What it means to be a mother

Today marks my first official Mother’s Day, and I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of what it means to be a mother.  For nearly seven months I have devoted all of my energy to keeping my son alive, from the late night feedings to the early morning diaper blow outs, to the blown-out-of-proportion worries about things like runny noses and scratches.  Only now am I realizing that Worry and Sacrifice will be my constant companions, for the rest..of..my..life.  So the fact that mothers everywhere get this one day where our families are required to make us feel special is way underkill if you ask me.

When the Facebook fad of the week called on Facebookers to update their profile pictures to a shot of their mother, I was reminded that nearly everything I know about being a mother I learned from my own mother, Marlene.  My mother married at just 18 years of age, probably to escape the horrors of her own Missouri upbringing, and had two babies by the time she was 24.  She never knew what it meant to experience the carefree, selfish, “finding yourself” phase most of us go through during our 20’s.  During her 20’s, she and my father were already struggling to raise 2 kids in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley.  I grew up on a block where kids still played in the streets and neighbors went camping together during the summer.  I idolized my mother and would follow her around watching her cook dinner, put on makeup, or sew a new dress for me to wear.  She held our family together and put food on our table even after spending all day working on her feet.  She was nurturing, kind, and had a wonderful sense of humor.  Always up for an adventure, we spent our weekends hiking, camping, and taking 120 mile bike rides (not me, I complained about the long bike rides).  She was also the disciplinarian of the family (my father was a pushover) and had a fierce temper when crossed.

But what I remember most about my mother was her grace and strength.  She was the type of woman who was filled with empathy and compassion and made everybody around her feel special.  Anybody that met her noticed a sparkle in her eyes and her passion for life.  These gifts were taken from her when life as we knew it was abruptly cut short.  After a hiking accident left her paralyzed from the neck down, my mother was confined to a wheelchair.  For nearly a year my father, brother, and I put our lives on hold to care for my mother.  During this long year of hell my mother watched my father make himself sick with Multiple Sclerosis from the stress, my brother become depressed and despondent, and I refused to leave her side for a second.  Rather than live as a prisoner in her own body or be a burden on her family, she chose to end her life.

Every day I pay tribute to her sacrifice by not taking my own happiness for granted.  Even when I worry over some insignificant trifle, I look at my son and know that I have her strength in me and can handle whatever curve balls life throws in my direction.

This was the last picture we took together and I remember this day perfectly.  The Los Angeles Times was writing a story on the rehabilitation center in Northridge Hospital where patients with spinal cord injuries learned how to live with their disabilities.  The reporter chose our family to feature in the article and followed us around with a camera.  I remember it was right around this time of year and the dandelions were in full bloom.  At first glance this picture looks like any mother and daughter sharing a moment together.  If you look closely you’ll notice the headrest of my mother’s wheel chair and the joystick she used to maneuver it with her chin because she did not have the use of her arms or legs.  You’ll also notice that my hand was on her throat where the tracheostomy left her with a permanent hole that prevented her from breathing properly.  By this time she already lost the sparkle in her eyes, hidden by her sunglasses.  She would make her final choice to starve herself and die with dignity just a few months after this shot was taken.

I never questioned my mother’s resolve to end her life, nor can I fathom the strength it required to carry out her decision.  My son will never know his grandmother but he will learn her story and know what an incredible mother she was to my brother and me.  Whenever somebody asks me what motherhood feels like, I think back to our last year together and realize that while I’m still clumsily finding my feet as a mother, I’ve known since I was fourteen what it means to sacrifice yourself for the sake of another.  Now that I’m a mother in my own right, for the first time I can fully appreciate why and how she chose to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of her family.