I was cooking dinner last night when, on cue, my 10-month-old began screaming at my feet just as the pasta water began boiling. He scrambled around the kitchen floor after me, chasing my legs and crying as I moved from the pantry to the stove in a desperate attempt to put together some kind of dinner after a nerve-fraying day of short naps and tantrums.
My 3-year-old joined in, repeatedly asking when dinner would be done. “I’m HUNGRY!”
Admiring my son’s lung capacity and my daughter’s persistence, I dumped a box of rotini into the water. Stirring, I thought about the nights my mom came home from work exhausted, yet still manage to cook dinner every night.
How did you do it? I want to ask her. I am a stay at home mom, and some days I can’t even deal. Seriously, how did you do this without missing a beat?
As I picked up the baby, I cringed at the memory of poking at more than one of the meals my mom cooked and saying some variation of “What is this?”
I can still see her pursed lips as she issued a quick rebuke, “If you don’t like it, don’t eat it.”
I wanted to pick up the phone and call her amidst the chaos.
She would laugh at the sound of my son’s screams through the receiver, combined with high-pitched pleas from my daughter to talk to grandma. And then she’d share some magic secret of motherhood that only she could bestow on me, making it all better in just a few words.
With that one trivial phone call, we would add a deeper layer to our mother-daughter bond: My mom would be delighted to realize that her daughter now appreciates the sacrifices she made. I would be delighted to have the knowledge of generations of women in my family behind me, validating that it is hard, but worthy, work.
But I can’t make that call.
She died suddenly nearly a decade ago, from cancer in her womb. She never met my husband, never met my children. Never saw me as a woman, independent from under her wings.
Her death tore a hole through my heart the size of the Grand Canyon. And regardless of how many years pass the hole doesn’t get smaller as people sometimes tell me it will. No. I’ve found instead that over the years I move further away from the void, until it just looks like a smudge on the horizon, only noticeable when I look for it.
I found myself looking for it more after the birth of my first child, and even more so following the birth of my second. I make the painful trek back to the canyon’s edge more often now that I have children. Usually when I feel alone in my motherhood.
Standing there in utter isolation, I look out over the breathtaking emptiness and resent the fact that I don’t have my mom to talk to. I’m not able to commiserate with her as a peer in motherhood, to share with her my new understanding of what it means to be a woman after having children.
I want to thank her for the sacrifices she made. I want to look her in the eyes and tell her that I appreciate every meal she made for us, every load of laundry she did, every hour she worked overtime and every single time she made things okay with her Mother Magic just by saying they would be.
Every kiss on the knee, every bleary-eyed ounce of patience at 2 a.m. when I wet the bed and needed the sheets changed. Every packed lunch and outfit she sewed for me. Every frustrated yell, worried cry, irrepressible laugh, look of pride.
I want to tell her I know now how it feels to wield such power and be so overwhelmed by it.
I want my children to know her, to feel the warmth of a hug from her—strong arms with smooth skin and the scent of peonies and lilacs clinging to her soft hair.
If she were here, I realize we would disagree on certain things. Styles of parenting, and decisions about feeding and working. We would have different approaches to discipline and dumb things like whether or not my 3-year-old daughter is too young for Disney (yes, Mom, she is). I know she would get on my nerves, giving unsolicited advice and eliciting eye rolls from me.
But those things seem trivial in comparison to what I would gain from the familiarity of her sturdy presence when I’m at my worst—ugly crying into my pillow with exhaustion and frustration at the end of a long day, or unsure of how to proceed with a challenging situation.
Sometimes this tired mother longs to be mothered again.
Sometimes I’m able to remember that she’s within me, along with all the other women who came before her. She’s beside me, right there in that kitchen watching two screaming children desperate for their mother’s love.
I stop cooking and I bend over to scoop each of them in my arms. “I love you,” I say, into their ears, swallowing my frustration and knowing in my core, because I lost my mother so suddenly, that all we are ever granted is right now.
My mother’s death forces me to cherish these small memories, made on the kitchen floor in a mother’s arms because they are the ones that stay within you over time, the ones that you can feel. The ones you can keep with you, no matter how far or near.