Becoming Vulnerable: A Mother’s Greatest Lesson

Of all the lessons shared from woman to woman, I’ve learned to value the space to show weakness

My mother worked outside the home for many years at a job that required her to arrive at 7:00am. She was a rueful early riser and drank noxious cups of instant coffee in an attempt to perk herself up on those dark mornings. At home, she kept tidy notes on repurposed cards to track the daily to-do’s. She was not just a mom; she was our family manager and my stalwart ear, a soaring, fierce advocate for her two children.

And then when I was in college, one day she seemed to lose her grip on it all. It was not that I had never seen her sad or dejected before. But on that day, it was as if my mother lost herself. She got into a mean spat with my brother during a road trip caravan. There I was, at not-quite-19, talking her down in a wretchedly hot east California gas station parking lot. Something shifted. For the first time in my life, my organized and competent mom seemed wholly vulnerable. Her body shrank and then I was the one with the ideas. Here’s what we’re gonna do. It’s going to be alright.

She bounced back. It was just a snap. But in that episode, I began to learn something that hadn’t occupied my mind much at all in my early years. My mom was just a person. She didn’t always have it together. There were times when she didn’t know what to do. Turns out we women — whether we be mothers or friends, partners or leaders — have always just been people. There are times when we break into two pieces and times we break into thirty pieces. There are times we fly away, as diffuse as dust.

One of my mom’s first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease was 17 years after the road trip incident. There had been a smattering of signs before then, the repetitions and occasional confusion, the searches for the right word. The span that marked the undeniability of an entirely new era came fraught with symbolism: my mother was standing on a bridge. My friendly mom, always ready to engage with strangers to discuss how much their toddler sons weighed at 24 months, was aghast during an afternoon walk. People are talking about me on this bridge, she insisted. They are over there, just right over there, making fun of me.

What the heck? What are you talking about, Mom?

There were many times when I still stood at the surface upon which she had raised me, the place where my mother’s head might be thrown back in a laugh, where she taught and reminded, where the future that awaited was generous and kind. I would still stand there, the old familiar place, frowning and full of whats and oh come ons and more whats. What? And she wouldn’t be where she once stood within a comfortable arm’s reach. She was on an outpost that formed when the tides changed, one without pleasant shores and beset with riptides.

How do you swim out of this, I would mouth to myself, trying to remember how it goes. What’s the rule — swim into riptides or away? Go at an angle perpendicular to the pull? In the fluster of my mother’s further parting, there was never a rule that made sense. We kicked and flailed and grew more tired, and every week my mother floated further away.

Our culture emphasizes strength. The world belongs to the strongest among us, after all, doesn’t it? My mother’s life and death both helped me appreciate that we also must allow each other to be weak when we are weak. We have to welcome the parts of ourselves that don’t know, to let each of us see that we can be vulnerable and uncertain, flailing and behind. We can be wrong.

Our roles flipped in my mother’s last years, she the needy and dropping, I the able and tending, thrown as I was into the triage of dementia’s many symptoms. I took her to the grocery store and she put 36 English muffins in her cart; I removed some — but not all — when she wasn’t looking. I took her to visit friends in the state where I grew up; she began marching the wrong way on a mountain trail, insisting she had been there before.

No. Mom. This way. Follow me. Please. Please.

It was as if my mother too sensed that old surface on which we used to stand, that welcome one where she loved maps and watched for birds and researched. She had been on that trail before.

Yes. Mama. You have. The path here is wide and slopes at the sides, and the snow made divots that then baked in the sun. The nearest trees have the softest leaves, the furthest are pines, and you have been here before.

I would hope, with a gentle hook of my mother’s forearm, that she would choose to turn.

As my mother’s life neared its end, another shift began. I sat on a bench outside the facility where she lay dying and the tears came, I sniffing and wiping my nose, glad the front doors were locked at night so no one was around to eye me. It didn’t make sense to cry only then; she had been declining mercilessly for over five years. But in those last few days, it was finally time for me to be vulnerable and fall, to not know anything about anything. Not anything about anything at all.

My mother darted out of our car into the sweltering gas station parking lot all those years earlier and I hugged her to stop her. She was just a person, full of beauty and weakness and gifted in ways immeasurable. When she died she was nearly unhuggable, her body so gaunt and she so frail, and because of this: she forgot how to hug me. A person can forget what a pillow is for and how a sandwich works and how to hug their child.

I darted away from her deathbed and made it no further than the bench just outside. My mother in all those years of doing and succeeding, and in those same years of falling and not knowing, ensured that I could, in my own parking lot, be vulnerable. And lost. And not know what to do. My mother didn’t need to be strong to endure. She didn’t need to be strong to be authentic. She didn’t need to be strong to show up. My mother has instead proven herself to be endless. There is nothing on earth more powerful.

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