“I promise to live every day in a way that would always have made you proud to call me Mom.”
These words haunt me. They were mine… the words I whispered to my dying child in our last moments alone, just hours before she let go. I meant them. I don’t regret them- not exactly. But they have clouded so much of what I think and do these last ten weeks (has it been that long? that short?), that I have wondered what would be different if I had never said them- if I had simply promised to remember and love her always. But that is not something I need to promise. There is no chance that I will do anything else.
Let me explain.
If you know me at all, you know that I tend to live with my heart on the outside of my body. I am an inherently empathetic person, an emotional caretaker. I think a lot about how my actions affect others, and whether the things that I do have any positive or lasting impact on the people I encounter or the space I occupy, even when I am no longer connected to them. In other words, I want to know that what I do matters. I want to do regular, everyday things that makes others’ lives better for having me in them, whether it is with my work, my family and friends, or even strangers.
I have always been a bit hard on myself when I feel like I am not living up to this standard I have set for myself. I have sometimes forgotten to take care of my own needs in favor of another’s, and, if I am completely honest, I have occasionally felt resentful about it. I have apologized for things I had no need to be sorry for. When I have failed to think positively and succumbed to my fears and anxieties, I am not always kind to myself about it. To be clear, I have never thought of myself as a martyr. I am well ware that I get a sense of self-worth from the good I try to do. And I also know I have hurt people and screwed up plenty of times. My point is more about what I do to myself in those situations. I have been “working on it” for a long time, trying to become a person who can be both empathetic and self-considerate, emotionally strong and vulnerable, a giver and a receiver…perfectly imperfect. And I was doing so much better. Really, I was! I had young daughters to set an example for. I needed to show them that compassion for others did not need to come at the expense of self-care and self-love. Yes, I was really making strides…
And then I made that promise.
Everything I do, I question. I wonder if my actions, my thoughts even, are living up to the promise I made.
Is this good?
Is this kind?
Is this positive?
Is this helpful to anyone but me?
Would Ara be proud of me right now, at this very second?
Or this one?
When I returned to work, I didn’t give myself much breathing room. I felt like I needed to pick up right where I left off, to be there for students in the same way I have always tried to be. I felt angry at myself after I told a student who wanted to talk about something that I didn’t think I was the best person for her, that perhaps she should go to her counselor. (While I always refer kids with serious situations to their counselors, I have never not listened to them first). I was certain that this was a moment in which Ara would definitely not have been proud of me. Later, I thought about how she might be proud that I considered my own emotional boundaries, and that actually, if I didn’t have what the student needed, I did what was best for her by sending her to someone who did. Surely this was a reason to feel proud of me. Right?
At home, I did my best to be there for others in my family. Several times, I found myself being a comforter – an emotional caretaker- when I could barely keep my own head up. But wouldn’t Ara be so proud? Look how selfless I am…
But then I would get frustrated with Julia, who was acting out in different ways, and had added school to the list of places she hated. One afternoon, the teacher called to let me know that other kids were asking to move seats away from Julia because of how unkind she was being. I was angry and embarrassed that my child would behave this way, no matter the reason. Quickly, my anger turned to guilt. What kind of mother is frustrated with her child when she is clearly in pain? How could I dishonor Ara’s memory like this? Where was my loyalty? I felt like I was failing all of my children.
I have even been struggling with writing. It isn’t that I have not been able to write. On the contrary, I have actually been writing a lot. I have a doc full of completed and partial posts, and ideas and resources for others. Writing is an emotional outlet, but does what I write fulfill my promise? Does writing about my experience with grief and loss mean I am “dwelling” on it or not being positive enough? If I experience joy and write about that, am I not mournful enough? Who am I writing for? Only myself, or is there good in it for others? And is it okay if there isn’t?
I found more and more that I was feeling exhausted trying “keep my word,” and I needed it all to stop.
I am so lucky to have a large and far-reaching network (networks, really) of people from whom I can get support. I love them all for loving me, and I appreciate their efforts and desire to understand, help, and support me. And yet, there are some who are unable to understand. They do well-meaning things like quote bad poetry at me, use phrases like “everything happens for a reason,” or “time heals…” Others seem to have the ability to know when I need nothing but an ear, when I need words, and most astonishingly, what those words should be.
Recently, I tried to explain to several different people how I was feeling about the promise I had made, and the fact that I felt I was dishonoring Ara every time I “broke” it, which was at least ten times a day. There are two things I heard:
“Ara would not want you to feel this way.”
“You do make her proud every day.”
Thank you, wonderful humans, for trying. Thank you for caring enough to sit and listen, and for the words I know you think will help. But they don’t. Because, of course, these things are unknowable. She isn’t here to ask. She will never be a five year-old watching me read and absorbing a love for it, or a ten year-old who needs me to stick up for her against a bully. She will never be sixteen and need a ride home from a party where there was drinking, no questions asked. She will never watch me do my job, or love her dad, or raise her sister, or have deep conversations with her brother, or share parts of myself with others. I have NO IDEA if she would be proud of me! I have no idea if she would want me to do things to make her proud. And I never will.
Enter Cynthia, my wise, wonderful friend whom I value for so many reasons, not the least of which is her honest, frank way of sharing truths. A couple of weeks ago, she and two other friends, Rachel and Jen- members of my NCCJ Anytown family- took me to the place where we have spent the last several years together, doing social justice work with young people that I know would make my daughter proud. It makes ME proud. We sat on the dock and talked, and threw “metaphorically heavy” stones into the lake. I told them about my promise and the awful burden of it. Cynthia looked at me, smiled, and said, “My love, would you ever put such an expectation on her?”
It isn’t like those words magically fixed it all. This isn’t a movie. But now, when I have a moment where I wonder if what I am doing would be something that would make Ara proud, I stop, and I ask myself that question. It’s a process, but I believe in trusting the process. I think, if I keep being me, and strive to be the best version of me that is reasonably possible, I will know in the end that I have lived a life I can feel proud of. And I think it’s is reasonable to believe that Ara would be proud of me too.