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11 May

This Is a Love Song

Come Mother’s Day, there’s a lot of pressure to sing sweet songs of sunshine and daffodils, primroses and butterflies. To compose odes to our mothers, or to ourselves as mothers. To wax poetic on the joys and glories of being a mother, to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard and capture in a word or two or more how achingly wonderful it is to be a mother, to have a mother, to miss our mothers, to be among mothers. To sing mother-love electric.

Which is what I’m going to do here, minus the primroses and butterflies. Because the truth about motherhood is that the greatest expression of our love for our children, the moment of deepest feeling, is not always going to come alive in a sunny meadow as we spin together, holding hands, the light breaking as it meets our twirling bodies. The truth about motherhood is, we feel love most deeply as an ache. It’s the pang in our hearts as we hunch over a crib in the dark hours before the dawn contemplating our once and future separation from this precious being, this adored child, who will one day leave us. It’s the cruel, deep wound exacted by loss, or by fear of loss. It’s anxiety. It’s sacrifice. It’s fear.

It’s knowing that this love, this greatest love, will always bring pain even as it offers the most dizzying joys. It’s an old refrain, but a true one: where there are no dark depths, there can be no dazzling heights. Where there is no dark, there can be no  light.

My mother, and my mother’s mother, my grandmother, knew darkness. They knew loss, and knew it keenly: long before I came along, they had lost babies, and they had given away babies. Their hearts had been broken by motherhoods given and motherhoods taken away. But then came more babies, more children, more life, more light, more love. All I knew, as a child, of my mother and grandmother was love, unconditional love. Happy love.

That childhood was not so far behind me when, as a young woman, I discovered that I was pregnant. This was a very long time ago; as I said, I was young. I did not want to be pregnant: I was on my own, and I was scared. I needed my mother. But drawing her into my fear would, I knew, break her heart. It would shatter it into a million tiny pieces that I would never be able to gather up and glue back together and stash onto the mantle of her soul. I knew that there were ghosts, for her, and, once upon a time, for my grandmother, tiny ghosts that called out in the night. I knew that, for this reason, and for reasons related to her faith (to my lapsed faith) she would recoil at what I wanted to do. She would hate it. It would hurt her.

Still. I called out to her anyway. It was selfish – I could have avoided breaking her heart by keeping it all a secret from her. I could have borne the weight of this whole thing in my own heart, in my own soul; I could have labored with it (pun only somewhat intended) alone. But I didn’t want to do it alone. I wanted my mother.

And so I called to her, and she answered, and we cried together as our hearts broke. Her heart – so much bigger and but so much more fragile for her ghosts – bore the greater weight and suffered the greater cracks. And she gently talked me through what I felt I needed to do and told me that if I had to do it, I wouldn’t do it alone. And she swore her unyielding support and undying love and then she made me my favorite meal and after that we cried some more. Then she made all the arrangements and we made the long drive, together, to the place where I had to go through the part that I could only go through alone, and then she was there, again, on the other side and that night we curled up together on a dusty bed in a motel together, somewhere some distance from home, and we cried and we contemplated our ghosts.

The next day, she bought me pie – Tollhouse Cookie pie, the only detail that I remember apart from the scratchiness of the motel sheets and the smell of rubbing alcohol in the clinic – and then we drove home, mother and daughter, each holding the other’s fragile heart in hand.

This was her sacrifice for me: to expose her heart to pain in order to protect mine. To face her ghosts, and the ghosts of her mother, and those of so many other mothers, so that I might not be destroyed by the creation of my own. It might be said, in certain quarters, that the greatest gift that she could have given me would have been to talk me out of it, to bring to bear all of her maternal influence, to use her love and my love to bring about a different ending to that story. To save me. But she couldn’t save me, nor should she have. I needed to make my own choice; I needed to decide for myself what saving would look like. This was my life, my future, my choice, the making of my own regret/unregret/memory/ghost. For all that she could give me, I was alone.

What she did give me was love. Unconditional, unquestioning love, to wrap around myself like the warmest blanket, the thickest armour. She had always promised to love me no matter what, and I – can one say, for better or for worse, when the word ‘better’ catches in one’s throat? – I gave her the opportunity to prove it. She proved it, and then some. This saved me. She saved me. My heart has cracks – deep, deep fissures and jagged hairline cuts – but it is intact: her armour shielded it – has long-shielded it – from the full impact of inevitable blows of pain.

I expect that, to some degree or another, our children inevitably give us opportunities to prove this, to prove the unconditionality of our love, to prove that we would, we will, sacrifice ourselves – our hearts, our souls, our peace of mind, our place in whatever heaven we’ve hoped to reach – for them. I didn’t understand the depth or breadth or weight of my mother’s sacrifice until I became a mother myself, and the ghosts gathered ’round me, and whispered to me of love and loss and regret and unregret and gripped my heart in their tiny hands and squeezed until I cried. I didn’t understand until I’d suffered a loss not of my own devising, until I’d prayed for the life of this child, this oh-so-badly-wanted child. I didn’t understand until I became a mother, for real, for aching-heartfelt-feargripped-real, just how great a thing she had done.

She had bared her heart for me, she held it out as a shield and – although I know, I know that she quaked with sadness – she did not waver, she did not yield. She loved me fiercely, and without condition, and did not hesitate to act in accordance with that love.

This is her greatness as a mother.

This is what I aspire to.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.