When I was younger, I called my mother “Ma.” When I got older and felt it made us sound like hillbillies, I switched to “Mummy.” For some reason, the very word “Mom,” sounds tired to me and makes me think of people rolling their eyes as they say it. Nobody rolls their eyes when they talk to my mother.
Among hundreds of other good things, my Mummy is the queen of unconditional love. When we were very young, there was someone in our neighborhood who had just gotten out of jail for killing a gas station attendant. My mother marveled at his mother’s willingness to take him in and give him a room without blinking because she was “his ma.” Some liken their fierce, boundless love for their children to the mother-bear thing, the grizzly-mama thing. My mother likens unconditional love to that woman who took her son back even though he once killed a gas station attendant.
But on Tuesday night, at age 73, she was admitted to the hospital with excruciating abdominal pain. They were after the gall bladder, given the symptoms, but when the cat scan showed “an obstruction with an unknown cause,” which "could be anything," they came back dressed in scrubs. Before I had a chance to notify my siblings, she was being wheeled to surgical suite #2 and I, holding my cell phone which now rang with frantic return calls, was being asked to say goodbye.
“You have to do it now.”
I hugged her around the tubes.
“Goodbye, Mummy. I love you. Thank you.”
“And I love you, Darling.”
Is there a bigger word than Goodbye?
I wandered around for a while until I felt the breakdown coming and then I called my friend Maureen. Fifteen minutes later, the elevator doors opened and there she was. I said, “I’m not ready.”
For two hours, I alternated between overreacting and knowing I wasn’t overreacting. For two hours I thought about the daughter I’ve been, the mother she’s been, and the very poor job I’ve done with my side of that equation. I wondered what I gave her. It was hard to see around the glare of all she’d given me, and hard to think straight, wondering who would love me still, even if I killed a gas station attendant.
My husband, friends, and the siblings who could make it were there. But as the night wore on, I moved away until I was around the corner and it was there, on the phone to my out-of-town brother and trusted confidante Tom (raised with me by my mother after the divorce), that I realized I gave my mother more than stuff. I gave her back to my own children.
I believe with my entire heart, that each of my children knows they can call me at any age, at any hour of the morning, drunk or sick or laughing or crying and I’ll sit on the floor in my bathrobe and talk to them until they can go back to bed. I think each knows I will hop a plane, I will drop a plan, I will get into the nearest vehicle and will be at their side before they’ve had time to reconsider, if they say the words, “Can you come here?”
I’ve given my mother gifts of time and love. I’ve complimented her perms and shoes and invited her out for glasses of wine and Broadway shows. But more than that, I’ve been her in my own children’s lives. When they’re sick, when they’re sad, or worried, or happy, or quiet, or when they’re any of these things and alone, I believe my children know someone in the world will know everything they’ve said or done, and will still give them a room. There is no better report card when you’re a parent. My mother is high honors in this regard, and I’ve tested her more than once.
She came out of the surgery like a champ and will have a happier, healthier life as a result. And I have been given a chance to shore up my side of the equation.
But her reach is far and long. Her great-grandchildren will know her, even if they never meet, if I do this right. This week, I learned a lot about doing it right, in two of the longest hours we’ve both lived through.
I love you, Mummy.