How my mother taught me to love
I have a cupboard in my mind where I keep a collection of images from my life, and the lingering feelings that go with them. Every Mother’s Day, there is one I must take out and look at. It was the moment when everything changed – the day I learned something about love that I shall never forget.
It is an Autumn day in 1993. My mother is standing by her car, waiting, watching the airport bus drive away, carrying me back home to Chicago and away from her. This day, even the bus driver notices how she lingers.
On this day, my mother is a 77 year-old, semi-retired Houston psychiatrist, widowed just two years. She has advanced breast cancer, now metastasized throughout her bones. She wears an electronic pump that infuses continuous chemotherapy treatment into her bloodstream through a catheter and a tiny tube. Even with daily doses of morphine she’s in a lot of pain. And she’s still hopeful. This is a woman who has given to hundreds of people in her life, not the least of whom was her only child.
I have not always able (or willing) to give back. For 25 years, I have withheld. I’ve been unable to sing and play my songs for her. I have consistently cut her off when she’s tried to share her faith and spiritual experience. And somehow, since I left Houston for college in the 70s, I have simply forgotten to share with her what’s going on in my life. But on this trip, something changed.
Just days before my flight back to Chicago, while we waited to see her doctor at the pain clinic, she longed out loud, “I hope someday I’ll be able to take a bubble bath again.” The invasive techniques used to treat her cancer and her pain made tub baths very difficult. And oh, how she once loved her baths! In that moment, I felt tremendous compassion for her and thought about how much I take for granted. From my heart, I responded that, while I was there to help her, she might want to take a bubble bath. To myself I thought, “I can do that much.”
On my last night in town, she was willing to try. I was her chef and her server for this delicious nourishing dessert. I poured bubbles into the tub and drew the water nice and warm. I rigged a hook on the towel rack to keep her chemo pump high and dry. I helped her clear the side of the tub and settle into the warm foamy water. She sat down easily. Just as I was about to leave the room to give her a few moments of privacy, she asked me to soap her back.
I closed my eyes and took a breath; I was not prepared for this. Once again I was confronted with my resistance. My mother was asking me for comfort, and for whatever ancient, irrelevant reasons, Yes still did not come easily. When I opened my eyes, everything changed. Suddenly, this was not my mother who was asking. This fragile, scarred, naked woman who needed comfort was not the woman who had overprotected me, nor the woman who had clung for life to the simplest of my joys. This was a weary, young girl seeking a moment of tender mercy in her frightening world. It was the moment in my life that we all must face if we are fortunate enough to have our parents long enough, when roles reverse and children have the chance to give back. It was the moment I came to Yes.
I knelt down beside the tub and soaped up the washcloth. I tenderly rubbed her back, taking care to avoid the front of her right shoulder where the I-V tube entered her body. “Oh, that feels so good,” she exhaled quietly. Again, sweetly, “Oooooh, that feels so good.” I was surprised at the tears that welled up in my eyes as I gently scrubbed her fragile skin. At that moment, I knew in my own body how long it had been since she had received that kind of tenderness. I also knew that that was exactly where I wanted to be and exactly what I wanted to be doing.
And that’s when I felt the love come up in me, flesh of her flesh now weak and faltering. To love her in this way was to love myself. I was aware of the magnitude of this gift – even less for her than for me. After years of feeling just a bit selfish and spoiled, I had a glimmer that I might have it in me after all – the willingness just to give for the joy of it – a deep, quiet kind of joy, like taking a really deep breath.
All this flooded through me as I watched her finally turn and get into her car. I knew that there is much I do not know about love. That day prepared me for the last six months of her life, when I decided to return to Houston to live with her as she was dying. Always strong and independent, she couldn’t be strong anymore. As she grew to need me during those months, she finally, grudgingly began to let me to give to her.
This was the closest I had every come to the love I’ve heard mothers say they have for their children. It was the best gift she ever gave me – discovering within myself the depth of love I have to give. And finally, at 12:00 Noon on May 1, my mother let go of her weary body.
Every year at Mother’s Day, I take out this picture once again. I still see her standing in that parking lot growing smaller and smaller as I am carried away. I still tear up at the thought of it. I still miss her. And I ask myself, “What if my main ambition in this life was to learn all there is to learn about love? Now that would be a life. How full a cupboard that would be!
What does this have to do with creativity? I like the way Mozart said it best: “The soul of creativity is love, love, love.” The greater the capacity of our hearts to love, the greater our capacity to create. And that is one thing mothers know best.