Piece of my heart

With my mom at the Glen Alps Viewpoint

I love my mom. She’s awesome. I remember growing up that there were a group of little old ladies in the church for whom she regularly did acts of kindness. She’d bake several loaves of sweet breads, wrap them up in plastic wrap and ribbon, load my brother and I into the car and we’d drive around town visiting and making deliveries. We’d deliver homemade woven paper heart baskets of flowers on May Day. My mom’s not perfect – who is? But I’ve always known she loved and supported me, and that didn’t change when I came out.

If that was all Mother’s Day meant to me, honoring and celebrating my wonderful mom, and the other great mothers in my life, this holiday wouldn’t be so hard.

Instead, walking into Costco this week seeing men buying flowers, listening to the radio advertising how to celebrate the mom in your life … it all reminds me that as much as I long to be a mother, a partner, part of a family, that at this point in my life, I’m not. Period. It brings to the surface the pain of broken relationships. Unsuccessful pregnancy attempts. Not being pregnant when everyone else seems to be. Disappointment. Loss.

I find some comfort in knowing it isn’t just me who has a difficult time with this holiday. We don’t all have healthy, loving relationships with our mothers, especially in the GLBT community. There are many of us who long to be mothers, who aren’t – gay, straight, or otherwise.  I was grateful recently to come across this article in Huffington Post article by Tracey Cleantis about what NOT to say to women who are childless but not by choice.

And then there are the women (and men) I walk with regularly at the hospital. Those who have known what it is to be a mother, but not for long enough. Whether it was for a few short days or weeks in the NICU or for years before a tragic accident or act of violence or culmination of a disease process, it is never long enough. I’ve listened to their pain at not knowing how to answer when a well-meaning stranger asks how many children they have. I’ve sat bedside as tears and stories and love flowed. And I’ve been present at memorial services where my heart bursts open at just how much love a too short life can inspire.

One mother recently asked me to write about her daughter who died, saying that she’s “always curious about how others see her journey, here and in heaven.” What strikes me most about Lauren is that while she never talked or walked or fed herself, she has moved the world. She has opened the hearts of strangers. She has inspired her family to make a difference, as they raise money and awareness for Hope Community Resources (an organization providing services and support to individuals and families experiencing disabilities). It is amazing to me how her life, as short and as limited in some ways as it was, will touch and make a difference for far more people than most of us ever will.

But most of all, I see the difference she’s made in her mother, how this too short time of learning to love and care for Lauren, with all the pain and struggle that involved, also deeply stretched her mother’s heart and transformed her into someone new. I don’t know her well enough to know exactly what that means, but I suspect that it has to do with grief and determination,  discovering you can do far more than you thought you could and that you can love more deeply than you’d imagined. As someone who does believe that there is more than this life, I wonder, as I’m sure her mother does, what Lauren thinks. What she loves. What makes her smile now.

The reality of life is that as inspirational as Lauren’s story is, it is also, still, a story threaded with grief. The love she has inspired, the struggle of her life, the pain of her loss … all of these are parts of her story.

One of the books that is sustaining me right now is called The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo, a cancer survivor. He offers this, what has surprised him in his pain: “that life is not fair, but unending in its capacity to change us; that compassion is fair and feeling is just; and that we are not responsible for all that befalls us, only for how we receive it and for how we hold each other up along the way.”

It was good for my soul to be reminded of the history of Mother’s Day. Despite popular belief, it was not founded by Hallmark… instead, it began as a peace protest in 1870 by Julia Ward Howe. Sick of seeing mothers lose their sons to war, she proclaimed

“Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.”

Another mother, Stephanie Cole, who has been inspired by the loss of her daughter Madeline to create a supportive and compassionate community for those affected by the loss of a child  writes

“I remember how I felt that first Mother’s Day, when everyone else was off celebrating while I stayed in bed to cry alone and then later when my husband and I hiked through the woods to a little meadow where we planted five saplings for Madeline, thanking her for making me a mother. I had felt like such an outcast at the time, but now I look back and am struck by the fact that I was the one celebrating the true nature of Mother’s Day. It is not about going out to brunch, it is about honoring the entire experience of motherhood.”

So how will I spend Mother’s Day? I bought myself tulips. I’ll go for a long run. I’ll call my mom. I’ll write. And Monday will be a new day. My heart will continue to stretch and love and grow, and with any luck, during those times that grief or loss or disappointment feel too great to bear alone, I’ll reach out and let others help hold me up, as I continue to do the same.

About the author: Susan is a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, serving as a hospital chaplain, and has mostly gotten used to being the “lesbian poster child” in her church. She finds the Sacred all kinds of places — in the mountains, in church, at a hospital bedside, in the midst of a heartfelt conversation, running along the coastal trail, in music that makes her cry and stories that make her laugh.

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