Growing up, I didn’t really look like anyone in my family. Adults would study me and proclaim that I must have come from the Milk Man. When I was mad at my family, for whatever reason, I’d use this as a tool to feel sorry for myself, casting myself as the outsider.
There was, however, no denying that I had my mother’s hands.
My three sisters had long, beautiful fingers like our father’s. I, on the other hand (literally) had my mother’s short, stubby ones. Back then I refused to see the resemblance. I was afraid that if I looked like my mother I would act like her too.
My mother was part traditional/part tyrannical, at least to my child’s eye. She cooked, she cleaned, she baked chocolate chip cookies. But buried deep in the pockets of her apron there was a sadness, an insecurity and a loneliness so extreme it manifested in many ways. She was easy to anger, hard to please and in need of a lot of attention.
As a little girl I was always trying to please her and be her favorite, even if it meant tattling on one of my sisters. I needed to be deemed the “good” daughter. As a teenager I rebelled. I wanted my mother to know how much she’d disappointed me. As an adult, I craved her time and attention; a lunch out, a day of shopping, a visit to my house for a coffee chat. But my mother flatly exclaimed she preferred to stay home.
Years after I was married, I was able to bury the need for my mother. I focused on my own family instead, and pretended it was enough.
But one day she was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.
As if on impact, the walls to the fortress I had built around myself caved in. All of a sudden it wasn’t about me any more. I wasn’t concerned with how she had made me feel once upon a time, the only thing I cared about was how she felt, and how to get her through this.
I began calling every day to see how she was. There wasn’t much to talk about other than her illness, but I was happy just to hear her voice. I’d visit, not expecting anything from her other than to be near. I didn’t judge what she said or did because what would be the point, with so little time left? If she mentioned needing something (like money for the outrageously expensive pills which allowed her to digest a meal) I offered it willingly, desperate to see her feel better.
It felt good just to “do” for her.
A couple days before she died, as I was pushing my mother in her wheelchair, I got up the nerve to tell her that I loved her and that I loved spending time with her. This felt very intimate to me, thereby unfamiliar. After all, my standard share was a peck on the cheek and a distracted “love you.”
When my mother sweetly replied, in an unguarded voice lightly laced with morphine, “You can see me any time you want,” I realized that I always could have. Maybe she wasn’t there for me in exactly the way I had wished, but my mother had always been there for me.
We put her in hospice that day. As I helped care for her, I held her hands in mine and realized how dear those hands were to me. Today, I look at my own, mirrors of my mother’s and I thank God for giving me these hands. They are the truest thing I have of hers.