My mom never got to be the kind of grandma she wanted to be, but she was the mom I needed her to be.
“I ordered you a sun dress. You’ll love it! I wore sun dresses the whole time I was pregnant with you and your brother," my mom said. She proudly spoke of her mythic low weight-gain pregnancies. "I walked right out of the hospital in one."
I bristled. My first instinct was to reject the gift, unseen, arguing many of my mom’s unasked-for favors. The irony was, her hope that I wouldn’t pack on too much pregnancy weight was right there with me.
The women in my family aren’t good dieters — daily deprivation of favorite foods is a surefire hit off the madness pipe — so I’d never take off the excess pounds.
I bit back my worries and my protest, but I’m sure I had an edge in my voice when I asked if the dress was returnable. They say you always hurt the ones you love, and I'm pretty sure the phrase originated with mothers and daughters.
I didn’t want stress; I was finally pregnant past the seventh week, heartbeat heard and all. Two years of trying and two early miscarriages led to finally deciding that if I wasn’t meant to carry a kid, we'd adopt one or my husband and I would be child-free people who went to Hawaii all the time and had really nice furniture.
It was my mom who helped me make peace after the second miscarriage when I cryingly drove to work. She told me, “If it doesn’t happen, so what? You can still have joy.” She didn’t say how I’d do that or why she believed it, but it was enough for me.
She wasn’t an optimist, my mom, so her more positive pronouncements were the ones I took the most seriously.
For a non-religious, superstitious person like me, pregnancy after some false starts is a weird thing. Every tic, every twinge, every lack of tic, every lack of twinge had to mean something. I was so wrapped up in waiting for something to go wrong, I didn’t notice when it did.
Things changed so suddenly, and like most curve balls life throws you, I wasn't sure how to deal.
I should have sensed something was off on my dad’s birthday. My parents were in Las Vegas for a quick getaway, and I called to wish my dad a happy birthday. Afterward, my mom got on the phone and told me, “I forgot your father’s birthday, I feel so bad. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
The casinos were cold and hard to walk through, and she was getting out of breath. I thought she was making some kind of excuse for forgetting her husband’s birthday, but I should have known this was much more than absent-mindedness; this was a woman who prided herself on giving great gifts.
She was in the ER a few weeks later — her breathing was labored and her kidneys weren’t working well. The doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. They released her, slightly improved, after breathing treatments, citing (maybe) pneumonia.
The doctors still weren’t sure but my parents didn’t ask too many questions. She was out of the hospital and on the mend for the baby, and that was all she cared about.
Then, she went into the hospital again in September, just before I delivered.
She was really sick ... kidney failure, high blood pressure, and now a diagnosis. She had scleroderma, a rare auto-immune disease that in its most severe form attacks and hardens your internal organs. She had the severe form. I was sure she wouldn’t be there to see the birth of her first grandchild.
But she got out of the hospital just before I went in. I was induced and my son’s heart rate dropped dramatically.
My doctor asked, “Do you want to try induction again tomorrow or do a C-section?” I hadn’t figured on a C-section, researched it or anything, but I just wanted my baby out and in my arms. Our family had had too much bad luck lately to risk him. I said yes in an instant.
Everything went fine. My son emerged and his cry washed over me. A nurse lay him on my chest and I felt relief and hope. I sang to him before staff carted him off to the nursery.
After a peek at her grandson, my tiny and tired mom came immediately to me. She sat by my side in the post-op room, trying to keep me warm as I shivered off the after-effects of the epidural.
Everyone else was marveling at Clark and I was a little mad at her for not being with them but she was holding my hand and I didn’t let go, either.
I wanted my mommy, even if I wouldn’t admit it out loud.
She didn’t say a word about her own illness, even when I asked. My mom hated parents who complained to their kids about their ailments. She just worried about me and asked for more blankets.
Before she got sick, my mom wanted to be a grandmother more than anything. She and my dad had already offered to help with the baby every day when I went back to work. They’d bake, they’d go to the park, they’d take field trips. They were in their 60s but they were just big kids themselves, they assured me.
They say that life is what happens when you’re making other plans ... but so is death.
