Anna and Mary stood before me in my Colchester, Vermont kitchen with their pudgy two-year-old hands behind their backs and secret smiles on their lips. As I stooped to greet them face-to-face, they plunged two bunches of wilted wild flowers toward me and yelled, “Surprise!” I thought my heart would burst with love. It was Mother’s Day 1990, and my parents were visiting us. My mother stood behind the girls beaming with pride. She had secretly arranged this lovely moment.
Mother’s Day is a holiday that is meant to be full of love and appreciation, but I have found that the day itself varies intensely from year to year, depending on family dynamics, age, and life circumstances.
The first Mother’s Day after Hugh’s accident fell only a month after his crash. We were all still reeling from the shock. Hugh was still in the acute brain rehab at the hospital, but he was granted permission to visit for part of the day on Mother’s Day. Planning this visit home took a week.
I invited Hugh’s parents over for a family celebration that afternoon. With all of us on edge, we tried to be the family we used to be; we went through the motions of sharing food, of trying to talk about ordinary stuff when our life was anything but ordinary. After dinner, I prompted Hugh to present his mother with a box of chocolates that I picked out along with a card that I signed for him, simple tasks he could not do, which made me feel profoundly sad.
My own children were at a loss. They wanted me to have a happy Mother’s Day, but they saw my exhaustion and they felt my stress as they watched me struggle to keep Hugh safe through the day and return him to the hospital. Once he was settled, Anna and Mary insisted we go out for ice cream. “It will be fun!” they said together. But it wasn’t fun, for many reasons. Later, they apologized to me, saying, “We’re sorry you had a rotten Mother’s Day.” I tried to tell them that being their mother was the highlight of my life, but they just shrugged in disappointment. I fell into bed, unable to sleep because I felt like a lousy mother.
I don’t think I am alone in feeling this way. I’ve heard many full-time caregivers say, “I have very little time to devote to the kids, and what time I have feels unfocused.” Sometimes the mother of a child with a TBI may feel like she is not paying enough attention to her other children, and the sad part is, it’s probably true. And yet, kids get it. They understand for the most part, and if they don’t understand in the moment, they usually do when they grow up.
Eleven years have passed, and with each passing year, Mother’s Day has come and gone. Some were full of wonderful surprises, and some were quiet. My mother and my father have both passed away. Still, I have always opened my eyes on Mother’s Day morning with the memory of newborn girls, swaddled and placed in my arms, like two tiny miracles. I remember the look of deep awe and gratitude on their father’s face. And, every flower I see that day reminds me of the two shimmering girls who handed me bundles of pure joy, as my own mother watched me, remembering.