Originally published May 2015
Last month, my mom and I were flying to an event where I was speaking. As I told her about some exciting things happening with Momastery, Together Rising, and my book—she seemed quieter than usual. I asked her what was wrong and her eyes got watery. She said, Oh, it’s nothing, honey. It’s silly. What? I said. Her voice quivered as she said, Oh, it’s just that you and your sister are doing such world-changing, important work. I’m so proud of you. Sometimes I wish I’d done something important, something world-changing—so you two could be as proud of me as I am of you. So that when you introduced to me to the crowds you speak to, you could say, I’d like to introduce you to my mom, she wrote this book or started this company or something important like that. I don’t know.
I was stunned. And so I held her hand but I did not know what to say.
I know what to say now.
Mama. You never taught me to care about the crowd, so let’s forget about them for a moment. Instead, please allow me to re-introduce you to yourself.
There you are, Mama. Top row, there in the middle. You were born to Alice, a nurse and William, a surgeon. You were the second in a line of seven children. You shared your home (and one shower) with five sisters and two brothers. You were the caretaker and resident goody-goody. You rebelled by hiding in the closet to practice conjugating Spanish verbs in peace. Aunt Rosie told me: “I looked up to Patti. I was in awe of Patti. She always made me feel safe, wanted and loved. I could depend on her. She was fun, a bit mischievous, a bit daring. But mostly she was very responsible. Patti was and still is my rock. My go-to person. I trust her completely. She is full of generosity, love, tenderness, and wisdom.”
You went off to high school and were wildly popular, the head cheerleader and homecoming queen. But what people in your neighborhood remember of you is not your crown but your kindness. I found your old neighbor, Jane. Jane lived across from you on Sixth Street. She told me: “What made Patti so special as a teenager was that she was so pretty that she didn’t really have to be nice—she could have just gotten by on her looks. But she was more than just pretty. I always felt that she not only acknowledged my presence, but really saw that I was there. She always said hello and really waited to hear the answer that came back. It made me feel good.”
After college, you decided to leave your small Ohio town and set off on your own. You moved to Virginia and became a Spanish teacher and then a guidance counselor. You cared for every student as if she were your own. Remember Cindy, mama? Cindy comes to every event of mine within thirty miles of her home, because of you. Cindy told me, “Your mom listened with her eyes. I could look at her as I would pour my emotions and know she was there WITH me in THAT moment. That was love. That love makes me cry as I sit here thinking about that time in my life with my injured heart. That was her gift for all of us students in a hard place.”
You met my dad at the school where you were both teaching. He was the football coach. I’d give all the money in my account for a chance to witness the moment you met.
You’ve been married for 42 years now, Mom. I was driving dad’s truck the other day and I found your high school picture taped inside his sun visor. When I asked him about it, Dad said: “Her face reminds me not to lose my cool. To be kind. Having her close makes me better.” Yes, I know what you mean, I said.
I took this pic driving away from you two the other day. My babies were in the car. Remember? And we were all watching you and thinking: Huh. That must be what marriage looks like after forty years.
You and dad had two baby girls, Sister and me. You gave us yourself and then you gave us each other. You gave me my baby sister, Mama. It was just the four of us. Dad and his girls. Nothing else mattered. We were a team, even when—especially when—things got hard.
We’ve had lots of hard times, haven’t we, Mama? Remember when I was still drinking and I was so sick, and Craig and I came and told you that I was pregnant? Remember how afraid you were for us? Do you remember the first thing you said to us, Mom? You looked me right in the eye and after everything my addiction had put our family through you said: Glennon, you don’t have to marry him. We can raise this baby together. I was stunned by your immediate courage. You are never too tired to love me, Mom. And you are never too afraid to believe in me. Craig and I did get married and I did get sober but you kept your promise anyway. We are raising these babies together after all, aren’t we, Mama? Craig, me and you?
Remember when Sister told us she was moving to Rwanda to help save those little girls? And remember how every bone in your body was screaming NO and how you wished you’d never taught her to be so brave or care so much? Do you remember what you said? I do. You said: Go, honey. Do what you need to do. And remember how every night between the time you gave your blessing and the time she left, you knitted her that beautiful blanket—all purples and greens—your fingers furiously moving, night after night, so she’d have a reminder that even an ocean between you couldn’t stop you from loving her?
And then this past year, Mama. This year your best friend, your mama, died. And you took her hand and even though both of you were shaking, you walked her home. They told you to hire a crew but you and your sisters and brothers said: No thank you. We will learn this. She cared for us and changed us and dressed us and prayed with us and rocked us to sleep and now it’s our turn. Our mother helped us live and we will help her die. And so you moved back to Ohio and you and your brothers and sisters spent months sleeping on the floor next to her bed. Waking five times a night to shift her body, giving her medicine for her pain, bathing her, curling her hair each morning, dressing her and picking out her jewelry with such great love, as if each morning she was preparing to meet the queen. For almost six months you left Alice Flaherty only once, to fly to Sister and meet your fifth grandchild—Alice Flaherty—because life goes on, even when life ends. And you held your granddaughter Alice and remembered that when your work with Alice was done, another Alice would be waiting. Because your work is never done, Mama. We need you so much. All the time, every day. We thought we’d need you less as we got older but we need you more.
