I come from a long line of fierce mothers. My husband says we all have a quality that he can’t exactly explain but that he watches in action every day. All the women in my family have it: my mother, my aunt, their cousins, me. He never knew my grandmother, but she had it too. Before I had my own child, I’d observed it in the others but never fully understood it.
When my mother was fifty and I was twenty-five she had a car accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. She has chronic pain and sporadic spasms, never sleeps well and suffers from recurring bladder infections. My parents, married for over 45 years, live eight hours away by car and are on a limited income, so it is not convenient for them to fly to me. Car trips are difficult for her; the cramped space causes her legs to spasm and they have to stop often so that she can stretch.
That said, when my first daughter came three weeks early, they arrived at my house the day after we came home from the hospital. I was exhausted and hormonal. The baby, named Ella Caroline, wouldn’t breastfeed and I’d been awake for what seemed like days. I felt like a failure and the baby was only two days old. I wanted my mother more than I’d ever wanted her before, which is saying something, as I’ve been attached to her every day of my life.
Before they arrived I sat in our front room, waiting, searching the street with puffy tired eyes. When they finally pulled into the driveway I went out to greet them with my baby wrapped in a pink blanket. My mother hobbled over my cobblestone pathway using her walker, feet encased in her thick shoes and braces, her eyes straining to see the baby. I was almost afraid to show her what I’d made for fear she wouldn’t love her as I did. But I presented Ella, both hands under her sleeping form, restraining myself from saying, “isn’t she perfect?”
Later that day, because of the breastfeeding issues, a nurse came for a home visit. She took one look at Ella and declared her jaundiced. I was to learn later that babies with jaundice won’t eat; all they want to do is sleep. A small bed was brought to the house with lights that would give Ella the hemoglobin she needed. To me, it looked like a miniature tanning bed and I didn’t want to put her in there, especially when I heard she had to stay in there all day. I was not allowed to hold her, other than to try and feed her. When I put her in there, Ella stared up at me with round eyes that I swear held the look of betrayal. Looking back, I know it was hormones, but I was devastated. I wept without reserve in front of the nurse, my mother, my husband and my father, who both snuck out of the room in embarrassment.
The next day my mother and I took Ella into the pediatrician’s office to have her hemoglobin count tested. The office was swarming with sick children. There were not two seats together so I sat opposite my mother. She held Ella, slightly slumped over, appearing as vulnerable to me as the child in her arms. A little boy a seat or two down began to cough, the wet hacking sort that sounded like his lungs were full of fluid. My mother’s eyes slid sideways to the sick child and back again to the bundle in her lap. Her forehead wrinkled, her lips went together in a little purse. Then, with an almost imperceptible movement of her hand, she covered Ella’s face with the blanket.
It told me everything I needed to know. She loved my Ella as much as I did. We were three when only days ago we were two.
And in that moment all the missing pieces of my mother and grandmother fell gently into place. I remembered all the dresses left on the rack so I could have one instead; the nervous hand-wringing at my theatre performances; the zealotry she put into finding me the perfect college and financial aid so I could study acting; the terror in her voice the night of the L.A. riots as I huddled inside my apartment while the streets went up in flames; the disregard for her own discomfort because she wanted so desperately to see my baby the minute she was born.
I understood, finally, what drove every decision of her life since my birth. I realized how truly deep the well of her love is for me. This quality I’d only observed before? Now I knew it by name.
It’s a fierce blind love. It’s a devotion unlike any other. It’s an understanding that I would give up my own life so that my child might live. This has not been tested but I know it to be true.
This knowledge has made me love my mother in a different way than I did before. My love for her feels softer, gentler, and yet full of awe for all she’s done for me. And, I want so very much to be the kind of mother she has been and continues to be.