I am a grown woman who has been known to wake in the middle of the night and cry out for my mother.
I long for her at other times – when I’m sick and wishing for the comfort of her hands to make me hot soup or to put a cool cloth on my head or a warm blanket on my shoulders. I long for her when my children do something I’m so proud of, and I know she’s the only woman who would have shrieked louder than me. I long for her, too, when I do something I’m not so proud of, and I need somebody to love me anyway.
I have thought this pining away might signify something lacking in our relationship or perhaps emotional immaturity on my part. Maybe I haven’t fully processed her death, dying as she did from burns suffered in a flash house fire, two weekends before Mother’s Day 2005, halfway through her 69th year, long before I was ready.
And then I polled my friends. Person after person, no matter the age or persuasion or cause of death on the certificate, they said the same thing.
“My mother’s been gone from cancer 17 years, and I miss her every day,” one friend said.
“Working in a hospital as I do, I talk to a lot of aging people, the latest being 92 years old,” said another. “What people want to talk about, what they want to remember, more than anything is their mothers.”
Having read the great poets, the philosophers and the psychologists on the matter, I can only speculate that mother love is so profound because it is primordial. No matter what happens next, spending our first nine months in the dark belly of her soul bonds us to our mothers forever. She is our first love. She is also the personification of deep human urges, says the great master of the subconscious, Carl Jung:
“The qualities associated with it [the mother symbol] are maternal solicitude and sympathy; the magic authority of the female; the wisdom and spiritual exaltation that transcend reason; any helpful instinct or impulse; all that is benign, all that cherishes and sustains, [all] that fosters growth and fertility. The place of magic transformation and rebirth, together with the underworld and its inhabitants, are presided over by the mother.”
That we never stop having these urges can leave us always longing, and often wondering what lessons we are supposed to learn from this. To cherish our loved ones more when they are alive? To come to terms with our earthly impermanence as we attach to nothing and no one? To find, ultimately, other resources for these urges?
I find, as a mother of three now, that the first two lessons are the easier ones. Life with one’s own children has a hit-you-over-the-head way of making you cherish, without even trying. Lessons in letting go likewise are continuous and automatic when you are a mother, beginning as soon as the baby leaves your body.
As for the third lesson, the one about learning to mother oneself, this is the lesson learned only after the last diaper has been washed, the last Band-Aid applied to the skinned knee, the last apple-pie plate washed and put away. Only then, can we lean into ourselves, attempting to mother ourselves the way we once were mothered, the way we mother our own children now.
I know all these things. I do all these things. And still – I find myself pulling out pictures of my mother, staring into her eyes and willing them to blink.
I call my deceased mother on the phone, her number still fresh in my brain. And despite the automated message telling me the number has been disconnected, I pretend I’m talking to her.
I also decided, shortly after she died, that my mother is a cardinal.
Even though I know red cardinals are always male, even though I don’t always put faith in such things, I choose to believe every redbird on my path is Mama, come to say hello.
She came most profoundly a few years ago, on the third anniversary of her death. I was standing in the yard recounting to my husband her last half hour on Earth – the four of her daughters singing and praying around her bed as she lay intubated, swollen, 40 percent of her body ravaged by third-degree burns – when suddenly, a cardinal flew in front of me and my husband, low to the ground, not two arms lengths from our bodies, to the branch of a nearby tree.
The redbird stood and stared at us for a long minute. And then he began to sing. He sang, very loudly, one, maybe two minutes, without stopping, before flying to another tree, where again he stood, staring.
When I turned and walked into the house, the cardinal was still there, watching silently.
We people without mothers, we watch for these moments.
Whether the song of a bird, or a ray of sunshine suddenly piercing the thick clouds, whether the experience of our own hand on our child’s fevered head suddenly reverberating with solidarity and memory, it can make the longing go away.
If only for a moment, she is here, with me.