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May 10, 2007.
Mother’s Day can be a complex day for many people. People who are separated from their mother…either by death or distance or disagreement. People who are longing to become a mother … or a father. People who never knew their mother. Or finally found and got to know a mother…who never really wanted them in the first place. And people who love being a mother … and a father … and due to the death of a beloved child … are not quite certain anymore exactly where they fall into the definition of mother … or father.
Mother’s Day can be complex.
My own mother is still very much alive. And I am so very grateful for that.
I was the helpless, unprepared, broken husband standing by as my wife Trici grieved and mourned the death of our 18-month-old daughter Erin in 1990…while I grieved and mourned her death as well...in my own, different, way.
And I was the broken, not-quite-as-helpless, not-quite-as-unprepared father who carried my sons, 3-year-old Sean and 7-year-old Rory, when their mother Trici died so suddenly in 1999.
And by 2005, I had become the mother/father who discovered the real depth of “A Mother’s Love” as I accompanied my 13-year-old-son, Rory on a 6-month journey that included his death by brain cancer on February 22, 2005.
My wife, Trici cared deeply about many, many things. Bobby Kennedy was her role model and she decided early in life that she wanted to be of service…to make a difference. Her entire professional career was spent lending her considerable talents to making a difference in other people’s lives. She started at the Rehab Institute of Chicago helping to pass state legislation that would make wearing seat belts mandatory in Illinois. She moved to the American Cancer Society where she helped promote the messages of early detection and cancer prevention. As media relations manager at United Charities she gave a voice to the poor and underserved in Chicago. She gained a reputation as a competent, trustworthy public relations professional among her peers and the often-times hard-nosed Chicago media.
But, as important as her life’s work was to her…anyone that really knew Trici would tell you that FAMILY was even more important. Family meant everything to her. It was her center. And I think the thing she loved most in life was being a mother to our three children. Trici simply loved being a mom.
I remember a woman coming up to me at Trici’s wake commenting on Trici’s obituary. It listed Trici’s many accomplishments and affiliations. That woman told me that she was so impressed by all the things that Trici had done with her life…and that even though she and Trici were about the same age, this woman’s accomplishments paled in comparison to all of Trici’s. I told her not to be fooled by the long list … the thing that Trici was most proud of, and the thing she did best was being mom to Erin, Rory and Sean.
When Trici died in 1999, I was simply overwhelmed by the thought of raising Rory and Sean by myself. Sean was only three years old. Rory was seven. Even now when I see a three year old I wonder how I did it How we did it. A three year old needs help putting his shoes on, putting his jacket on - and taking it off, he needs someone to help cut his meat at dinner…every night. A three year old is only three.
In those early weeks, which somehow turned to months, I often thought that my life would be so much easier if I only had one child to raise. One seemed doable; two seemed impossible. I resented being the only parent for a long, long time…several years, actually. I was not proud of the resentment – but it was the truth. I resented having to raise Rory and Sean by myself. "This was not fair."
I couldn’t imagine how we would survive that first Mother’s Day. I was sensitive to the fact that Mother’s Day messages seemed to be everywhere. As the day approached it seemed as if every commercial was selling something related to Mother’s Day. So that year, our first Mother's Day without Trici physically present, I took the kids to Disney World. It was an extravagant thing for me to do…and it felt right. I wanted to have good time – and I wanted them to have a good time. I took lots of pictures. I wanted proof – so that in years to come I would be able to show both Rory and Sean the photographs and tell them that, even then, I was certain we could be happy again as a family – the three of us.
So, we went to Disney and created wonderful memories. And I took lots and lots of pictures.
The second Mother’s Day, Rory really caught me off guard.
That Thursday, Rory came home from 2nd grade in a great mood…full of energy and so excited. They had made Mother’s Day cards at school. He showed me his immediately. On the cover is a huge pencil drawn heart, surrounded by many, many little hearts. In the middle of the big heart, Rory wrote the words, “Happy Mother’s Day! We Miss You. From, Rory”
Inside he wrote:
“Hi Mommy! Me and Sean really MISS you. I don’t believe you’re gone. I didn’t even get to say goodbye. There’s so much I want to ask you, so much I want to do with you. I really, REALLY miss you. I love you mommy…I love you more than all the love in the whole world combined. I have soooo many memories, some good, some bad. But no matter what I know you love me, Sean and daddy. Dead or Alive.”
On the back of the card he wrote:
“Happiest Memory: My happiest memory of you was I remember when you and me always cuddled.”
