(Today is my birthday. I had a post planned in my head about this past year, which I hope to share at some point. But for now, this.)
Mother’s Day is Sunday, and I will be blessed to spend it with my own mother and my children. But beyond the mothers I will see and speak with throughout that day, I share being a mother, a sisterhood of motherhood if you will, with a diverse and motley crew of women who I love deeply. I want to tell you about two of these mothers. Both of these beautiful women have taught me and so many others beyond their own children about motherhood this year.
I don’t know of a single, encompassing word used to describe a mother whose child has died. One may exist, but possibly it is not known to me or many others because, frankly, it should have no place in our world. Upon hearing of Libby’s death this afternoon, Elijah said, “But she’s only three. Three is not a long time to live. It’s not good for parents when their children die.” (I seriously could not make this stuff up if I tried. It was like someone gave him a script for exactly the right thing to say).
My friend Amy’s daughter Freh (or Marra) died shortly after last Mother’s Day in an accident that was such a fluke it sometimes feels like it couldn’t have happened. To think that it has been almost a year since she died is amazing to me. The past 12 months have not been easy ones for me and there were very painful to live through, but for Amy and her family, I cannot guess what the time has felt like, though I know it has been excruciating.
Amy and I have never met in person. We were both stuck in adoption purgatory for several months in 2011, and Amy and I spent time over Facebook bemoaning our frustration with the U.S. Embassy and other factors keeping us from our babies. Amy traveled to Ethiopia by herself in order to effectively make sure Freh could come home. She did it because that is what you do as a mother, but Amy did it with admirable purpose, determination, and faith.
Amy’s warmth and concern for others burst through every conversation we had. In this increasingly digital and technical world, Amy’s words are always more than just what appears on the page before me-they have a life to them. She has been raw, honest, open about the struggle to come to terms with the loss of her beautiful and vivacious little girl while she still mothers her five other children.
The last time I saw Freh in person (when I went to pick Remy up in Ethiopia) her eyes were bright, her cheeks were round. Freh had her own struggle to live through to get to Amy and the rest of her forever family, but she was a child who did not outwardly show signs of this burden. I remember her sweetness and her friendliness, traits which remained ingrained in her personality until her premature death. Amy has kept Freh alive these past twelve months through videos and photos and stories. Sometimes her picture will appear on my Facebook feed and Elijah, after a glance, will ask, “Is that Remy?” The expressive eyes and the curls are similar enough to fool anyone just stopping for a quick look. Looking at these images of Freh have helped me get to know her better, which is to say that I also have to remember again each time that she died, but also how she lived, what she saw, how she experienced the world. I thank Amy for reminding me that we don’t ever stop becoming mothers to these children ever, that the ones we love continue to warm our hearts and teach us even when they are no longer with us.
The other mother I want to tell you about has been my friend many years longer than either of us have been mothers. I wrote about her a year ago, and this past year, which can only be described as a living hell, has only proved her mettle. Libby died yesterday after a courageous battle with leukemia, and her loss is fresh. I understand now what people mean, when they say that grief comes in waves-it is staggering how quickly they can come and how strong.
I only met her daughter Libby once, shortly after Remy came home. Many of our friends have chosen Richmond as the home for their family, but Barb and I have been among the expats, and Charlotte and Philly are not neighbors. Our vacations and Richmond stays rarely overlapped, but we met up with Barb and her husband Josh and Libby one morning before Thanksgiving. Libby was really into walking then and wasn’t so excited about sitting while the adults chatted. Barb and Josh took turns walking her around, letting her explore. I remember how Libby eventually came and sat on Barb’s lap for a snack. Barb pulled out a banana and caught my eye. Bananas were a running joke with regards to Barbara. She hates the smell, taste, feel of them (and would literally gag around them), a disgust we teased her about throughout school. “Do you see this?” she said as she fed the banana to her daughter. And then she commented something to the effect of, “The things we do for our children.”
This past year, Barbara has sat by Libby’s side as she endured treatments, a bone marrow transplant, the difficult-to-deal-with side effects of the drugs designed to keep Libby alive. She has become an advocate and a researcher, and she has remained a cheerleader, and a voice of optimism and unconditional love for Libby. She did it because that is what you do as a mother, but the past fifteen months, Barb has been utterly selfless, giving when she had nothing left to give, and hopeful beyond belief. I cannot begin to fathom the depths of her sorrow as Libby experienced setback after setback, as she had to spend large swaths of time away from her younger son (born less than two months before Libby was initially diagnosed with leukemia). I thank Barbara for showing me what patience, persistence, and perseverance truly look like.
I mourn the loss of Libby for my daughter, who will never have her for a pen-pal or dance buddy or playmate. I mourn the loss of Libby for myself because I am a friend of Libby’s mother and a mother myself, and I cannot imagine a greater loss than that of one of my children. I mourn the loss of Libby for Barbara for every imaginable reason, but especially because as mothers, we are fixers and no mother could fix this, no matter how hard they tried (and I can’t imagine anyone trying harder than Barb).
Honestly, I am overcome with this fresh and new grief, with the helplessness that so many of us have felt this past year as we watched those in our sisterhood of mothers suffer.
It doesn’t take the pain away, but on this Mother’s Day, I am choosing to think about how the term “mother” can mean “someone who gives origin or rise to”. My new definition includes these little girls who have gone before us: they are the mothers of memories, the creators of the experiences we shared together. They were the mothers of only a few short, but poignant moments for me, but for their own mothers (and their whole families) they created millions-giving a bottle to an adoring baby brother, snuggling with the family dog, singing the ABCs. They showed bravery, resiliency, and they made my friends the amazing, loving, tough, and vulnerable mothers that they are. It is an honor to be a mother, and I know being Freh’s and Libby’s mother is an honor, even after all this, that they would not trade for the world.
Elijah and I were talking about how when someone dies, we can still talk to them and how I believe that they send us messages from heaven to make us happy, like when we see a really beautiful rainbow. He asked to be excused from dinner, and then he drew this picture. I can’t even.