Lessons From My Mom in Her Death

It’s been just over a year since my mother passed. She was one of the first few thousand victims of Covid. As I sit writing this, I cannot wrap my brain around the idea that nearly 365 days have passed since our last FaceTime call. In moments it seems like yesterday, in others it feels like a lifetime ago. We have all endured the pandemic highs and lows of this year. We have learned to love, we have gained a newfound respect for our healthcare workers, and we have watched science work at warp speed with vaccine development. My mother’s story ended here on April 7, 2020, and all of ours have continued on. 

My story with my mom wasn’t an easy one. Like many mothers and daughters, we had our struggles. But ours was complicated by her lifelong battle with mental illness. For the last decade of her life she lived here in Indiana and I was her primary caretaker. The twisted road of our relationship became more difficult to navigate. For a long time, I couldn’t remember “us” before those years began to take a toll on our relationship. My “lifers” have so many memories of my mom and they have shared the spirit of her from our childhood. Spending time looking through old pictures, I can laugh and cry and give thanks for those memories that are slowly coming back to me. Donna taught us so many things and I hope to pass them down to our kids. I am determined to take the good that was always there, even when it was really really hard for me to see, and share that with them. 

So these are my lessons from my mother to all of us:
Always be up for a party, any time, anywhere. House clean or not. I remember my mother’s last day of school and Halloween parties. Puff paint t-shirts and scary foods. Costumes and laughter. They were always over the top, the stuff of legends.
Find a community. Let them into your lives and see the ugly parts. Break bread with other women who can sit around a kitchen table long into the night. I remember the sound of my mom’s friend’s voices coming from our living room and how badly I wanted to be part of that group. Today my community is the greatest gift of my life.
Roadtrips are essential. Under prepare and overpack and bring an extra kid or two. I remember last-minute trips to visit upstate NY or bringing friends to come to Indiana to visit while I was in college. These trips were spontaneous and fueled by Diet Coke and baked potatoes from Wendy’s.
Be “the person” for not just your kids but their friends. As rambunctious teenagers, who occasionally participated in illegal activities, we always knew Donna would be a safe ride home, regardless of how much we had to drink or how late in the night it may have been.
Love your children endlessly, brutally, and without question. My mom always said she would love us “even if……”. My brother and I joke she really wanted a gay child and loved us “even if we were straight”. Donna was a mom who had no expectations of what we were to become and loved us along the entire path to our adult lives. 
In one particularly heated argument with my mom years ago, she said to me “Aileen, I love you the best way I know how.” At the time it enraged me. To me, her way wasn’t enough. But now, when life looks different and emotions aren’t as raw, my perspective has changed. She was just like me and all the other moms I know in my life. Women who are doing this work of motherhood day in and day out. Some roads are easier than others, some are healthier, some are happier, some harder and more brutal. All moms just trying to love our kids the best way we know how. 
I used to wonder what it would be like when my mom was gone. Those ideas came with feelings of guilt and grief. But now I know. In her death, the difficulties of our daily lives no longer overshadow the lessons of motherhood she had been teaching me all along.