There is something about this introduction to the podcast series This is Love that freakishly makes me think of my mother.
Freakishly, in that I wonder if other people have similar flashes on the things their parents gave up for them? It’s not that my mom ever quantified her sacrifice for the children she had, at least not consciously or as an attempt to persuade. I know some people have had that experience, I’ve had the experience myself with other relatives. Our grandmother would tell us she was dying each year around Christmas, and oh, this might be your last chance to see me. Don’t you remember how I made time for you when you were growing up? We would laugh and roll our eyes, and then try to make time to visit at some point during the season.
But not mom, at least not when she was parenting us. Guilt never seemed to work for us. I remember distinctly her wanting us to clean our plates at mealtimes while I was still in primary school, and so she put a coin jar in the center of the table labeled for the starving children in other countries. We had a great laugh at that as we crammed food into the slot on the jar. That is the one time I remember her attempting to guilt us into anything and it failed, spectacularly.
When I was a teenager and could finally drive and own my own car, I would take long, meandering drives in the country, sometimes for several hours at a time, just listening to music. I’m not sure what I was looking for out there on the road. Release from the pressures of herding three other children around, most likely. On a few occasions mother grew concerned about my spending so much time alone, and so I invited her to come along on a drive with me, just so she could see what I was doing.
While we were out there together, me just driving aimlessly, we would talk. Mom and I could always talk. We’d talk for hours on the phone sometimes. I never could recall the particulars of any of our conversations, it was always small talk. Just impressions of concerns of the day, plans for the future. Musings about the days gone by. It is these times that come to mind when I listen to the story of the mother spider calling its children to itself, sacrificing herself to them so that they could survive. Feeding herself to them on purpose.
Mom was an artist before we children were born; or more precisely, before I was born. She left college to travel with her then-husband, my father, going overseas for the first time in her short life. I can imagine what her hopes must have been like at the time. Visiting places in Europe, possibly even going to Paris. She did talk to me about wanting to visit Paris, as I sat in vigil with her over the last months of her life. It wasn’t the first time we had talked about her young dreams, I know. I know because in those long drives as a restless teen she had told me of her dreams when she was a restless teen. Traveling. Painting. Exploring the world. I can picture her in Europe right now if I close my eyes, sipping coffee at a cafe near a river, trying to decide which scene deserved her artistic attention.
But that never happened. Instead she had me, and her husband didn’t prove to be much of a father, so she left him within six months of my birth. She married the man I called father for my entire life and eventually settled with him in the middle of the Kansas plains, pretty much as far away from the lights and glamour of Parisian culture as it is possible to get. She set about raising me and the three children that followed me, burying a miscarriage somewhere along the line. When dad’s wayward eye got him in trouble about the time I turned thirteen, she simply switched to the next person she thought could keep her children fed. And so on.
She worked her fingers to the bone at odd jobs as a single parent at the time that inspired this writing, when I was a senior in high school and then attending the local trade school. Two, three jobs at a time if required. She never complained, other than to say how tired she was. Never guilted us about what she gave up so that we could live. She just set about getting from where we were today to where we would be tomorrow, a progression in time that saw us all graduate high school. Some of us went on to college and all of us eventually had children of our own. She helped raise those children, none of us ever asking her if this was what she wanted to spend her life doing. Never once.
Until the end of last November, when her world crashed down around her. Stage four transitional cell carcinoma. Months to live. She could have gotten treatment. She could have still been here with us. She couldn’t pay for the treatment. She wouldn’t even dream of asking us to pay for it, and she didn’t want the government to pay for it. In some weird way, she thrummed her web, and we great mass of the living consumed her without even questioning why things had to be this way.
Now she’s gone. I have become the eldest of our little band of misfits, a natural leadership role that I never wanted and go to great lengths to avoid when I can. What form is the web that I’m now the center of? Will I be called to sacrifice myself to the greater good? Do I want that to happen? Do I have a choice? …And I can still see her youthful, hopeful face among the crowd that I envision along the banks of the Seine. Sipping coffee and deciding what to paint next. If I could tell her one thing now, what would that one thing be? Paint as if your life depended on it. Because ultimately it does.
I wrote this article shortly after mom’s death. At the time I was consumed by the dilemma of knowing that she was going to die months before it actually happened, but constrained by legalities, unable to shorten the time she suffered agonizing pain and loss of self-awareness as her body cannibalized her brain for a few more hours or days of life. By the same token, she was legally unable to ask us to help her end her own life when she decided she was ready to go, even knowing in some portion of her brain somewhere that she was indeed dying. Adding to my internal conflict of her suffering which we could only buffer by giving her drugs to render her unconscious, was the personal belief that she could have accepted treatment and not had to suffer and die this way. But the system works the way it works, and her refusal of treatment combined with Texas law preventing humane treatment for the dying resulted in a month long vigil that ended the way it was always going to end, with her death.
Mother’s suffering. The trauma of losing our mother in this way. The personal costs to health and welfare and the effect on her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of being forced to watch her wither away this way unable to do anything to end it. The waste of it all will probably haunt me to the end of my days. I will not go out the way she did, if I have any say in it. The form her death took cheapens the near-flawless nobility of how she sacrificed herself for her children for years virtually without complaint. Without burdening her children with the weight of the crushed dreams of her youth.
Her noble sacrifice inspired my willingness to give my children as much room to become what they wanted as I could afford to give them. I did not want them to have to look back on a life that they spent doing things that they had no interest in doing, just so they could pay the bills each month. I wanted them to be able to look back on their lives and be thankful to have lived, the same way that I can because of her sacrifice. If only her kind of nobility were more common than it is, all children would grow up this way.