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An Unwell Mother's Day

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It's that time of year again -- when brunch reservations are as competitively sought as Olympic medals, and young children learn the fine art of balancing a tray with a glass of orange juice, a single carnation, and an undercooked pancake while walking up a flight of stairs. On the days leading up to Mother's Day, there are flurries of moving tributes to mothers who continue to emotionally anchor their children's lives and memorials to those gone too soon. Reading these pieces has always been a little like taking a walk on a cold, winter's day and turning to catch a glimpse, through a partially fogged window, of a family warming itself in front of a fireplace. That is because my mother is alive, but unwell.

While unwell means different things to different folks, for me, it means a Molotov cocktail of mental illnesses, physical disabilities and prescription medications, shaken, stirred and served chilled for nearing on 30 years. Though the ratio in the recipe might change from year to year, the ingredients are always the same. While details are unnecessary, suffice it to say that the moment some children are awed by later in life -- when role reversal firmly sets in and the parent becomes the child -- happened at an unusually early age for my brother and me.

Even before I had children, Mother's Day presented a challenge for me. The simultaneous presence and absence of a mother is a dull but persistent ache that is ironically and chronically prodded on this particular day. I wondered when I became a mother if my own children would suddenly take up all of the space in my heart, hanging a "no vacancy" sign that would ward off any remaining absence I felt. Of course, anyone with children knows they only make you think more about your own parents and your relationships with them.

I've wished I was strong enough to ignore it altogether. To simply enjoy my own children, the school-made trinkets lovingly crafted by little hands, my glass of orange juice. But as with any bruise, even when you look away, you can still feel your blood pump, somehow stronger than anyplace else on your body, under its surface. With eyes averted, you can sense the web of the ache radiating -- even if it's just a few short inches -- from that tender spot.

And so I hug my children on that day. But I wonder if one day they will be strong enough to exist without my hugs, just as I am strong enough to exist without hers.

And I read to and sing with them on that day. But I put off speaking to my mother as long as possible, because I worry about the words that might seep through the phone and be overheard by little ears.

And I watch them on that day, wondering what sort of women, even mothers, they will grow to be. But I shudder at the nagging fear of what would have happened if, by different chance and choice, I had grown to be like mine.

For years, I refused to talk to anyone outside of my family about any of it. The facts or the fears. Sweeping it all under the rug had worked just fine. But once you have children, they move into your house. They sit and play on your rugs. They feel every single bump, every long-ignored speck, underneath. Children feel everything. And so for their sake -- and maybe even a little for my own -- I slowly peel back a corner of the rug. I tell my closest allies that things might be harder for me on Mother's Day. And sometimes even on regular days. With each word, the ache recedes a bit. With each connection, each realization that others have present/absent mothers in their lives, a small part of the ache is alleviated, if for no other reason than the fact that it is shared.

And so on Mother's Day -- like every day -- I wish for the children with present moms to cherish them with every fiber of their beings. I wish for the children with absent moms to feel in their hearts the gift of love that has been given to them. And I wish for me, and for those like me, to remember always to be thankful for the blessings of fathers, and friends, and children, and loved ones, and our villages who carry us through this world -- and deserve their own glasses of orange juice -- on this and every day.

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