The Gift of Love
Sometime in late April my husband mentioned to me that the internet florist we often use was offering a 15 percent discount and asked if I would like to buy flowers for anyone we know. I said, “Sure,” and simultaneously the thought arose: “Oh yes, Mother’s Day is right around the corner, we should send flowers to Mom.” And then I remembered, “I don’t have a mother anymore,” and tears welled up in my eyes.
Of course, I do have a mother. I will always have a mother, she’s just not in form. Part of me truly recognizes that truth, but some part of me does not, and so I wrestle with the reality of her transition last February (at the age of 92). When someone so significant in your life passes, it is natural to revisit one's history with that individual and contemplate the impact on your life, and so, like countless others before me, I find myself engaged in that pursuit.
My mother, Marion Darlene Nisley, was a remarkable woman in many ways -- beautiful, strong, capable, practical, loyal, honest, hard-working, an organizational wizard and totally and utterly devoted to her family, immediate and extended. She was a full-time wife, mother and homemaker until I was 12, and then reversals of fortunes with my father’s military career compelled her to return to work as an obstetrics nurse.
At one point our household included three girls, two sets of grandparents, several dogs and cats, banty hens, even a lamb. We lived on 5 acres with extensive vegetable and flower gardens on the outskirts of Spokane, Wash. Everything in our household was always done properly – it was ordered, neat and tidy and things happened on time. Mom ran a tight ship, often single-handed when my father was away on assignment. She was an accomplished seamstress, making wonderful garments for all three of her daughters until she was into her 80s, and an excellent, somewhat adventurous cook. She had a lovely alto singing voice, and our extended family gatherings often included singalongs, accompanied on the piano by my maternal grandmother. For the most part, my childhood was happy.
What was lacking in my relationship with my mother, however, was emotional connection. With all the responsibility she carried, she could be tough, critical and impatient. Physical affection was rare, and I never heard the words “I love you” from either of my parents during my growing up years. Mom and I couldn’t have been more different. I was sensitive, a dreamer, emotional and somewhat disorganized. I loved hiking the hills behind our house, reading, sports and anything related to the arts. She would have had me dispense with my feelings and be more pragmatic, tougher and much more tidy.
Both she and my father were authoritarian, strong-minded individuals, and they had definite ideas of who they wanted their daughters to be. I tried to fit their mold for years, but finally broke away from the life they had outlined for me, leaving behind an Army nurse scholarship program that my father had discovered and pushed me to accept. It was the beginning of distancing from them that was both geographic and emotional -- and essential if I were to be my own person.
Throughout my adult life, I stayed connected to my parents, of course, exchanging visits at least twice a year that were fun in some ways and challenging in others as I navigated the path between being the daughter they could accept and love and the person I had become, who was truly outside their ken in many ways.
My parents were outstanding models for how to age responsibly, and around 2002, they decided entirely on their own to sell their home and move into assisted living. Subsequently, my mother became wheelchair bound, having blown out her knees on unyielding hospital floors. About 7 years ago she went in for shoulder surgery and came out, for inexplicable reasons, mentally diminished. Although she followed conversations and responded appropriately, she was mostly quiet. Our strong-minded mother became compliant, cooperative and easy to please.
Ironically, as her mental capacities diminished, her capacity to express love grew. We never ended a phone call or parted company without exchanging “I love you.” When I would visit, she would often silently gaze as me in wonder as if to say, “Who is this astonishing creature I brought into the world.” As she became less formidable, the emotional barriers I had erected melted away, and I could just love her without reservation. I finally got what I always yearned for -- a mother who loved me unconditionally. What a gift!
When I visited her this past January after a hospitalization, it was clear that she was ready to go. I spent a week with her, ministering to her needs, holding her hand, brushing her hair, putting moisturizer on her face, painting her fingernails. When I left, I felt complete and able to face what was coming. Somehow it comforts me to know that when she passed 10 days later, she was still wearing the topaz-colored fingernail polish I had applied.
This Mother’s Day will be a mixed blessing, as I celebrate the gift of my own daughter, mourn my mother's passing and continue to mine for the gold in my history with this admirable woman who left such an indelible imprint on my life.