Oh boy, I thought as I was reading to my 4-year-old daughter, this is going to be bad. Pook was about to be killed. We were on chapter 12 and Pook had become her favorite character. He was crystallized, turned into a gemstone, by the evil Rusful, and I watched her eyes become shiny and the tears spill down her cheeks. But as with most children’s books, there was a happy ending: A monsoon swept in, its rain healing all the animals that had been hardened into jewels and bringing them back to life. As I tucked her in, she smiled and said, “Mom, I hope it rains and that your mommy comes back, too.”

How do you explain the concept of death to a 4-year-old? That even mommies die, and that they don’t come back. I am not sure that I understood it any better when my mother died, and I was a teenager.

I still think about my mother all the time, especially on Mother’s Day, and especially on this Mother’s Day, as it’s also my birthday, the day she brought me into the world. We were all brought forth in much the same way, and we all have mothers, no matter how complicated or varied those relationships are. Mine was complicated by her long illness and her early death; I never got the chance to know her as an adult, to appreciate the person she was before she got sick. Ours was a troubled relationship, a constant battle between a headstrong, angry teenager and the mother that was trying to teach her all of life’s lessons in an abbreviated amount of time. I can’t imagine what it would be like to know you were going to die, to have to leave your kids before they were grown, the whole time suffering physically and trying to make peace with your own departure from the world.

I wish she could know how much I actually learned because of, and not despite, her dying.

It was liberating, in a way, to be motherless as a teenager. I didn’t have anyone to check in with, I didn’t have to explain to anybody where I was going or when I’d be back. No boyfriends ever had to endure my mother’s scrutiny, and I could change jobs, majors, or the way I looked and dressed without any questions asked.

Instead, I asked these questions of myself, with my mother becoming this sort of Madonna apparition hanging over me. Is this truly the right job? Would my mother approve of this guy? Are these really the kind of people I should be hanging out with? What would she think of what I’m doing right now—would she be proud?

Probably the most nagging question I have was whether she loved me. We weren’t on good terms when she passed away. I didn’t understand what she was going through at the time and I was your typical unappreciative and angst-filled kid, impatient with her, uncaring, things I regret so deeply now. But since having children of my own, I realize that she loved me anyway. That kind of love is boundless and unconditional, whether your child is the Boston Marathon bomber or a Pulitzer Prize winner. You love your children with an intensity that seems almost impossible, more than you will ever love a partner or a dog or anyone else in this world. Except, maybe, your own mother.

All of this I will try to explain to my 4-year-old, once she’s a little more mature. I will try to tell her every day how much I love her, so that she never has the same question nagging her as she becomes an adult. I will try to explain that life is not like a fairy tale, not exactly. The rain does not come down and magically bring people back to life. Some people that have turned to jewels will stay that way, like my mom, her grandmother, but that they still glitter forever with a light that we just can’t understand.

1 Comment
  • Emily Shoff
    Posted at 13:47h, 13 May

    Deb– This brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for the reminder to celebrate those we love in our lives while we still can.