Three Important Lessons I Learned When My Mother Died
Why thunderstorms will always taste like Maple Syrup
It was hard, watching my mother die from cancer; seeing her burned away from the inside. And the drugs to keep her pain at bay took a terrible toll on her — on us all. But in her death, along with the harsh lessons cancer teaches, I came to understand three very important truths.
First, it doesn’t matter how old you are
You’re still a child losing your parent. Even if you’ve had to cut away a toxic relationship, In which case, you’ve already mourned for what never was and what never will be, now.
Age gives you some perspective and, perhaps, a greater understanding. And though you mourn, you put on your calm, grown-up face and make brave, grown-up statements.
“It was her time.” “She’s not suffering anymore.” “She’s gone to a better place.”
But, deep down in your heart, there’s still a part of the little child you once were, crying for their mother. It doesn’t matter how adult you’ve become. Nor how long you’ve been on your own, nor how many children you have…she was “Mom.” With all it entails.
My “grown-up” relationship with my mother wasn’t always easy. There were always two ways to do a thing: the way it should be done (her way) and the wrong way. Tidy was never neat and orderly enough. Clean was never as quite as spotless as it should have been — especially when guests were expected.
Mainly, though, her grandchildren were never as well-behaved or mannerly as she’d have liked. They weren’t instantly obedient. They wanted to know ‘why’, all the time.
And that annoyed the crap out of her — that my sisters and I had chosen to raise our kids differently. But, no matter how annoying or demanding she could be at times. No matter I felt I never quite measured up, I knew she loved me. And her absence leaves a void in my life — it hurts.
My second truth is the importance of connection
All the memories you share. The little moments you remember, whether you recall them clearly or even in the same way as the next person. These are the ties which connect us to one another.
Though it always surprises me how differently my sisters and I remember the same event, each from our own perspective and bias, filtered through the lens of our own life.
“Memory is a great artist. For every man and for every woman it makes the recollection of his or her life a work of art and an unfaithful record.” — Andre Maurois
But, regardless of how I remember whatever happened, or my sisters recall the events, together, each bit of those moments and memories forms the patchwork quilt of our childhood. And whenever we get together, my sisters and I retell favourite stories about each other.
“Remember when…?” they begin. Then some embarrassing tale from your childhood unfolds. One you wish everyone would just forget about. “I never did that…” you gasp. Followed by gleeful giggles. “Yes. You did. And you said… Remember?” “Oh, God, I did— I remember that part..”
“Memory has a spottiness, as if the film was sprinkled with developer instead of immersed in it.” — John Updike
When you get together at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Hannukah, at family celebrations — birthdays, anniversaries — you share those moments again, the silly and the sad ones, along with the tears and the laughter. All the times which bind you together, the family bond strengthened in the retelling.
One of the strongest ties in my family has always been music. It’s a constant thread woven through the tapestry of our lives.
Wherever we lived, there was music. We all learned to make music from the time we could make sounds. Music filled the house. Always. Well, when my sisters and I weren’t bickering teenagers.
Trained as a concert pianist, our mother loved to play. When she wasn’t busy doing “mom” things, (housework), she was at her keyboard, “digging the bones” of a piece of classical music. Working through the tricky parts; going over and over all the bits until the whole flowed smoothly.
My sisters and I absorbed her method. It’s still the way we work on a song, crafting each part until it flows together seamlessly. And music, our love of music and making music together is still our strongest bond.
Music… I’ll never forget our last night together. Our mother was more present, more aware than she had been for weeks. My sisters and I stood by her bed. Singing. Talking quietly. Telling funny stories on each other. Holding her hands while we reminisced.
Each song had its own story:
“Dream” — the Everly Brothers ballad which won us the talent contest when we were kids. “The Whistling Gypsy” which became the theme song of our fifteen-minute, summer-replacement radio program. “Scarlet Ribbons” — one of Dad’s favourites and the first songs on which I ever sang the lead.
We sang and talked for at least two hours. Maybe more. We weren’t ready to let go. And then, finally, it was time to say goodbye…
A mother’s instinct is to protect her children, even from “goodbye”
Most mothers share this. With the exception of those toxic few who feed their young to the wolves, almost literally. But it was so blindingly obvious that my third truth didn’t dawn on smart, angry me ’til much later.
You’ve heard the warnings about a mother bears with her cubs, a mother lion protecting her young ones. And if you think they’re scary. don’t ever piss off a mother goose. No, not that Mother Goose, silly…
However odd it may seem, geese make excellent watchdogs. Several of the farmers in my neck of the woods have small flocks of domestic geese roaming about their fenced yards. I’ve seen a single gander put the run on big dogs, and marauding coyotes give those farms a wide berth. Especially when the goslings are small and the mama geese most watchful.
Even mothers who don’t seem to be very motherly will still leap to the defence of their young. Teachers see it — a lot. What mother wants to believe their perfect child deserved a “D” or worse, detention?
Your mother’s there for you. In your corner. It may be Dad who checks for the monsters under your bed at night, but it’s Mom who tucks you in when you’re little and soothes you when you wake up crying from a scary, bad dream.
And sometimes, scary real things happen. Thunderstorms, overturning canoes, hurricanes, tornados.
When we lived in Ontario, I loved to go sloshing about in the deep ditches near our house. Gathering bull-rushes, playing catch-and-release with the tadpoles. Trying to capture “baby” frogs. They weren’t actually babies, just small and rather cute, as frogs go.
But if you’ve lived in the Ottawa Valley, you’ll remember two things about it. It’s home to some of the most beautiful farms in the country, and some of the biggest thunderstorms.
Mother’s rule was, “If it starts to rain and blow — get home. Now.” No exceptions. We were warned how dangerous a thunderstorm could be — the lightning part of them. I thought they were exciting and would gladly have stayed outside to watch.
But when “She Who Must Be Obeyed” spoke, you listened or caught a big load of what-for afterwards from Dad.
Looking back, I think my mother was afraid of thunderstorms. And was determined her children wouldn’t be. So, once we were all safely home, we’d gather around the kitchen table.
Then, Mom would pour a half-inch or so of maple syrup into a little bowl or saucer, one for each kid. She’d cut slices of buttered bread into fingers and we’d dunk them in the gooey sweetness, savouring each sticky bite while the storm raged.
Maple syrup was “gold” to us. An expensive treat, to be enjoyed sparingly on special Sunday-morning pancakes after church. So, this was an incredible indulgence.
Then, we’d open the kitchen door to the screen porch to safely ooh and ahh over the lightning show. Our mother was not only protecting us from the very real danger of the storm, she was also protecting us from her fear of them.
Just as, when she was dying, she was trying to protect us from her death.
For years, I was bitter about her refusal to say goodbye. But now, I think I get it. And I hope I’ll always remember some of the lessons she’s left with me.
Lessons about courage, and character. About not giving up because a thing is difficult, but to work on the hard bits, the parts where I can improve. To know that though nothing will ever be perfect, I should never be satisfied with just “okay.” And to keep going, no matter what.
To this day, when I hear the far-off rumble of an approaching a thunderstorm, I still taste the lingering sweetness of maple syrup on my tongue.
Miss you, Mom.