I’m going to come right out and say it – Mothers Day is not my favorite holiday. It has absolutely nothing to do with the holiday itself, and I don’t resent anyone else enjoying it. It’s just hard for me. Sorry, Mothers’ Day, it’s not you, it’s me and my insanely powerful memory.
I remember the birth dates of most of my fifth grade classmates. Don’t ask me why; I don’t know. They just stick. I call it the Ken Jennings gene, and I’ve got it bad. I remember the frosted glass pattern of the shade on the overhead light in my childhood bedroom. I remember my childhood toys so well I was able to find them all on eBay. I remember so many things I don’t need to remember, Consequently, I remember many things I would rather forget.
Ten years ago yesterday was my first Mother’s Day – May 11, 2003. Honestly, it sucked. We were in Los Angeles on the eve of Liam’s first open heart surgery, and he screamed All. Day. Long. He was hungry but could not be fed because his kidneys, liver, and heart were failing. I refused to leave his side because I knew he might not be alive the next day.
Something about Mother’s Day and that being my first one always makes me ambivalent about this day. My heart still aches from the echos of Liam’s screams and how it felt to photograph his unmarked chest knowing that the next morning it would be cut wide open. I didn’t know it would stay open for days because his heart would swell too large to fit inside his rib cage. I had no idea what I was getting into when I became a mom. I didn’t know a lot of things when I was barely 29 years old.
Ten years ago today my two-week-old baby had his first open-heart surgery, and it happened eleven days later than it should have happened, making a very sick baby. If you read Heart Warriors, you know exactly one decade ago today Dr. Starnes told us there was a 20% chance of losing Liam to surgery before it was over but a 100% chance of losing him that week without it. Some things you never, ever forget.
Some events leave an indelible stain on the brain in the form of a memory that no amount of time will erase. Some corners of our brains are like little rooms in a museum, perfectly preserved, as if we could just walk right into the past and live it all over again. This is one of those memories for me, and the room is a cardiac intensive care unit. Today was a day that time stood still, and a part of my heart is in permanent suspended animation. It was a beat I missed, a breath I held; it was a moment stained by the chemical reaction of the most visceral hope and fear that developed like a photograph into my soul.
Liam was on the edge of death ten years ago today, but he turned ten years old two weeks ago today. The cruel irony and the root of ambivalence for those of us who are lucky enough to wear the mental scars of great risk is that they still hurt. I am so grateful to have my son and my daughter. I am so grateful that I’ve been a mother for a decade. I am not remotely ungrateful, but it was also not an easy road, and it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.
Days like today rub the scars of my memory inflaming questions. . . remember when? Remember when you were a brand new mom? Remember your first Mother’s Day? I would rather not. Yet, I cannot help myself. I remember every person who attended my sixth birthday party and the one girl from my class who didn’t (her name was Rebecca, she had long blonde hair, and she was a Jehovah’s Witness), so I’m unlikely to forget the first time my son met a bone saw. For three years I have forgotten that April 5th was Liam’s Fontan. It wasn’t the same for me as his May 12, 2003 Norwood/DKS or his April 12th, 2006 brush with death. He’s been through so much that not every day burns like the 12th of April or the 12th of May. I’m not morose every day. I just have certain memories that knock the wind out of me, and this is one of them.
I know this holiday is hard for all those whose mothers have left this earth, and it is an excruciating day for all those mothers whose children have left this earth. I know that in the scheme of things, rational people whose memories are less powerful than mine probably can’t understand and would tell me to let it go. (Please don’t tell me to let it go; it’s not helpful because I don’t have that power). I really would prefer Mothers Day to be easy for me, but I remember Heather, Heather, Ruby, Dawn, Erin, Mike, Brandy, and Stacy’s birthdays (Oct. 13, July 2, July 2, Dec 1, Dec. 22, Feb 19, July 6, and Dec. 15). I remember the birthdays of people I’ve not seen in twenty-five years, how could I ever forget my first Mother’s Day? Damn that Ken Jennings gene.
In the paradox that is my life, earlier today Liam accidentally pinched his baby cousin’s fingers with a chair and was devastated by injuring one of his favorite people. I held Liam and rubbed his head, just like I did on our first Mothers’ Day. I held him, even though he’s so terribly big, and I stroked and patted his back. Magically, I was able to make it better. This is the magical part of being a mom. That magic is what Mothers Day is supposed to be about, so maybe that’s why it’s so hard for me. On my first Mothers Day I lacked that magic entirely, without so much as a spark. No matter how hard I tried, I could not comfort my starving baby or sooth his relentless sobs. The next day, ten years to this very day, I couldn’t hold him, couldn’t even touch him as he hovered between life and death in a medically induced coma. My first Mothers Day was a lonely exhibition of my own futility and despair.
Maybe Mothers Day still hurts because it always reminds me of how powerless I was at the dawn of my motherhood and how tenuous it has been from the start. Maybe, because it was brutally real at the beginning, today feels almost too good to be true. It’s like a dream, to sit here with my children playing games, close enough to hear, to smell, to touch. It’s like a dream to have the power to comfort them. Even after ten years, it seems like a twisted miracle to have the full powers of motherhood only now when things are good when I had not an ounce of this magic when I needed it the most. Maybe my magic was all in my arms in the strength it took to hold on to that child and the even greater strength it cost me to hand him over. Maybe that’s where I spent all my power and magic ten years ago. Maybe I was a magical mother even then, but you know what? It still hurts.