She arranged her dialysis schedule so she’d still be able to help with the baby. She’d made a promise to help with Clark and no disease was going to mess with it, even if I insisted she not worry about it.
And she got worse after a fall, congestive heart failure, continued kidney issues, plus a stroke. I can barely list the litany of things she went through. The disease ravaged her through and through.
She could barely hold my son when he was first born and it only got harder as she grew weaker. She helped change diapers and feed him, but she couldn’t play the way I’d seen her play with other kids.
When I picked Clark up at their house, she’d say things like, “He’s crazy about your father. It’s good, since your dad never got all the time with you kids that I did.” But the look in her eyes translated that to, “I want desperately to be that grandma I imagined.”
Those were the good days. Soon after, we enlisted the help of sitters and Clark spent just two days a week there. Sometimes, she barely registered Clark’s presence or would be so loopy from the meds she’d stare into space as Food Network played reruns.
On more than one occasion, I selfishly, immaturely complained to anyone who’d listen that she didn’t love Clark, was a rotten grandma, or wasn’t trying hard enough to get better. I don’t even want to remember now.
I only made remarks like that to her a few times. Mostly, in her presence, I’d wonder how long she had left and I’d hold her hand. As she lost weight and strength, her hand still felt like her hand.
Once, on a supposed good day, I tried to take her shopping. My mom, who I’d normally lose in the store because she flew through the aisles so fast, could barely make it in the door. I had to pull the car up to the front doors so she wouldn’t have to walk back.
As we drove away, I cried and asked the question that lingered in the hocus-pocus-gypsy part of my brain, "Do you think you got sick like this so I could have a baby?"
The question had been in my mind since Clark’s birth, like something had planted an illness in her just so I could carry a baby to term. To get the good, you needed the bad. Life was all just trades and Clark was only here because my mom was dying.
Her head whipped around in anger. “Don’t EVER say something like that again,” she said, her voice stronger and more lucid than it’d been in a long time. “Your baby is the best thing to ever happen to this family.” I think I needed to hear that. I didn’t wonder again.
Part of me thought that sometimes she would have been luckier to die before her grandson came along than to live this life where she couldn’t be the grandma she wanted to be.
The disease had robbed her of that and day-by-day it was taking more and more of her away. She’d been someone who whipped through life with vigor — she loved to cook, to garden, to read, and she had no energy for any of it any more.
She wasn’t always super-vocal and emotional with affection, she hated cloying family melodramas, and she never cried. Doing things for her family — preparing homemade meals, offering to run errands for her busy kids, and yes, buying maternity wear unasked — were how she showed her love.
If she had a motto, it would have been, “I love, therefore I do, therefore I am” and now she couldn’t.
On her last hospital visit, just before my son’s second birthday, a team of doctors convened and said there was nothing more they could do for her. One told my dad, “It’s kind of amazing she hung on as long as she did.”
For all the times we’d gotten angry, thinking she wasn’t trying hard enough to get better, here were professionals telling us that she’d been as tough as we always thought she was, tough when she could have slipped away.
She died at home with a hospice nurse administering morphine. I remember thinking she looked like she was sleeping better than she had in two years.
I grabbed her hand. She probably weighed only 90 pounds, if that, but her hand still felt the same to me as it always had: strong and cool and comforting.
Without words, she pressed my hand to her lips. She was still in there, drifting away. I don’t really believe in an afterlife but whatever was happening, she would be somewhere better.
I put my head on the pillow next to her and felt her fingers around mine. This is my mom and she loves me, I thought. I cried a lot. Some of the tears were ones I’d never seen my mom shed.
My mom never got to be the kind of grandma she wanted to be, but in the first two years of my son’s life she was the kind of the kind of mom I needed her to be ... the mom she ALWAYS was.
I still wear the sundress and it nicely conceals the belly that never quite went away while not looking like maternity clothes. Like everything my mom’s given me, I get a lot of compliments on it. If I’m lucky enough to have baby number two, I’ll get even more use out of it.
I wish she’d tell me about some other random pregnancy item she’d bought without my express permission. If I could ever be so lucky again, maybe this time I’d just say thank you.