Gifts from My Mother
Four-and-a-half years, I made the flight from the Bob Hope airport in Burbank, California back to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport after having spent another week with my mother.
When I left her home to head to a hotel near the airport, so that it would be easier to catch the early morning flight the next day, I did not realize it would be the last time I would see her alive. She passed away nine days later, and just a few days before I was to head down again.
Mom had been ill for quite some time and she had spent her fair share of time in a rehabilitation/convalescent facility. All she wanted was to be back in her own apartment, so I was able to make that happen for her. My solution (which is not important to tell here) did not come without its share of criticism from particular family members. And I was hell-bent on giving my mother as much of what she needed, as I could.
I was my mother's eldest child of five. Ours had been a strained relationship, as neither of us quite understood the other. At least, that's how it seemed. But, I think that we may have had a connection of which neither of us was quite aware. Perhaps, neither of us were willing to admit it.
I rarely heard the words, "I love you," from my mother. I don't think I ever heard that she was proud of me.
Over the years, when I would tell her that I loved her or that I was proud of something she accomplished or in awe of her many talents, she would dismiss my encouraging words. I, nearly always, took it as a rejection and "got butt-hurt," as one of my friends would say.
But here I was, having lived away from my mother and siblings for nearly four decades, being able to help during the last few months of her life in a way that she would not have allowed it earlier.
My mother was a proud woman. She was also fiercely independent in so many ways. It wasn't easy for her to ask for help, especially from me. It was easier to push me away, because I didn't know of the struggles she faced, as my siblings saw her experience. I think there was some sort of image with me she was trying to maintain.
At 55-years-old and seeing some of the same qualities in myself, I made up my mind that I no longer needed her approval to do the things I wanted to do for her. I also made my mind up that I would not try to change her, but accept it all as it was.
I finally saw that the years of approval-seeking was a condition I placed on her. If I didn't get the approval in a way that I wanted it, what I thought was the "right" way, my tendency was to pull away. I had a lifetime of behaving like that with her. And I finally realized that I had to give that up, if I wanted to be in relationship to her.
In the last several months before she died, each time I came to visit her, she would throw out those "zingers" and sometimes I would find them so biting that I couldn't ignore them. Thankfully, I'd learned how to respond as an adult with her, instead of the "kid" who was "butt-hurt." It wasn't easy, and she didn't help that along much.
But I loved her. I'm speaking of behavior, not merely emotion.
My purpose was to give her what she needed out of love for her. As my mother. As a fellow human being. As yet another damaged individual who, like me, came with her own set of baggage filled with life's wounds, bruises and disappointments.
I'm so glad that I put my own baggage aside to do so.
In those last two months and several trips down to California to stay with her, there were many "gifts" that she gave to me that were greater than anything that I could have ever received after she passed away.
She was able to let go of some of her pride and fierce independence with me. Just as I had to let go of the expectations of what I thought she "should" be as my mother.
Breakfasts of bagels, pickled herring and black coffee. The countless hours of playing dominoes and watching the Food Network together. The evening treats of the old-fashioned handmade ice-cream bars.
One of my favorite moments with her during my last visit was lying propped up next to her in her bed watching television one night after I had helped her bathe and get ready for bed. I reached over and put my hand on her arm, wanting the connection of touch that we rarely shared.
Our conversation was brief, but heartfelt that night. Mostly, I just listened as she spoke of her decision to go through those last few years of dialysis saying, "If I would have known that my life would have been this hard, I would have made a different decision."
Then she asked me me about my blood pressure and if there were any health problems that I had been having lately. (This was 11 months before my diagnosis of carcinoid cancer.)
She asked me to promise that I would take care of myself. I promised her that I would before I kissed her goodnight and told her I loved her, before going back to the couch to get some sleep.
A few hours later, I heard her calling my name. And my mother gave me the most priceless "gift" she ever gave to me: " Coral Anne, I need your help."
I sleepily stumbled into her room and was able to give her the help she needed. Without annoyance. Without expectation. Without needing anything back from her.
On June 14, 2011, I received the frantic call from my sister in California that my mother had gone into cardiac arrest and was in a coma in the hospital. She passed away a few hours later.
My mother was finally free. Free from life's wounds, bruises and disappointments. Free from the pain and suffering that she had to endure to make her mark in this world.
I am glad that she made the decision to go on dialysis four years earlier. Without it, we would never have had the chance those last few years, and especially those last few weeks, to share the moments we shared--as human beings, as women, as mother and daughter.
It was in those moments that I learned how to love her. And I think she was able to love me back.
I was on the airplane back to Burbank on June 24th to deliver the eulogy at her memorial service. I wrote it just a couple of hours before I was due at the church.
"... She would do so much for others, but was not often able to ask for help when she needed it. Yet, as she neared the end of her life, she began to allow others to see a vulnerability that she had kept hidden from so many of us for many years. Her friends and family were finally able to rally around her so that she could maintain the independent lifestyle she so dearly cherished.
"By doing so, she gave many of us a gift...and that gift was the revelation of a gentle, but tough as nails; vulnerable, yet courageous; loving woman.
"Thank you, Mom, for the gift of life and the gift of love!"
I spent a couple of more days in California after her memorial. When I arrived at her apartment, everything was off the walls, cabinets empty, things hauled away.
But there was a stack of old scrapbook-like albums. As I turned the pages, I realized that my mother had included several things I'd written at another site that I'd printed and sent to her. I cried like a baby.
I learned later on from one of my sisters that she had shared those stories with her friends, telling them how good she thought I was and how I "should have been a writer."
Yet, another gift. A veiled compliment. One that she was not able to tell me herself.
But finding those copies and hearing that story from my sister, I finally heard my mother's voice.
Though faint...it plainly spoke: "Coral Anne, I am so proud of you...and I want you to know that I love you."
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Excerpt from "Eulogy for My Mother." Originally written on June 24, 2011 from 30K feet in the air and published on July 3, 2011 at Voices.Yahoo.
Copyright © 2015 Coral Levang. Adapted from original written June 7, 2013 and published on Bubblews; later removed by author.
Image Credit » 1956 Marian and Coral Camano Island. Family photo from author's archives.