Shifts on the Crisis Hotline tended to follow a pattern. The callers were a mix, from those who wanted basic information about food, clothing, or shelter, to those who needed to hold on to life until the suicidal urge had passed. Sometimes the callers were “regulars,” who called daily, often several times a day, just wanting to hear a voice at the other end of a phone. There were even the occasional sex callers, hoping for a sexual release from hearing the sound of a woman’s voice. I could depend on this formula, shift after shift.
Then there was Mother’s Day 1994.
I was unprepared for the onslaught of calls that came in. “My mother died and I miss her.” “My family has ignored me on Mother’s Day.” “I’m angry with my mother.” “I never got to be a mother.” “I hate being a mother.” There would be no easy calls on this day, and certainly no comic relief. Each call was a cry of pain, and it took all of my training to maintain calm in the face of the emotions that slammed against me through the telephone. When I left, I shook all the way home, blindsided. Mother’s Day had touched people at their deepest primal core.
As I look back now, I can see that my compassion was distant and detached. Oh, I helped as best I could, and callers seemed to feel better after we chatted. I knew, after all, that when we are in pain we need most to be heard, and that I could provide. What I did not have was my own experience of Mother’s Day. My relationship with my mother was fine. I wasn’t a mother yet but assumed I would be, and that my family would be a happy one. I was full of the optimism of youth and the arrogance to think that making healthy choices would immunize me from suffering.
I am wiser now.
In 1997, I became pregnant–twice–only to lose both babies. First, a miscarriage. Nine months later, a stillbirth. After that, the silence of infertility. On each succeeding Mother’s Day after that, I would wake to feel the phantoms of my children, missing like amputated limbs, and the haunted heart that sought the heavens in vain for any sign of them. I have a box that holds the pitiful memories of my daughter, Rebekah Diane, Reba for short. She lived inside of me for 28 weeks, 28 precious weeks, before a tumor crushed her heart and mine. In it I have the scraps of broken dreams: condolence cards, a piece of fabric for the curtains in her room, a Noah’s Ark needlepoint, and, most precious of all, her footprints.
I learned, then, that some wounds do not heal, and in inconsolable grief, we can only put one foot in front of the other and find ways not to understand or even accept, but to integrate the loss into our lives and to honor those who have died. Over the years, I and my current husband have made donations in her name, to the March of Dimes, in particular, and Texas Children’s Hospital, where they now do the fetal surgery that might have saved her life back then. I wrote a book for bereaved grandparents, and have been touched by the many letters of thanks I have received from people, many of whom passed the book through their entire family. None of this takes the pain away, but it allows me to decorate her life and create a legacy for her, which is all I can do.
Mother’s Day, 1998, I stepped outside into the quiet, warm air of a Houston morning to find something littered all over the porch. Investigating further, I realized that a plant had bloomed–a plant that had been given to us when Reba died, a plant that had never bloomed before and would never bloom again. The blossoms, pink and white in the shape of hearts, had gently fallen from the plant and covered the porch. I choose to believe that Reba had found a way to say hello and to tell me that I would be okay.
Life has a funny way of coming back around. While some wounds never heal, they can transform us in a way that we can receive new and surprising blessings. While I never became a mother, I did get the privilege of becoming a stepmother to twins. I met them in their senior year in high school, a chaotic time for a woman with no parenting experience! I gathered around me a group of friends, parents of children in that age range, to get their advice and counsel. Most of the time I just made it up as I went along, assured by my wise friends that they did the same thing. I have since weathered the worries, the sleepless nights, the frustration at my own limitations and flaws, and the sometimes-difficult situations that life presents when young people are trying to find their way in the world. It has not been easy, but it has been blessed. Funny thing is, if Reba would have lived, I’m not sure I would be where I am now, which is exactly where I need to be. To my husband, Henry, and to Joe and Sarah, may I say this on Mother’s Day: Thank you for letting me into your lives and for letting me love you. Your lives are precious and miraculous; this much I learned when I had to give my biological child back to God.
If I were back on that hotline again today, I would come from a deeper place in my heart, the place that says, yes, I understand. Often Mother’s Day is filled with a mix of joy and pain, or even just pain. Cry on my shoulder, and I’ll give you a hug over the phone, and together, we will walk into the future, where we can grieve, recover, and hopefully, find new joy.