I received a Mother's Day card, filled with childlike prose, colorful illustrations and glittery hearts. The cover's message, in a playful purple font: "FOR YOU, MOM."
For kissing my boo-boos, for wiping my face,
For calming my fears with your loving embrace
This card was not from my daughter—a disconcerting fact, but not entirely surprising either.
For putting your foot down and just saying NO!
For dealing with tantrums and back talk and pranks,
What more can I say but …
"I LOVE YOU" and "THANKS!"
A smiling mother was hugging a grateful child. The card was signed "Mom." It was from my 91-year-old mother. Never before had it been more evident that our roles had completely reversed. Had she noticed the irony when she purchased the card? Did it even matter?
"On Mother's Day and the rest of the year," her shaky script read. "Thanks."
My mother once told me that you're a child until your mother dies. She announced this upon hearing the news that her octogenarian mother had "passed away" from "natural causes" in a nursing home.
I was a child until my mother sent me this Mother's Day card. She was my child now. A role that no child wants or chooses, yet most of us inherit as our parents age—especially now that they are living longer.
The metamorphosis happens gradually: You reluctantly go to one doctor's visit, and eventually you're privy to more about your parent's bodily functions—or malfunctions—than you could have ever imagined. Whereas your parents used to give you an allowance, now your mother is asking you if she can take a couple of hundred dollars out of the bank. It begins with both sides resistant, often angry, overburdened and full of guilt. No one has prepared you. Or maybe you knew it all along, but refused to anticipate it.
"Something's happened," my mother commented a year before she sent me the Mother's Day card. "You've become my parent."
I didn't want to. I had to. I didn't know how to. I made mistakes. I shed plenty of tears. I tried my best.
Years ago, I was visiting my mother in her condo in Florida. Exhausted from watching over my tireless daughter all day long at the beach, I lay down on the living room couch. Before my eyes closed for a much-needed nap, my mother covered me with a blanket. She was never an earth mother—she'd grown up in an orphanage when her mother couldn't afford to keep her at home during the Great Depression; she needed a mother more than she needed to mother any of her three children. Yet this small, nurturing gesture—simply tucking me in—has lingered in my mind for a decade. It may have been idiosyncratic, but I felt cozy and safe.
I covered my mother with blankets when she lay in a hospital bed in the bedroom she shared with my father for 49 years. I covered her feet with white athletic socks because she was always cold. I covered her hands with mittens so she wouldn't scratch herself from the involuntary, jerky movements caused by Lewy body dementia, the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer's. I had already taken away her car keys, paid her bills when she could no longer write checks and would sign a do-not-resuscitate directive when she went into hospice care.
"The worst thing you ever did to me," she often reprimanded, "was to take away my car keys and my golf clubs."
"I didn't take away your golf clubs," I corrected her, trying not to feel stung. I reminded her that she'd given them to her granddaughter after one last trip to the course when she couldn't remember how to hit the ball … after a lifetime of winning golf trophies.
"Maybe not," she said, "but you sold my car."
Guilty as charged. Mothers have to inflict tough love sometimes.
When my daughter was born—technically my first Mother's Day—I was in the recovery room after 36 hours of labor. It was a frigid February morning, and I'd spent much of my labor looking out a hospital window onto a frozen East River. Now I looked up to see my mother, holding a tray of brownies.
Surprise! She'd flown up from Florida, even though she was terrified of flying—just to hold her eighth and last grandchild, and feed me brownies. The brownies were a "secret" recipe from the man she lived with after my father died. She wasn't supposed to share the recipe with anyone (instructions from his daughter, who hoped to publish a cookbook one day), but she surreptitiously gave me the coveted index card with top secret measurements for flour, sugar, butter, chocolate. To this day, I have never confessed to other family members that Mom gave me that treasured recipe everyone had begged for but was denied.
Unable to eat brownies yet, I rested the tinfoil-wrapped gift on my abdomen, inside of which my daughter had nested for nine months, while Mom held my six-pound newborn. Within hours, she was back at the airport, returning home on the very same afternoon.
"I like to fly while it's light out," she said, kissing me goodbye. "That way, the pilot can see better."
I knew she'd conquered something excruciatingly difficult, overcoming her phobia just to acknowledge the miracle of another family birth. Whenever I shied away from any apprehension in my youth, she used to tell me, "It's good for you to do something difficult."
Giving birth was difficult. Caring for my mother in her failing years was extremely difficult. No longer having anyone to cover me with a blanket is heartbreakingly difficult. But making brownies is easy. I have the recipe.