Not a “Smile and Wave” Kind of Mom
As I dropped my son, Banyan, off for school, I saw a father selling Scrip for a fundraiser. When I left the building, I saw two volunteer mothers doing their work in the office area. I stopped to hug friends that were going on the school field trip before making my way back to the father sitting outside at the table. I donated money, doing the “good parent” thing, supporting my son’s school and education.
I got into my car and began the journey through town. I didn’t make it to the first intersection before I began to sob uncontrollably. It’s as if reality and destiny crossed circuits, showing me my life.
There I was, a mom with no interest in being a volunteer parent. At school, the kids sit nicely tucked into classrooms, all in a row, facing their teachers, lunch pails hanging on hooks outside the door. Their friends are warmly present, their laundered clothing and their blessed smiles hold such innocence.
Not me. I was headed for the hospital to sit beside dying people.
How do I explain the emotion of being “that mom”? The one who drives away from the school PTA to go work with the suffering, the forgotten, the ones sitting alone in hospital rooms facing the inevitable unfolding of life’s end.
How had I arrived here? Why couldn’t I be happy making lists of which kids had life jackets and which didn’t? Why couldn’t I volunteer to help kids read or do art or music?
How I wish I were that mom.
How many times have I faced this emotion of not wanting to be the one who has my particular destiny? How many times have I asked, “Why me?” Not like a victim, but an inquiry into how one gets chosen to walk certain roads. I hit my fists on the steering wheel screaming at the path that lead my car away from the school towards that cold, stark hospital.
While I don’t believe there are vast differences between my heart and the hearts of volunteer mothers, I recognize that I’m a different sort of woman due to my life’s undertakings.
I am the woman who was raised an orphan.
I am the woman who put her father in jail.
I am the woman who accidentally hit her son with her car, holding him as he took his last breaths.
I am the woman who fell off a 150-foot cliff standing at death’s door.
I am also the woman who was asked to surrender the greatest of innocence by going through the unbearable rites of passage of life not being predictable, stable or soft.
I have made medicine of my journey – medicine not useful to a classroom or a table of life jackets. I am one who dances edges and breaks the rules of what we feel we endure. I know deep pain and the strongest surges of emotions. I have tasted the gifts of anguish.
What can I offer a classroom of fourth graders?
I have an answer, but it doesn’t fit the desires of our educational system. Nor does it fit with families who’ve had the gift of escaping life’s fires.
In my car I go. I’m off to the place where sick people face inevitable moments of life not going as they predicted. As their bodies acquiesce to dying, I hold their hands, reminding them of the doorways that open between this reality and other dimensions.
These are my people. Not my only people, but they hold the understanding I need to feel normalized. They teach me that life exists outside of what we want; that the rules are imaginary and there are no guarantees. Ever. They show me how to wake up, live fully, open my eyes to exquisite beauty, and appreciate my health. They teach me kindness, patience, and of how to spread love.
At night when all is said and done, I don’t pick up a fiction novel or feel the satisfaction of helping at school. Instead, I write the intensity of my realizations and read books like Die Wise by Stephen Jenkinson and The Smell of Rain on Dust by Martine Prechtel.
This is my path.
I hold hands with those who dance between veils and sit with unimaginable losses. I untangle the webs we’ve woven into our psyche that keep us stuck. My place is to be with deep divers, seekers of tragic beauty, ones who cross thresholds from steadiness to surrender of all they once held dear.
I bow to the PTA parents and all they do for our children. Without them, the quality of education is sacrificed; the rest of us can’t go do what we must. Without them, teachers are too overwhelmed and the kids spend their day missing the warmth of parenting that comes with the care they bring.
Today was my son Koa’s birthday. He would’ve been seven had he stayed. I try to imagine what he’d be like, but all I see is a squatty three and a half year old smiling with eyes that shine like a morning star.
A piece of me will always be six foot under lying next to those young bones. I know my heart will always be broken. I will forever be devastated that I couldn’t make a cake or buy him a bike and helmet with flames coming off the side. I know that I’ll live latent with sadness every birthday that he isn’t here to tickle or to tell him how he’s grown. I may always be angry that I’m a mother to an angel and not a thriving boy sitting in those classrooms getting helped by those volunteer parents I speak of.
I’m learning to live alongside this loss. This year, I’ll find more ways to take the deep cavern in my heart and fill it with the stories of others who need help. He is gone. He is not seven. He never will be seven.
I am here. I choose life.