05/09/2013 01:15 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2013

Mother's Day: Lessons From a Year of Hell

As Mother's Day comes around again, I am struck with what has changed for my mother from this year to last. Last year, my father was still alive, albeit struggling with escalating health issues. It got to the point that my mom, in her caregiver role, was rushing him to the hospital every two weeks. Being a caregiver is not easy: She slept with one eye open, listening for any changes in the sound of my dad's breathing, trying to get him to eat when he no longer had the will, and being the face of calm when his body was no longer his own. Tough stuff. Watching a loved one suffer is hard. The roller-coaster highs of temporary hope mixed with the inevitable plummets into hopelessness, and all that interspersed with doses of anger and helplessness -- not easy.

The fact is that my parents had a -- let's call it "spirited" -- relationship, with much buried below the surface. In the final days, my father was able to speak to my mom from the heart. On one of those days, my mom announced, "Your father and I have put things into perspective." After 55 years of marriage? This was a huge shock for all of us kids, but in a good way, a way that we had never expected to see. Why did it take a lifetime to come to that sense of peace? I may never know, but I do know I was simultaneously amused and deeply touched to see it happen. Sometimes the lessons come early on, and sometimes they come later in life. The good news is that it is never too late to express what we are here for -- to love and be loved. Whenever, wherever that emerges, that is the gift of a lifetime.

My dad passed away exactly two days after my birthday and two days before my niece's. Just before his death, my mom was so physically exhausted and so emotionally worn down that at times we did not know who would be departing first. You hear stories of how one spouse sometimes passes away within months of the other. It was hard to consider that this could be the case here. In the months that have followed, my mother has had to make a choice that went beyond the rational: Did she want to give up and wither away, or did she want to try to make the most of the years she has left? No matter what we as her children said, it was something only she, from the depths of her being, could decide.

The first stage was bone-deep exhaustion mixed with numbness -- the main goal was getting through her days. Then the question of friendship -- the caretaker role had been voracious, consuming every hour of every day, and isolating her from the rest of life. How to reconnect? Finally, the physical questions -- on top of everything else this year, my mother was just diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. What would that portend?

But something has shifted -- when faced with the decision of being a hermit or making an effort to extend herself, she has chosen the latter. The Parkinson's was an exclamation point: Do nothing and atrophy or fight to maintain health and mobility. Yesterday, my mom told me of a study she noticed in the paper that using a stationary bike a few times a week has been proven to help her condition. She plans to take it on.

More than all of that, I have noticed a new gratitude welling inside of her. While she misses my father terribly and actually expresses that, she is also appreciative of the little things in life, and of the people who love her. I am proud to say that I am one of them.

This Mother's Day has given me a new perspective on the stages of life, the inner strength that can be called upon even in the toughest of times, and most importantly, the enduring power of love. This Mother's Day has special meaning -- I am filled with love, gratitude, and inspiration. I wish you the same.

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