A tribute to my mother on the 9th anniversary of her death.
I've heard it all my life, "You look just like your mother."
Not that I minded it. With red hair and Wine with Everything lipstick, Mama was as glamorous as a 1950's movie star. Though I've never been the glamorous type, there is no denying I have my mother's face--minus the red lipstick.
Throughout her life, I observed an array of emotions on that face. When I was small, my mother's face often wore a wrinkled brow, reflecting her fast-paced determination to meet all the demands of caring for eight kids. As I grew older, her face revealed worry over problematic adolescents or my dad's unpredictable antics.
When I was a teenager, my mother's face mirrored her quick wit. Though I was never rebellious, I still thought myself pretty clever, and I certainly knew more than my mother did. At a very naive sixteen, I came home from my job as a waitress and handed her a napkin on which a boy had written his phone number and invited me out on a date. "What do you think of this?" I asked, pleased that someone from school would find me attractive.
Her eyebrows arched as she tossed it back to me. "Use it for toilet paper," she quipped.
As a wife, I intentionally sought to wear my mother's face. She had me--her eighth child--on her thirty-fifth birthday. I had seven children by the time I was thirty-five. During those years, my mother's face beamed approval with each pregnancy announced. When everyone else was questioning my decision to have such a large family, I knew my mother would relish my news. After the arrival of each baby, my mother's glowing face was always one of the first I saw.
When my mother got cancer, I briefly lost sight of the beauty of her face. Distracted by mottled skin and the loss of her lovely red hair, I grieved losing the mother I had always known. I mourned the inevitable altered course of life as this woman who managed her housework much like Navy captain runs his ship now needed a walker even to saunter to the bathroom. As I trailed behind her to keep her steady, I reflected on how, without her hair, she had an uncanny resemblance to her own father.
But during the months of caring for her, each time I drew eyebrows on her with pencil or assisted her with her lipstick, I began to see glimpses of my mother's face. And--whether through turban fashion shows or outrageous bathroom jokes--when her sense of humor again shone like a lighthouse during the greatest trial of her life, I saw her face as I had never seen it--so steadfast, so strong.
As the inoperable tumor in my mother's throat grew to the size of an orange, I watched desperation, panic, and and anxiety--but never surrender--govern her face. "Go forward," she whispered with labored breath and raucous voice to the doctor's inquiry of the next steps to take. She had much to live for, and to the end she wore her game face.
I was with her the night a simple breathing treatment triggered coughing, and her coughing evolved into choking. As I smashed the button to call the nurse, my mother's face was pure fear. As she mouthed, "I can't breathe! I can't breathe!" and the nurses rushed me out of the room, the look on her face is something I will never forget--it is stamped in my mind like a terrible song stuck on repeat. Though she lived 36 more hours, she remained unconscious.
I wasn't with my mother as she drew her last breath. Consequently, as I approached the doors of the funeral home, part of me feared seeing her lying lifeless in a casket. Then, as I crept toward her, I recognized her face. Deliberately ignoring her counterfeit hair that hid cancer's scars, shunning her hands so gnarled from fighting cancer's battle, I kept my eyes on that face.
The face that had guided me and given me strength. The face that personified determination both in life and in death. The face that I had always been told I had, but knew I could never have, really. As long as I live I will never quite trying to wear my mother's face.
From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrates Mothers & Daughters, page 205
Reprinted with the author's permission.