Now Trici and I were not “cemetery people.” We rarely visited our daughter Erin’s grave … maybe once a year. But after Rory showed me his Mother’s Day card, he told me he thought we should pick a beautiful bouquet of flowers from my backyard garden and place them on Mommy’s grave. I couldn’t believe my ears. Even though Trici had been dead almost 1 ½ years, I hadn’t even purchased a grave marker – couldn’t bring myself to do it.
So…Mother’s Day morning we went into the backyard and cut two bouquets of flowers from the garden…tulips, daffodils, bleeding hearts and whatever else was in bloom at the time. One was for Rory, the other for Sean. We wrapped the stems with wet paper towels hoping to keep the blossoms fresh and then tightly twisted tin foil around the stems.
The three of us drove to the cemetery. Our first time visiting together. It took me a while to find the spot where Trici and Erin's bodies were buried…but the sod was still quite a bit greener than the surrounding grass…so we were able to find it.
There we were. Me in the center, Rory on one side, Sean on the other - all three of us holding hands. I sobbed like I had not cried in a long time.
Incomprehensible. Tom, Rory and Sean standing over the dead bodies of Trici and Erin. How could this be? How could this be? Sean was uncomfortable seeing his daddy crying so he laughed a little and tried to move away. Rory just stood there - silent. Taking it all in.
After a short time, we got back in the car and drove away.
A year and a half after Trici died, the kids and I moved to Northern California. Slowly, I began to realize that while our life was certainly DIFFERENT than I thought it would be … the traditional American version of family - mom, dad and 2.5 kids…DIFFERENT didn’t have to be bad.
As that 3rd Mother’s Day approached I didn’t want to focus on what was missing in our lives but rather focus on what the three of us had created, and were continuing to create. So, a week or so before Mother’s Day…a wonderful idea popped into my head. I sat both of the kids down and mentioned that Mother’s Day was approaching. Of course, Trici was their mommy, she was in heaven, and we would honor her and remember her that day. But I told them that I had been thinking of all the things a mom does…a mom usually cooks, cleans, washes the clothes, buys the new clothes, helps with homework, volunteers at school, and tucks them in at night. I asked them who in our family continued to all those things. They both kind of laughed and acknowledged that I was the one doing all the “mom jobs.” So, in a lighthearted way, I told them that we would be celebrating Mother’s Day in a new way that year. We would be celebrating my role as the mom. I told them I expected cards and presents. Sean asked if they could prepare breakfast in bed for me. Of course, I said yes. So, that Mother’s Day a huge shift occurred in our family. We went from feeling a “LACK OF” on Mother’s Day to celebrating what we had. Our family was different than we thought it would be. But we could still celebrate…and we did.
The resentment I felt about being a single parent – and having to raise Rory and Sean by myself gradually faded…and made room for an awareness of how blessed I was. I felt (and still do) like I was let in on a secret that mothers have been aware of, probably since life began. And that is that there may be no greater gift than being able to love as a Mother does.
Believe me, when Trici was alive, I thought I was a very involved, engaged, loving father. I am sure I was…but in no way did it compare to the experience I had once I let go of the resentment and simply mothered and fathered on a day-to-day basis. As a father I didn’t “carry” my kids with me 24 hours a day, 7 days a week…like a mother does. I didn’t have to because Trici did. I think that is probably true for many fathers.
But as the mom…I thought about the kids 24/7. I am sure I thought about them even when I wasn’t thinking about them…simple things like – are their clothes clean? Do their clothes fit? Do we need to buy new clothes? What are we having for dinner tonight? Do we have enough milk? Did I buy his favorite cereal? Did I sign the field trip permission slip? Did I give them lunch money?
And then, once I got the hang of taking care of all the day-to-day needs…it dawned on me that it was also my responsibility to care about the REALLY important stuff…their emotional needs, their spiritual needs. Who were they becoming as human beings? Were they happy? Sure their underwear fit…but were they growing into good people? Did they feel loved? Did they feel secure? Did they know they were valued? Did they feel listened to?
So…one of the gifts of Trici’s death is that I got to be the mom. I got to experience what it means to love a child as, I think, only a mother does. It’s a gift I am very grateful for.
And one of the gifts of Rory’s death…is that I know – without a shadow of a doubt – that I am capable of loving someone deeper and truer and more unconditionally than I had ever, ever imagined…as a mother does.
I hope there are many gifts – material and nonmaterial - for all the Mother’s out there today… and all the people who find themselves in a mothering role … be you male or female.
I feel blessed to join the celebration!
Happy Mother’s Day!