Overall, my mom’s life story is a mystery to me. She was born on an Indian reservation in North Dakota in 1936. I never met my maternal grandparents, and only met three of her siblings once. The only stories she shared included her recollection of Catholic nuns taking her family off the reservation, shaving their heads, and dipping them in kerosine to kill the lice. She also mentioned that she was a “mix-breed”. She never felt fully accepted in her tribe as a child. Being half-Indian, she didn’t fit into the “white world” either. She left home when she was 15 and never looked back.
My mom was a survivor. During her final year, I had the opportunity to walk closely with her on the cancer journey. Holding hands during chemo treatments, she’d remind me to be strong and to realize how much I had overcome in my life. She told me she was proud of me for ending a long cycle of pain that found its origins long before I breathed my first breath. She released me from codependent obligations with my father, siblings, and extended family that held her captive for many years.
Two years ago, on May 20, my mom took her final breath. She left this world on her terms, surrounded by all her children and her husband. During her final days, I stayed by her side around the clock. Once again I would watch as she partook in the ritual of taking a deep drag from her cigarette, holding it in, and then releasing smoke into magical circles which would surround her face. We laughed. We cried. We said all we needed to say during those final days.
As Mother’s Day approaches, I am reminded that my mom is with me in the rose gardens, home improvement projects, and in the pain. She is no longer in bondage to the darkness. She is now embraced in pure light. Her body is no longer failing, and her spirit now moves freely in the spiritual realm.
When my kids come home after a rough day, we embrace and sort through it all. Sometimes when I hug them, I can smell chocolate chip cookies waiting to be dunked in whole milk. I take a deep breath, hold it in, and exhale. And, Mom’s spirit envelopes me as it glides in circular motion through the universe.
© 2013 The Musing Maven, all rights reserved.