I was sick last week.
It wasn’t the flu—more equal parts cough, bronchitis, and regular old cold. I never know how sick I am until I feel better. Invariably, I then say, Oh, that was bad, recalling naps and more time on the couch than being vertical, no appetite, or desire to do much of anything. Instead of behaving like the Energizer Bunny, I’m pure sloth.
There was one additional clue that I felt seriously unwell: I wanted my mother.
Feeling like something I’d run over with the lawnmower and used the leaf blower to shoot to the curb, I wandered into the bathroom, looked at my pale face, with freckles standing out like brown dots against snowy-white sick-skin, crazy hair sticking-up, and said out loud: I want my mom.
For a split second of a split second, I knew I would call her, eighty miles away, tell her that, she would laugh and respond as she had many times before: “Honey, what do you want me to do from this distance?”
As that brief moment flashed by, of course I knew that Mom is at an even greater distance from me, yet she is closer in my heart than she ever had been.
My mother and I were polar opposites, destined for conflicts from the moment she birthed this redheaded child—the only one so haired out of four and the only one in the entire Griffith clan. In the 1950s, this mattered. Two brunettes having a redhead was unusual, not conventional, and in that decade, new parents longed to meet expectations.
While my mother had good traits, such as the knack of laughing so hard that she would nearly stop breathing—we dubbed it Mary’s Silent Laugh Mode—the ability to make math look easy, and the skill to create the flakiest pie crust ever … I never wanted to be her. Mom lived to obey the rules, cared about what the neighbors—most of them family—thought, and expected her daughters to get married and have kids.
That was never me.
Several years ago, we spent ten days nursing Mom through the end stages of death. During that time, I was the kid she wanted around, causing three siblings and Dad much laughter because throughout our lives, Mom and I tried each other’s patience—constantly. But there it was. With the other bedrooms occupied by my sisters, and our brother a half mile away sleeping in his own bed, I’d start out in the living room. I’d hear Mom stir or Dad would murmur and I’d drag my blankets and pillows along behind me and curl into the corner of the room at the foot of Mom’s bed.
I slept on the floor with her and Dad separated into twin beds for the first time in their married lives, knowing he longed to reach out and hold her, but his ALS prohibited him from doing so. Sometimes, as Mom’s agitation grew, I’d crawl into the narrow bed and embrace her for him, our eyes meeting across Mom in the dim light from the dining room.
My presence, so aggravating to Mom throughout her life, was a solace during her ending days. I clung to her physically in those dark nights in ways I could never have done amid our usual, conflicting daily lives.
I did this willingly because as I prayed for guidance on what to do, on how to help my mother, the answer that I continually received was: Love Your Mother.
With my heart open and old pains surrendered, I loved my mother.
If only the two of us could have taken ourselves down to the most basic version of ourselves earlier in our lives, how that could have changed the relationship between Mom and me. We could have shared much more of our lives, letting our inner selves be known, free from self-imposed constraints, living with vulnerability, growing stronger together.
Instead, it took Mom waning from the cancer inside to bring us to the point of total acceptance of each other.
That kind of openness, allowing your heart to bleed throughout a lingering loss is draining. It brings every illness you ever had into your body, wrapping the aches and pains around muscles, bones, tendons, binding tightly so it’s difficult to move. Only much later does the aching begin to seep out through your toes, reassuring you that those torments and held-onto grievances were unimportant, useless, and best let go of.
At the end, Mom shifted in and out of lucidity, clinging to me. I was strong for her in ways new to me, in ways meant to ease her passing with hugs and whispered stories, and prayers softly spoken, saying, It’s okay to let go, Mom, Jesus is waiting for you.
Mom and I healed each other in sharing those touches and murmured conversations, mending the decades-huge chasms between us. We became well together, sharing our first true mother-daughter bond since I was a little kid. A sore throat and cough would arrive and Mom would rub my neck and chest with Vicks, wrap one of Dad’s white socks around my Adam’s apple, fasten it with a big safety pin, and tell me stories (Peter Pan triumphing over Hook was a favorite). Mom made me laugh and feel better in my heart, before I was physically restored.
After her passing, the funeral, the resettling of Dad in that big house without his beloved wife, I returned to my tiny apartment and prepared to resume life at work. I thought, I’m okay and Mom is in heaven and no longer hurts physically or mentally and am I not glad we had the time we had?
Of the random things I could have done, I retrieved my childhood record player and opened the lid on the case of 45s and ran through the records of my youth, conjuring adolescent memories, laughing, dancing. The LPs came next and Keeping the Faith by Billy Joel prompted the tears to fall. “I’m going to listen to my 45s, ain’t it wonderful to be alive….” Why was it that song to strike most harshly? There I was, body racking sobs spilling out all over the floor followed by brain-zapping tiredness, the exhaustion that hits whatever it was keeping me vertical for oh such a long time and my body declared: Enough. Give into the pain, let it fill every part of you until there’s nothing left but sadness.
I’m better now. No more cough drops, Vicks, or sniffles.
I still want my mom.