And when Grandma died, your grief was so deep and so relentless that it scared me, Mama. What I learned watching you grieve for Grandma—watching the Steady One shake is: You are just human. I couldn’t believe it, Mom. I think this is the moment a woman truly appreciates her mother for the first time—when she watches Her Rock cry and she suddenly understands: this woman has loved us this fiercely, this steadily, this completely all of these decades—and she is only a human being? Is that, then—what is also expected of me?
Yes, you said. In your grief and with all your humanness you gave Grandma’s eulogy. You stood up at her service and you told the story and the legacy of your best friend. You did her justice, Mama. You were so brave and tender and beautiful. You stood tall and strong and your voice did not waver and you honored her. You told us with your posture, your voice, your presence: Daughters, Our love must be greater than our grief. Sister and I sat in the pew holding hands and we understood, Mama. Nothing, not fear, not fatigue, not deep, deep despair can keep us from showing up for our people. Love often means doing the hardest thing, the impossible thing. We understand. There is always something more important than your feelings, and that is your family.
And then two months later you were here, in Florida, with me, trying to heal and recover when you got the call that Aunt Debi found a lump, and that it was cancer. You must have been so afraid and so tired. But you did not consult your exhaustion or your pain or your fear. You just started packing. I watched you pack, Mama. And as you zipped up your suitcase once again I learned that Sisters answer the phone and then they start packing. You went to Debi and you sat by her bed. You changed her bandages and you cried and laughed with her—and so Debi was afraid and she was in pain but she was not alone in her fear and pain. Her sister was by her side.
Debi said: “To me, Patti is the matriarch of our family. She shared my tears, she shared my fears but she would comfort me and tell me we would get through this. She was by my side ready to help me with whatever I needed done. She got up with me at least 3 times during the night, prepared and cooked meals, drove me to my doctor’s appointments. I can’t thank her enough, but the times I do, it is with my whole heart, which is filled with joy because of my sister, Patti.”
Do you think I will forget watching you pack and go? And as a result: do you think I will ever, for one second leave Sister alone? Your youngest daughter will never be alone, mama. Because I will answer the phone when she calls and then I will start packing. I understand, Mama.
And then you came back to Florida and spent this past winter with us. Remember when we were trying to decide how to help you heal and I asked you what your dream would be? A cruise around the world? A trip to Paris? You said: “I don’t have a single dream other than being with you. I don’t want to see the world, I just want to be with my grand babies. You guys are my world. Being with you is what I need to heal.” And so you came and you were with my babies every single day and it was the best winter we’ve ever had. I watched them with you for months. Do you remember what you kept saying to Amma each night as you taught her to knit? I was listening from the dining room, Mom, and you were saying: “Just try honey. Don’t worry at all. If you mess up we will fix it together and begin again.”
That’s why I’m out there taking risks, Mama. Because you taught me that if I fail, so what? I can come home to you and you will look at me and your eyes will always say: You are my dream come true. Who cares what else you are? Who cares?
Were you afraid, for a moment on the plane that day, that you’d been so busy loving your people that you forgot to do something important?
Because what I’ve learned from you is that there isn’t a damn thing more important than loving your people.
Do you wish you’d written a book? A book? Mama, your love has written the entire world of our family into existence. The characters in your story are bold and brave because your love made them that way. Our plot line is love and courage and hope and steadfastness. Our family is a beautiful story, Mama—and the hero of our story is you. You are the hero. You are the one. You created this family and you watch over it and tend to it and delight in it and you are the closest I’ve ever come to seeing God, Mama.
And so Sister and I will take care of each other forever. When the phone rings, we’ll answer it, and we’ll start packing. We will sleep on the floor and we will pick out jewelry and we will walk our people home. We will sit with our grand babies and we will teach them everything we know. Everything we know is what you taught us. We’ll give the eulogies, Mama. Even if we’re shaking, we’ll give the eulogies.
And we will always remember that the most world-changing work we can do is this: We can live in a way so that our children will be able to say, Not one moment of my life did I wonder if I was adored. Never, ever did I feel alone. And they will pass it on. They will answer the phone. They will start packing. They will know that when your people are hurting, you go. You show up. Again and again forever. That is family. That is love. That is your legacy. Your legacy is that none of your people will be alone. Not ever. Because you made that rule for us, and then you lived it. We just don’t know any different.
Well done, Mom. The story you wrote is my favorite of all time. A better story simply doesn’t exist.
Happy Heroes Day, Mama.
If you have a warrior woman in your life who has shown up to mother you, please tell us about her in the comments. And please also consider making a donation in her honor to support The Compassion Collective’s Mother’s Day goal of mothering the many children who are without such a mother, aunt, or sister. We’ve already raised over a million dollars to care for refugees, and, since expanding out mission to care for homeless youth in the United States, we have only $11,342 left to raise before meeting our goal of raising a total of $2,000,000 together.
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