Today my beautiful mother would have been 90 years old. She wouldn’t like me making a fuss about that number, because she didn’t like being “old.” And she never seemed really old to me, despite the physical infirmities that interfered with her mobility and independence during the last few years of her life. She was sharp and quick witted, up to date on current events, and interested in the modern world around her - young at heart, as the saying goes.
Living for nine decades means you see an enormous amount of change in the world. In 1927 when my mother was born - in a bedroom at her grandmother’s house in a small town in central Kentucky - there were few cars on the roads, no televisions or computers, no dishwashers, cordless phones, or microwaves. People rarely lived past their 70’s because the concept of preventative treatment and testing didn’t exist. My head spins when I think of the ways the world has changed in those 90 years.
In the almost year since she died, my world has undergone a sea change of its own. I’ve written about my mother so much because she is so important to me. Notice I wrote IS important to me, not WAS, because even though she’s no longer on earth she is still vital to me. We are joined eternally by biology, but also through the deeper connection of all the experiences and love we shared. I count myself unbelievably lucky to have had the opportunity to be with my mother nearly every day of my life for 60 years. We lifted each other up countless times, were companions, confidantes, caregivers, friends. What a gift.
Last year my mother spent her birthday in the hospital. It was a bittersweet day, because we all knew it was her last birthday - she knew it better than anyone. The nurses were kind and gave her homemade cards. I brought her the cards that had arrived in the mail and we opened them and spread them around the room.
A few days earlier I had been standing in the Hallmark store, shell shocked and numb, wondering how in the world to choose a birthday card for my dying mother. My eyes lit upon a small, beautiful card with the word “Mama” on it (which is what I always called my mother). The inscription on the cover was perfect: “You’re the heart and soul of our family,” it read. I wouldn’t realize the full truth of this until two weeks later, after she was gone. During the ensuing 11 months, two weeks, and four days since she died, I have sometimes felt like there was no center anymore, nothing to hold me or the rest of us together. It often seemed that there was no heart or soul in anything.
On the inside of her birthday card last year, I added my own message: “With love that lasts far beyond this lifetime...” Here, now, exactly 12 months later, I finally realize the full truth of this statement. The love does last far beyond this lifetime. She’s not with me today, but her LOVE is. It’s there, a constant, secret companion. I miss her physical presence, but she has not left me alone. “Dead and gone though they may be,” writes theologian Frederick Buechner, “as we come to understand them in new ways, it is as though they come to understand us - and through them we come to understand ourselves - in new ways too."
March is a month of milestones for our family. This week particularly holds three key dates to remember - my birthday, my son and daughter in law’s wedding anniversary, and my mother’s birthday - and in just over a week, it will be the anniversary of her death. With each milestone date comes a flood of important memories. “Through memory,” write Henri Nouwen, “love transcends the limits of time and offers hope at any moment of our lives.” My mother is not now on earth, but, as Meghan O’Rourke writes, “she is now, in the minds of those who remember her: her smile, her voice, her little intonations, her smell - in all of us."
Grief comes to all of us at one time or another. It changes the circumstances of our lives in unpredictable ways. We are forced to learn new ways of being in the world, without that person who meant so much to us. I’m grateful for the milestones and the memories, all of which remind me of the greatest gift of all and one that never gets old- my mother’s unconditional love.