05/25/2014 08:25 am ET Updated Jul 25, 2014

When Your Parent Is a Stranger

My mother's body, warm, smelling familiar, was inches from me. The transformation of death, only seconds old, had not yet taken place. I had held her hand and read her her beloved poetry from her well-worn Spanish book of love poems over the six-day vigil that my sister and I had just been through. I placed a dozen roses across her chest, and bent down, my ear on her heart, hoping to hear something that would tell me that my gut reaction was wrong. We had been listening to her breaths, coming fewer in between since before dawn that day, and with this final exhale, we knew and yet didn't want the truth. But there was nothing, not even the weak, barely audible pulses that had slowed to 13 counts per minute earlier.

My mother was gone, and we only needed the hospice nurse to come bedside and pronounce it so. If I had had the luxury of what the world calls a typical Hallmark-card relationship, then I'd have tears of grief at the clinical stethoscope affirming moment. If I had had cold callous indifference at her death, then I might weep tears of relief, that finally, it was over.

But my lifetime with my mother was one of mixed emotion. It was love expressed in ways that a child could not comprehend. My mother was a hardworking woman who gave us plenty of food, clothing, and shelter. She single-handedly raised six children in a country where she had to wait 10 years before feeling the security of being a U.S. citizen. The childhood I grew up with was one without a mother present. With one full-time job and two part-time jobs, I only remember her as never being home.

My father committed suicide after only four years in this country, leaving her with six of us, the oldest, just 18, and the youngest, two months old. My mother had no time for grief. She had to find work to now make up the income of two parents. She worried that if she couldn't provide for her family, America might send her back. There was her full-time job, there was an evening job, there was a job on the weekends. She worked while we were with our grandmother, who cared for and nurtured us. What I wanted was for my mother to be like everyone else's -- home after school, home baking cookies, home walking me to my girl scout meetings. Home for the school field trips, and how I wished she would be there for us.

Now as an adult and mother to three, I'm sure that was her wish, too.

She was gone to work in the early mornings before we'd even have a chance to see her. She would go straight from her day job to her evening job, coming home too late at night to set out our pajamas and rub us dry after night baths. There would be no mother at our evening supper table, and when weekends came, she'd be at work before the first bleary-eyed child emerged from their room for Saturday morning cartoons.

We grew up. We left home. The only attachment we felt in leaving our house was the one formed with our grandmother. Children never wonder why there is food on the table, or why they have coats and boots to keep their feet dry in the winter. We think a house with heat comes by magic. It isn't until adulthood, when we're parents ourselves in a dual-income family with half the children that my mother had, that we wonder in disbelief, how did she do it all and alone?

How did she keep six children fed and warm? How did my mother manage the care of so many things under the grief of losing a spouse in such a violent manner in a country where the language was as unfamiliar as the winter season? How was she able to raise her children to value education and work? All of us graduated from high school, with four out of the six going on to college.

I grew up not knowing my mother, never having the conversations that mothers have with their children as they pick them up from school then run them to piano lessons. We never shared confidences while she pulled cookies out of the oven. There were no Sunday mornings waking up to humming and the smell of bacon frying in the kitchen.

Our mother was a stranger, and each of us, I'm sure, would lie in our beds at night, wondering if she even loved us. Could we remember how many words she had said to us? Would we forget her profile, the one we'd catch as she'd run out the door at 6:00 a.m., in fear of being late for the bus? Or would the day come, when we could no longer recall the sound of her breathing, as she fell asleep on the sofa, finally, on Sunday afternoons, still in her white nurse's aide uniform when she was home for the first time that week.

I never knew my mother, and on the day of her death, as I clutched her poetry book to my chest and I watched the hospice nurse place the stethoscope on her heart to announce what I already knew, there was an ache in my heart that I could almost hear. I had had a lifetime with her but never a minute to know her.

A month after my mother's death, I went through her personal things. I came across poems, love notes, cards, all written in secret early morning hours of 3 or 4 a.m., to each of her children. There was a tightness in my throat as I saw these, thinking how none of them had ever been mailed.

In her papers there was a peach colored envelope, inside, a note written in Spanish to her children. Tears blurred my eyes as I recognized the familiar swirls of her writing. "My children, my angels sent to me from the heavens, I wish you to know that I loved you more than my life. I wish that when I die, it is to the sound of my poetry, with roses across my chest, in the final act of my life spent loving you."

Finally, the release of hot tears, as I remembered and wondered how I knew to read her poetry to her in the last of her life while in hospice. My mind spun with the question of what it was that told me to bring roses to her room to leave her with as she passed away from us. And finally, I sobbed with the strong bond of mother and child and that somehow, I had known her after all.