Ours was a rocky relationship. Not the kind you want write about and share with the world. But redemption compels us do things that feel uncomfortable. Maybe you know the kind of relationship I mean. There was love, but there was also frustration and hurt feelings that bore down on me under the weight of my mother’s critical ways. She was a woman quick to complain and slow to compliment, a yeller who was good at finding something wrong. I don’t think I ever truly won her approval.
But there was good mixed in, too. I knew she loved me and I loved her. She sacrificed for me and gave me a foundation of values anchored in knowing right from wrong. She was a hugger who adored her grandchildren. Occasionally she bragged to her friends about things I had done, but she rarely gave me the words of approval I craved. Throughout my life I felt slightly less than good enough.
When my father died, my mom came to us and spent months recovering with my husband, our kids and me. I told myself this would be our chance to grow close as she and I both grieved the man we loved. But her complaints and discontent continued to be a wall that separated us. The hurt I felt as a girl gave way to frustration and anger as a care-giving adult. Then came guilt from feeling that way about a lost, grieving widow, albeit one who remained difficult to please. All the while, my own grief loomed, unattended, a punch in the gut that wouldn’t ease.
Only months later, loss came calling again. My mother died unexpectedly. I was half a world away, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, when she took her last breath. She was alone as she slipped from life to Life, with no one to hold her hand and see her off with love. A swift current of guilt and sadness swept over me and mixed with other unresolved feelings of our relationship.
Weeks later, I sat down to write her eulogy, just as I had for my father. The words for him flowed faster than I could type. But this time, I sat motionless at the keyboard. Nothing came. I prayed for inspiration, but for days my thoughts and fingers remained paralyzed. Finally I postponed writing and worked on a music video of my mother’s life instead.
I pulled out an old box and sifted through a lifetime of photos. There were snapshots of our family vacations, birthday smiles and Christmas celebrations, but the ones that held my attention were those that captured my mother’s life before I came into it.
I looked at images of her as a toddler wearing a serious expression, her hand wrapped in a massive bandage after her finger was severed in an accident. I wondered if the kids at school had been mean to her. I imagined her days as a pretty, but self- conscious teenager with three fingers where there had been four.
I lingered on a black and white of my parents grinning up at the camera as they lay on the beach during their honeymoon in Florida, a carton of milk and Coca-cola between them.
Another captured them on the back steps of my Nana’s house in Canada, young and slim and smiling like the whole world was theirs. I had seen these photos before, but this time I was more curious about my mother’s life. I imagined her saying goodbye to her family and moving from one city to the next as my dad’s pro hockey career took off. Twenty moves in her lifetime. Packing. Unpacking. New doctors and dentists and friends, all of it left to her because he was busy with his new team.
My mind drifted to later, when my brother and I were in tow and she often had to parent alone because of my father’s job. I remembered the two winters when my dad moved to new teams and she stayed behind so we could each finish our senior year in high school. Seven months. Alone. With teenagers. I closed my eyes and slowly shook my head, fast forwarding to my life now and the tough days on my own with my kids when my husband travels. And I thought of those times when I, too, have far less than perfect parenting moments born of exhaustion and frustration. My own imperfection made her's easier to understand. And forgive.
There were photos of my father and me, smiling, the love nearly leaping off the glossy paper. I imagined how my Mom felt on the outside looking in, perhaps wishing she and I had that same kind of bond. Maybe she, too, felt like she was never quite good enough in my eyes.
My sharp edges began to soften as photos and grace helped me to look past a cantankerous exterior and see my mother in a new way, with the compassion of a fellow woman instead of the judgement of a bruised daughter. The regret of seeing these things too late pooled in my eyes and sat like a brick on my chest.
The shift in my thoughts created a shift in my feelings and opened the dam. A flood of words flowed onto the pages of her eulogy. I recalled the challenges my mom faced and the difficulty of standing in the shadow while my father had the limelight. I recounted the ways she showed me the value of church and faith, and taught me the importance of manners and being humble. During her memorial service, I spoke of her with love and gratitude and felt a new and soulful sense of calm and contentment. I hoped she somehow felt it, too.
Days later, I fell into a deep sleep and a dream that felt and looked much more vivid than usual, real instead of imagined. I sat across from my mother, facing her, and looked into her eyes. “I’m so sorry, Mom. I didn’t know,” I said as I gently held her face in my hands. Then I leaned into her, put my cheek against hers and whispered in her ear, “I couldn’t know.” I stayed there a while, holding her, and then pulled back and looked into her eyes again. “It’s okay,” she said softy. “It’s okay.” She smiled slightly and held my gaze and I felt an intense connection between us, like everything was suddenly right. I woke up I knowing I had made my peace with her.
Two weeks later, I climbed the stairs to the attic to fetch a suitcase for a weekend away. I perused my options and, without much thought, chose one of my mother’s old cases that I kept after she died. The small blue carry-on had sat unused since then and was just the right size. I took it downstairs, laid it on my bed, and flipped the lid open. The case was empty, but I noticed a small bulge in an inner pocket. I reached in and pulled out something the size and thickness of a business card. It was encased in green bubble wrap. Slowly, I slid it out of its protective sleeve and stopped when the first inch was exposed, revealing words printed in purple ink on shiny white card stock.
“This Angel is watching over your heart.”
Awestruck, I stared at the message and sat down to take in the wording. It didn’t say the angel was watching over you. It said she was watching over your heart, the place in which long standing perceptions and judgements are held, the place in me that had changed radically and altered my perception of my mom. My eyes watered as I slid the card out a bit more. Attached to it was a silver lapel pin, an angel with wings on her back and a halo around her head, distinctly feminine. She was pinned to a pink heart printed on the card. I could hardly breathe as I removed the rest of the wrapping and read the words printed under the angel:
“Thank you for the privilege of serving you.”
And just like that, all encompassing love, peace, understanding and resolution flooded through me, the flow of it so intense that I couldn't move. I sat perfectly still, hardly breathing as I tried to absorb the enormity of these feelings and the power of these experiences. There came a sudden and innate knowing that this was a sign of my mother making her amends, too, a Heaven sent emotional cleansing. And even though she and I were physically apart, I have never felt closer to her, and I know she is with me still, the angel watching over my heart.
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