Thursday, May 06, 2010

Motherless Child

I hate this day.

Mother’s Day.

On my back, my legs and arms stretch to the bed corners, the sheet shrouding me. I hear Ben banging around in the kitchen, singing off-key. Lying still in the pale dark, all I remember is how her final hours unfurled with slow-motion precision, each second forever seared in my memory: how I perched beside her on the narrow hospital bed set up in the dining room, how the feeble May sun flickered through the sheers, casting her face into yellow shadow, how that morning was strangely quiet.

That Mother’s Day, ten years ago.

An odd, sad noise had woken me up, it sounded like Pumpkin meowing to come in. When I snuck from bed, the plaintive cry circled up. Crouching behind the railing, I heard my father’s voice soothe, “Tomorrow. Tomorrow, darling… I promise.” I remember wondering what would happen the next day, what promise he was making to Mom. I crept back to my too large bed, too excited to sleep – maybe tomorrow she’d be better.

But she wasn’t better. Daddy hovered, tucking cool, pink sheets around her wasted body, fingering the IV line for kinks, injecting medicines into the drip, his eyes strangely glassy. I clasped her hand, the skin stretched parchment-thin over bird-like bones. My stomach felt leaden. That hushed morning was an instant that seemed like forever. She gazed at me, her eyes half-open, narcotic glazed slits.

“Phoebe,” she rasped, a hoarse whisper, “Live.”

Those were her last words. I try to honor her wish, to give life shape and purpose, but her absence left a gaping hole which only grows larger and more painful, much like the cancer that consumed her. Resentment wells, smothering the good memories. I flip onto my stomach and cry in the warm, flanneled dark.

The bed sags. Hands travel my shoulders and neck, hot through the sheet, stroking my hair smooth against my head. Ben lies on top, hugging me from behind.

“I’m sorry.” He holds me close, trembling with me, his fingers erasing my salty tears. “Hey, you need to get ready. Time to go to church.”

“I don’t want to go.” My voice quakes, laced with petulance. I know I’m being churlish wallowing in self-pity, and all I want to do is hurl my body to the floor and pound, pound, pound my hands and feet. But I don’t; I have no idea how to throw a proper tantrum.

“Up,” he says, tugging my hands. “We’re going.”

“You’re coming with me?” I struggle up. “But you don’t like to go to church.”

Ben rolls the blanket down to my feet and cool air rushes over my legs.

“I want to be with you,” he says. “All day.”

He pulls me from the bed. The cold lump that seems to always settle in my chest melts a little. With a soft “thank you,” I kiss him and shuffle to the bathroom.

After toast, we make our way to the Unitarian Universalist church and sit in my usual spot, four pews from the front. The sun peeks through grey scudding clouds, brightening, then darkening, the austere white sanctuary. Ben holds my hand and looks over the order of service. I feel strangely calm. I squeeze his fingers; he squeezes back. The organ’s sighs fill the open space.

When we rise for the opening hymn, apprehension crowds my throat. His hand settles in the small of my back, steadying me. We sit back in the rigid pews and the minister reads a poem on the difficulty of a mother relating to her daughter but loving her all the same. My heart trembles again and he knows; his hand caresses the top of mine with his thumb in time to the metered cadence.

A hush follows. My fingers relax from his grip and he cocks his head at me, surprised when I join the choir at the front of the sanctuary. The hymnal shivers in my hands. It is time. Can I do this? Can I? I’ve practiced this for weeks. The director clears her throat and lifts her eyebrows, questioning. I nod and she signals with her right hand. I breathe.

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
A long way from home,
A long, long way from home.

My voice quavers, then steadies and strengthens. Ben’s intent eyes glisten in the stippled light. I look away; I can’t break down, not now. I focus on the music, staying on pitch, and when the choir joins in on the second verse, the tension leaves. My eyes fill and the faces in the pews smudge into my mother’s.

My life has accelerated towards this moment for months, maybe even years. The heaviness persists – perhaps it always will – but here, now, it seems thinner, more a bittersweet ribbon flowing through me. Shadows dance over Ben. He gently smiles at me. For the first time in what seems forever, I feel a little less alone.

For my mother and all mothers.

(Excerpted from BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT, a love story). Peace, Linda


  1. gentle and loving. very warm and touching tribute.

  2. The mood of this is nearly palpable Linda. Your descriptions continue to astound me, (though by now they shouldn't).

    Gorgeous, as always.

  3. So sad. The loss of a mother is a canyon and we are left on the edge of a cliff, staring at a gaping hole that feels like a mouth eager to swallow us. I once thought I'd somehow outgrow such void...thirty-four years's still there and I visit it often.

    You've captured that loss very well and I think many can relate to it. The day that is supposed to honor mothers is also the day that reminds the motherless children they need to wear a white rose for death.

  4. I just keep hoping I never lose my mother.

  5. I wish I had that sort of bond to mourn. It sounds lovely.

  6. Ben sounds like a heck of a man.

  7. I lost my mother 3 years ago, and my partner lost his last year—both within a few days of Mother's Day. This year will be our first with no mother to honor. My children are grown and married and honor their wives, leaving me mostly alone on Mother's Day.

    I think this year, I will honor my daughters-in-law, the mothers of my grandchildren, who make my life so bright with joy.

  8. Linda...
    OK... that's all I can think of to say...
    although tears have welled up in my eyes and I am emotionally drained... such a beautiful Mother's Day tribute... her singing just blew me away....
    Peace to you, too.

  9. Thank you all.

    Yes, the whole mother thing seemed tenuous this year -- mine broke her hip 2 weeks ago and she is so physically and emotionally frail since my dad died late last year.

    This is a piece I love to perform, in part because of the song (one of my favorite hymns), but also because everyone has a mother -- somewhere -- despite our feelings about that mother. Peace...

  10. Perfect for Mother's day. Love how you include all the sensual bits like the warm flannel.

  11. I've sung that piece, never without the risk of my voice cracking as I tear up.

    Wonderful, potent work here, Linda.

  12. One of my favorite scenes in BTB.

    " all I want to do is hurl my body to the floor and pound, pound, pound my hands and feet. But I don’t; I have no idea how to throw a proper tantrum."

    Been there, done that.

  13. So powerful, Linda... Such a heartfelt and loving tribute.

  14. Hey all ,thanks for reading. Laptop back up and running, so will be catching up with yours soon. Peace...

  15. Vivid in the beauty of the description, and in the emotional impact.

    I, too, agree with John. Ben behaved wonderfully. Just wanted to be with Phoebe all day, even if it meant going someone he did not like visiting. That's love

  16. An emotionally touching scene, one of many from BTB that had me choked up.

    Thank you for sharing.

  17. Linda - beautiful as always. Your descriptions always catch me off guard, the way wonderful writing does. You've done a terrific job of capturing the raw emotion of this piece. I lost my dad to cancer so it sadly rang true for me. Happy Mothers Day

  18. Lovely descriptions and beautiful relationships.