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11th of May

When Mother’s Day Reminds You of Death—The Way to Find Life

Mother’s Day, 2002

I called my mother to make sure she received the dozen red carnations I sent as a surprise.

“They’re gorgeous!  But you said you weren’t sending me flowers for Mother’s Day this year because of the bench.”

“I know.  But you’ve always told me flowers should be given to the living, not the dead.”

She laughed.

I hadn’t planned on sending flowers.  I had bought her a bench.  A pale yellow, wood-slatted bench with a robin’s egg blue metal frame I found in an antiques store.  Circa 1936.  The year of her birth. We were going to place the bench in her new front yard—the yard of the house my husband and I bought for her that spring—the house close to ours in Wisconsin.  She was all set to move from Ohio where she’d lived all her life.

In two short weeks.

She’d be five minutes from us and live out the rest of her years there, taking our kids to the community pool down the street, pushing them on the swings in the park right across from her house. We would plant red geraniums and smell her tea roses, just like we always did together.  And we would sit on her bench where she’d drink Diet Rite or maybe split a Rolling Rock with me, just like way back when.

When she moved to Wisconsin, I thought I’d have the most pleasant slice of my childhood back, before our relationship turned and it took more than a decade to calm.  I itched to have my mother in close proximity again.  I longed to have her close to her three Russian treasures, our adopted kids then 10, 8 and 3.  I wanted her to watch them grow up. My dream was so close.

Two short weeks.

“Won’t be long, Mom!  I’m SO happy you’re moving here!”

“Me too!  I’ve got the moving company all lined up!”

We said our good-byes on the phone.  It was 11:00 AM.


Morning after Mother’s Day, 2002

I’m holding a basket of laundry between my left hand and hip.  My right hand reaches for the ringing phone.  It’s my sister.  I continue walking down the upstairs hall.  Just as I reach the top of the stairs, she blurts it out.

“Mom’s dead.”

I drop the laundry basket, clothes spilling down the steps.  I fall onto the top step.

I got the facts:  Misdiagnosed heart attack.  Went to the ER Mother’s Day night, complaining of shoulder pain—vomiting—sweating.  Didn’t do an EKG.  Didn’t draw blood.  Diagnosed her with flu and sent her home.  At 1 AM.  An hour after Mother’s Day ended.  And then, our mother ended.  In her bed.  Alone.  Found the next morning by her best friend who had come to check up on her.

Sitting on that top step, the guttural groans came from a depth I didn’t know existed in me. I heaved sobbing.  As if I could defy death with my triple command . . .

“NO!  NO!  NO!”

I wanted her back.  I would SCREAM her back!

By the end of the day, my husband, three kids and I were packed into our van, heading to Ohio.  I stared ahead, unable to speak, exhausted and numb.  I don’t remember anything of that seven-hour drive except that I spent much of it writing her eulogy on a white pad of paper—something about the beauty of tea roses even though their stems were covered in thorns.  No wonder Mom loved tea roses, I thought.  She was one.  Sweet one moment, she could make you bleed the next.  But her fragile, defended soul was worth finding—worth navigating past those thorns.

My mother was 65 the day she died.  It was the spring after 9/11 when the Twin Towers came down.  And I felt, on the day of her death, that she and I had somehow fallen together.  Like I had lost a huge part of me—someone who understood what it is to be wounded—and to wound—to forgive—and to embrace in the end like you’ve never done until then.

We were two women who came to an understanding about wounds and scars.  That wounds and scars don’t mean we can’t learn how to love—to love better—if we choose.  I came to realize that having a mother who hurt means I had a mother who was hurt.  The wounded wound.  That’s what we do.  Until we learn to receive the love we all need to heal.  Then we can be real.  We can be tender.  We can overcome broken places with God’s grace.

I’m still learning.  It’s a life-long process, I guess.  I fail too often, still.  My ways still hurt others sometimes.  Others’ ways still hurt me sometimes.  Sometimes, I just don’t let it go.  I guess that’s the way of humanity until we choose to connect closely, letting old wounds surface and be seen so they can be loved and healed.

Sometimes our way needs to be turned upside-down by God’s Way that extends love undeserved.  Because of the One who wore the crown—the thorns.  Because of the One pierced for the Wound-er in us all.  Because of the One who bled and died and rose again so we could rise again, after every wound, and love the ones we want so desperately to love us.

Wounds withdraw.  Love draws near. 

Wounds lash out.  Love heals.

I brought out her bench from the garage today, a bit more rusted than last summer.  My geraniums are still on our family room floor, stretching toward the sun, growing strong, waiting for the day I’ll carry them out to that bench and sit them down on the ground.  That bench.  That Mother’s Day bench—where I’ll sit and sip that ice water with lemon, saying once again in this new season of life . . .

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. You’re right.  Flowers should be given to the living, not just the dead.  So should forgiveness. I learned to love you well, while you were still here.  Now I can sit on this bench, alone, and be grateful. 



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