You are born out of your mother for your own greatness . . . Lucy LaFave
I couldn’t believe my eyes. There he was in our backyard this morning, flapping his wings into the wind and the blustery snow – a flash of brilliant red against the white world of January in the Upper Peninsula. I immediately thought of my mother. Cardinals don’t come to our neighborhood feeders. At least I don’t see them. And they are not common this far north in Michigan, but, in the cove in Maine, a family of cardinals visited my mother’s feeder daily. My mother, who knew the names of all the birds, was especially fond of her cardinals. So, as Fu, our white long-haired cat, and I, watched the cardinal flit from feeder to feeder, I picked up the phone and called my mother. I didn’t call her familiar number, the one that is programmed into my phone. I called Midcoast Hospital and asked for Room 239.
“Mom!” I exclaimed. “Mom! It’s Helen!” She seemed happy to hear my voice. “There’s a cardinal in our backyard! I think it’s a birthday present from you!” I think she loved that idea.
While we were in France last week, my mother, on her way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, fell and broke her pelvis. It was a bad break, one that would have required surgery to repair if she had been younger and stronger. At first she rallied. Any hope for rehab required her being mobile. On Day One, she was out of bed, walking across her room. The hospital staff was impressed. By Day Three, she was sitting in a chair. And then, something shifted inside; perhaps it was the pain that wore her down or perhaps she was just plain tired of the prospect of yet another rehab, after years and years of rehabs from broken bones and strokes. I’m not sure what it was, but, on Day Four, my ninety-three year old mother sunk down in her bed and said that she was ready to die. And her lungs began to fill with fluid and her breathing became more labored, and we, her children, knew that our mother was letting go.
I remember when the cardinals moved into the cove. It was back in 1991, and I was a graduate student in my thirties at the time, and, while the boys were at summer camp, I spent a week in Maine working on my thesis. However, I didn’t stay with my mother by the sea; instead I house-sat for a friend thirty miles away. The relationship between my mother and I felt tangled in those days and I wanted my space. One evening, the phone rang. And it was my mother on the other end, my pre-stroke, pre-broken bones, still-driving-a-car mother in her seventies. “Guess who came to the feeder?!?” she cried. “Cardinals!!! Two of them!” It was a good moment, a reaching out moment. The cardinals brought us together.
My friend Lucy, this week, said to me and to herself, “You are born out of your mother for your own greatness.” It seemed powerful to contemplate these words, how our mothers birth us, not to cling, but to expand outward into this world. The umbilical cord is cut within minutes after birth, and there we are, each one of us, opening our mouths and breathing in our own greatness. My mother used to tell us, my siblings and I, that she couldn’t understand when her friends clung to their adult children, that we were just on loan, and that it was her job to let us go. And besides, she’d say, it’s an honor to be friends with you. And, although, it wasn’t as easy as just saying the words and it certainly didn’t happen overnight, my mother and I have de-tangled the threads that kept us clinging, and we are good friends.
And so, on my birthday weekend, I, along with my husband, am flying east to be with my mother. For the first time in thirty-five years, I will spend my birthday with my siblings, and with the woman who gave birth to me. And I envision that I might hold her hand, might feel the heat glow between the two of us, but I know that it is not my job to hold on tightly, to cling. Like the cardinal on the wing, it is my job now to let her go.