Today we celebrate our last child’s birthday. Adelena Sara, named after my mom, was born three years ago today. Sometimes I think my kids’ birthdays are more my celebrations than theirs because these are the dates I’m reminded of the gift of having them in my life.
All babies are miracles and most parents celebrate ecstatically each and every birthday and milestone. But Addy’s arrival was more powerful for me than my other babies’ arrivals because her entry into this world signified a sign of hope in my most terrible time.
In September 2009, Kevin and I had three unbelievable news flashes: 1) We were pregnant! 2) My mom was diagnosed with lung cancer; and 3) My father-in-law, Tom, was diagnosed with colon cancer. It was a strange month. The world outside appeared to be the same, but our eyes were beginning to view it differently.
That winter, and the pregnancy that went along with it, was crazy. We spent much of the autumn in Columbus, Ohio, four hours away from our home, where Tom was getting treatments. He died in February 2010. Many spring days were spent taking care of my mother, who also began going to Columbus for treatments. I felt that I had an obligation to help my dad, who nursed my mom and expertly nagged her to eat more and to get better.
Taking care of my two parents became my entire focus. I called every day, even though I wasn’t always sure I wanted to hear the news. Each day, my mother’s voice and will became weaker. Each day, my father’s nerves got a bit more ragged.
The days built on each other, one day more and more bloated with feeling and anguish than the next. In May, I began the age-old late pregnancy game of imagining every gas pain to be labor. I couldn’t wait until this new baby joined us. I thought she might be the hopeful sign that gave new life to my mom. To all of us.
Addy was born in the early morning after a night of labor, as all my babies were. It was an easy labor, God’s way of making the miserable pregnancy (when I could barely walk from leg pain) more palatable.
To my surprise, my mom came along with my dad to the hospital room to see her new granddaughter, her namesake. She held Addy for a few minutes and the baby’s newness seemed like medicine that infused strength into Mom’s emaciated arms, shone light on the waxy pallor of her face, and gave credibility to the uncomfortable perfection of her wig.
Addy was born May 16. Mom died two months later.
But not before we had more visits, most of which found me nursing the baby on the couch in my parents’ family room, with the glaring afternoon sun heating up the space, while my mother slept fitfully on the recliner. But not before we had more talks on the phone, punctuated with long, uncomfortable silences, when my mom had to throw the receiver down to make a dash for the bathroom where she dry-heaved what tiny morsels she had in her tummy. But not before my dad begged her to try harder, to want life more than she seemed to want it. And not before I realized that when the doctors told her she was going to “get a break” from chemo, they actually meant “get a break from your suffering.” They knew it was the end. She knew it was the end. The rest of us just took some time catching up.
The beginning of the end happened one beautiful day in late June 2010. My dad called, saying that my mom had to go to the ER because the visiting nurse found her heart rate to be high. She had just eaten two bites of macaroni and cheese when the doctor called and said she should report to the emergency room. He asked me to meet them at the door to help my mom get inside while he parked the car.
Addy was only six weeks old and I had to nurse her before I left. I’ve never given bottles to my young babies so if I didn’t feed her, I would have had to take her with me. I didn’t want to take her to the emergency room.
I was late getting to the hospital and my parents were already inside, my dad standing nervously next to my tired-looking mother in a wheelchair. My dad scolded me for being late. Shame, nerves, and fear flushed my face with blood.
On the second night Mom was in the hospital, she went to sleep but didn’t wake up. After an agonizing nine days, she passed away.
The irony is, when she died, she looked as young as the newborn Addy. Her head, and much of her body, was hairless, just like Addy’s; and her skin was as smooth and unwrinkled as a piece of white silk.
In the days following her death, I sunk into a deep depression. My source had dried up. That maternal wellspring of unadulterated love and everlasting support was gone. I was alone in the world, no longer a daughter to a mother, but only a mother to four children of my own. It was my turn to lead the show. I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to go on.
Baby Addy was born on a Sunday, as they say, “full of grace.” And she was my saving grace. Her entry into the world was marked by her grandmother’s exit from it. She was and remains the sign of hope for me that things will work out, even when they seem like they won’t. She represents the promise of new life when the old ones go away. And she is my reminder to focus on the positive and to cherish each day we have with love and loved ones and all the dreams we have to pursue.
Adelena Sara is three years old today. She is the first of my children to have the features of her grandma, Mammow, as they called her. Something about the shape of her teeth when she grins widely – something about the rise of her cheeks when she laughs, which she does often – reminds me of my mom. As one soul was ebbing and the other growing, I think my mother might have shared a little of herself with this new child.
The natural progression of life and death is something we all face, but this was my first lesson. I still miss my mother terribly. I still feel alone whenever I think of her absence, until I remember: she’s present in my sphere, in the very particles around me, in the light, in the sand, in the air I breathe, in the soil I walk on, in me, and in my daughter and other children. She’s here, just not in the same physical form.
As we celebrate little Addy’s birthday today with laughter and cake, I know she’s here with us, too. Dancing in the sun sparkles around us and laughing energy into our hearts.