The Faith of Motherhood
(Author's note: I had the priviledge of sharing this story with my church this morning. I give thanks to the Deacons and church family and especially to Rev Jane Hawken who, without realizing it, gently pushed me out of my comfort zone. I am deeply grateful.)
I grew up, as many of us did, with a preconceived notion of motherhood. In part thanks to those iconic TV mothers: Donna Reed, June Cleaver, Carol Brady, Claire Huckstible, just to name a few. Mothers who we watched solve problems in under 22 minutes for children who appeared to not only pay attention but listen! All while making dinner, cleaning house, holding down a career perfectly coiffed in dresses, fashionable bell bottoms and stylish shoulder pads.
Even Erma Bombeck in her natural state of upheaval and mess turned motherhood into a vision of a never-ending sit-com. Her keen eye and wit bringing to life motherhood in a way that convinced me motherhood was the way to go!
But I must add one more woman to this infamous list of maternal deceivers. My own mother. I know this may sound like it is going in the wrong direction especially on Mother’s Day but stick with me.
My mother was diagnosed with MS in 1968. I was born in 1970. Throughout my childhood my mother went from walkers and crutches to a wheel chair. When her balance started to give out my father put bars on our kitchen counter so she could stand. When I was in third grade, my parents turned our three season porch into an extension of our kitchen, creating an open concept floor plan before it was a thing. A ramp was added off the back deck so my mother would no longer have to struggle her way up the stairs of our raised ranch. She had controls on the steering wheel of her Buick station wagon that allowed her to steer and brake and hit the gas all with her hands. None of this seemed unusual to me. I remember going to a school conference when I was fourth grade and walking down the hall, my sister pushing my mother’s wheelchair and me walking beside her, I always walked on her right side holding onto the arm of the wheelchair. And coming towards us was a boy in my class. He was new to our school and up to this point I never had to explain to anyone that my mother was in a wheelchair. As he got closer he got this wide-eyed look and followed us with his head as we passed. The next day he approached me in school and said, “Your mom is in a wheelchair?” to which I put my nose in the air and said” Yeah?” and he said rather incredulously “She can’t walk?” to which I responded (because apparently, sarcasm is a trait you are born with) “Ah yeah, why do you think she is in a wheelchair?” I mean honestly it just seemed like a ridiculous question even to a fourth grader, who would choose to be pushed around in a wheelchair if they could walk?
This was my childhood. My mother’s wheelchair was part of the furniture. It wasn’t who she was it was just how she got around. My parents went to parties, they had parties. My mother never missed a concert, parade, school event. She was always present. She was smart, she was pragmatic. She was kind and compassionate. She was funny, mostly when she didn’t intend to be. She was gullible, terribly gullible. Greg used to say if you looked up the word gullible in the dictionary you would find my mother smiling back at you. She was neat and proper. She didn’t drink, she didn’t swear. I think she might have been the only Swede to draw breath who did not drink coffee. She wore Pendleton and a pair of jeans never touched her skin. She never left the house without lipstick. She was fastidious and organized almost to obsession. She kept our house gleaming and our clothes ironed. She was never late and she never forgot anything. EVER.
Probably about now some of you are wondering if I was adopted. Well I wasn’t but you are in good company because my mother would often say with a slightly exasperated shake of her head “Karen, I don’t know where you came from”. My understanding is most of those genes are recessive or they just skip a generation which is why God gave me Piper. Someone had to take over where my mother left off.
But in all the years I was growing up I didn’t give much thought to how my mother got through her days. Our family and the friends who surrounded us treated my mother as she wanted to be treated, as though there was nothing wrong with her. Her physical limitations were never a topic for discussion. She never talked about how she felt, even when perhaps she didn’t feel very well at all. So, within this framework perhaps it was natural for me to take for granted just how my mother handled her diagnosis and the disappointment I have no doubt that came with it. I breezed along in my little bubble of childhood, content. It was when I was in college and a new friend brought a wrinkle into my bubble.
My friend, Sarah, was a fellow nursing student. She came to my parents’ house one Saturday afternoon to pick me up for a concert. My sister was at the house with my mother. I Invited Sarah in and the four of us sat together and had a very nice visit. At one point the conversation turned to my mother’s many injuries sustained from her wheelchair. Or perhaps in greater thanks to her inept family who sometimes didn’t know how to control said wheel chair. My sister and I took turns telling stories that involved stitches and bruises and after a while we found ourselves laughing, a little too hard over our mother’s bumps, bruises and stitches. When we started to laugh at little too hard at her expense she turned the tables and took a jab at my sister telling the story about her passing out in the ED while my mother received a few stitches. Then she took a friendly jab at me when I panicked one morning when she was catapulted from her wheelchair landing face down on her carpet, blood coming from somewhere on her face and her budding young nurse completely panicked and was little to no help at all. When she was back in her chair and I was cleaning her face, she looked me dead in the eye and said, “Do me a favor and don’t become an emergency room nurse”. Promise made, promise kept. We all laughed, even Sarah but I was beginning to think my new friend may not hang on to our friendship after this visit because I had told her my mother had MS but I had failed to mention we were also a little crazy.
When we got into the car a while later she said, “That was amazing”. Warily I asked “Which part? That part where my sister and I appear completely inept at keeping our mother from injury?” She said “Oh no. It is amazing how you all talk with one another. How you laugh at all that stuff. That your mom does so much with you.” She paused a moment and then said “My mother has MS. But she is so different. She is bitter and angry and most days I can barely get her to leave her room let alone leave our house. I didn’t even know it could be like it was this afternoon.’ I was stunned. I remember thinking “I had no idea it couldn’t...I had no idea it couldn’t”.
From that day, I thought of my mother as different. It had never occurred to me that she could wake up one morning and be bitter or angry. It never occurred to me that she could decide she had had enough of her “situation”. She certainly could have. Anyone who is faced with a terrible diagnosis or bad news could certainly choose to be angry. But that wasn’t who she was.
So how did she make motherhood look so easy? How did she make everyone around her feel comfortable and at ease, almost making us forget she had a disability? Well it really isn’t that much of a mystery. My mother had faith and she relied on it. She never told me this because her faith was her own. She never really brought God into the conversation but when I think back to my childhood and young adulthood. When I give thought to how my mother lived her life I realize she didn’t need to talk about her faith because she lived it quietly and beautifully. It was woven into the very fabric of who she was. It oozed from her in love and compassion and grace and humility. She did it with such ease that quite honestly, I failed to notice, failed to put a name to it. She wrapped us all in it and we felt the warmth of it without ever knowing exactly what it was.
But where did that kind of faith come from? Deep faith that allows someone to face adversity with grace and dignity? The kind of faith that allows you to find the joy and not wallow in your circumstance? Is it genetically coded? Is it a recessive gene like the cleaning- organizing- being on time gene that has eluded me? Or is it something we come to eventually, with some gentle prodding?
Perhaps I have come a little late to the faith table. But faith finds us when we are ready. Anne Lamott says…… "My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land, and in this way, I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear."
Motherhood takes faith, fatherhood, parenthood , life needs faith. I certainly have figured it out much later than my mother but I am my mother’s daughter. The Bible tells us faith is handed out to each of us. The good news it is ours for the taking. It is not one size fits all, it is made to fit us each as individuals. Think of faith as a muscle that requires exercise and stretching. Faith takes practice. But our Faith when released propels us forward, faith allows us to face adversity without fear, faith gives us hope! And where there is hope, there is joy.
This I know to be true because I lived it wrapped in the gift of my mother’s faith.