One morning last year, I sat in a cold metal folding chair holding my new baby at a packed memorial service for a woman that had died of cancer. I didn’t know this woman, it was a classmate of my husband’s. I listened to this other woman’s husband read the last note that she had written to her small son before she died. Her death was anticipated from her long battle with cancer, but that didn’t make listening to the letter any easier. Even though I didn’t know her, the service touched me deeply. I couldn’t stop thinking of the inevitable inadequacies of her letter. It said all the right things, I will always love you, remember me, remember the times we had, that you were life to me . . . the most that you can say to your child, really. And it wasn’t enough. Not nearly. I felt heartbroken thinking of all of the love I’m sure she wanted to convey to her son in that single letter. And, I felt fearful.
Ironically, I had just attempted to write one of these last letters to my children earlier that morning. Not because I really expect anything to happen to me anytime soon, but because the thought that they might wake up one day and not know how much I have loved them causes me to lose sleep at night. Thinking of this, I felt a deep pain for what the mother had been up against, this impossible task of writing down her love for her child. There is nothing fair at all about having to do this.
The love of a mother can’t be written down in a letter. It is conveyed in a million small actions. Waking in the night to feed or to comfort, cleaning up after sicknesses, listening to long stories of the day even when you have so much to do, telling old stories, braiding hair, making favorite foods, holding hands as you cross the street even if your children are far too old to need it, (I still hold my ten year old daughter’s hand as we cross parking lots because she isn’t aware yet that we both know she doesn’t need me to. I will try to get away with this for as long as I can, this excuse to act as if I am protecting her, this closeness), telling them jokes, taking them simple places that they look forward to, teaching them how to do tasks that will one day be necessary for them to do on their own.
The feelings behind doing these things for and with your child can’t be written down. There is no verbal conveyance of the depth of motherhood. The countless nights lying awake and worrying about whether you have shown each child enough love, given enough compliments, looked out for their futures enough. The inevitable pain of every realization of falling short of those things and the daily resolve to do better tomorrow.
Motherhood is a love in progress.
There never comes a day when you think, “There, now I have shown them how much I love them”. It just isn’t possible. The closest you will ever get to full conveyance is in mutual understanding, which is to say parenthood. I could see it in my Mother’s mannerisms and in her eyes as she watched me care for my first baby. It was as if a breath she had held for years was finally able to be released. Her thoughts palpable, “There. Now you get it. Despite the shortcomings, the missed opportunities, the failed attempts, that’s how purely I’ve loved you.” The only adequate letter conveying the love of a parent for a child is wrapped up in the birth of their future children.
Motherhood will always be a lifelong letter, rewritten in minutes and days, as slowly and carefully as possible, for as many times as you can write it.
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