Lessons taught and memories made

This Mother’s Day, I’m reminded of a phone call I had with my mom about 17 years ago.

My daughter, my eldest child, was in the first grade; I’d called my mother because Anne was having trouble learning to read. Of course, this worried me. And I assumed this represented no small matter to my mom. My daughter was, after all, her first grandchild.

Mom listened patiently for some time to my worries, complaints about the teacher and my ideas to motivate my daughter. She asked a few questions.

And then her patience ran out.

“What’s wrong with you?” she demanded of me.

I was startled as she went on to scold me, to remind me of some of the early school struggles of my accomplished siblings — and of some of my own.

She sternly instructed me on how to help my daughter: do nothing that might result in her losing confidence.

“She will be fine,” my mom said. “Do you really think she’s not going to be able to read?”

And she was right, of course. In fact, my daughter is now herself a teacher.

The incident represents a rare upbraiding by my mother, whose innate kindness made such flashes of anger remarkably effective.

And today, as I face the first Mother’s Day since her death last fall, I’m reminded of that story and so many other lessons and examples that I keep with me.

My mother had six children — five of them boys. She was married to a police officer. And so she had an abundance of patience, compassion and understanding that we counted on. When the time was right, she drew upon an understated resolve and determination to support, guide and push those she loved — and herself.

In retrospect she seemed to naturally have all of the best qualities vital to a mother. She patched up many a scraped knee, and may have watched more little league baseball games than anyone on the face of the earth.

And, of course, she was underappreciated by her children until we became parents and marveled at how she could have handled all six of us. As a parent, I have half as many kids and feel like I’ve been only about half as good a parent as she.

As I think about her today, it’s how she lived the last couple decades of her life that inspires me the most.

She was first diagnosed with cancer on May 9, 1994. It was the day after Mother’s Day. Her own mother had died just weeks before. Three more grandchildren had recently arrived.

So cancer came to her door at a particularly awful time.

But cancer, as it turned out, had chosen poorly; it was in for a long fight. Because for the next 19 years my mother would outwit and outmaneuver it as she insisted on carrying on with her life.

My siblings and I marveled at the family events she was part of in the years after she got that first diagnosis.

Those events included the births of 14 more grandchildren, for a total of 18; the wedding of her youngest son; 10 summer family reunions, which she organized; four high school graduations of her grandchildren; a surprise 35th anniversary party; and surprise 60th and 70th birthday parties.

While we saw her battling cancer, sometimes in the most trying and unbearable circumstances, her children wondered how she did it. And sometimes we questioned if she was doing the right thing, as she endured aggressive chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant and experimental drug treatments.

But we had it wrong. She wasn’t battling cancer. She was making sure she was part of her family’s life, and that she was present for the important events that she wanted to witness. Cancer had little chance against such determination.

Along the way, she developed a substantial relationship with each of her grandchildren — and all of them will have important memories of her.

And my daughter, that first grandchild who struggled to read? Well my mother drove 200 miles to be there when Anne graduated from college.

And she was at my father’s side when cancer came after him, offering her experiences to him and to all of us.

My final visit with her came just a week before she died.

In that final visit, she gathered herself to make sure she could say what she wanted to me, and she let me have the chance to say the things I wanted to tell her too.

What I remember most was not a lot of pain, anger or sorrow. But instead she lamented some of the family events she would miss after her death. Among them, the weddings of her grandchildren and future graduations. She had no real regrets about her life as she faced the end of it, and she expressed a deep appreciation of witnessing her family’s important moments. Just to be there was the thing to her.

It was her way of reminding me to enjoy such times, to never rush through them or overlook them — or undervalue them.

And so, in the rush of Mother’s Day today, I’ll make sure to take time to think about Mom and the important gifts she gave me. And to follow her example to appreciate the time with family.