In honor of mothers everywhere, I offer this account of one Mother's Day a few years ago. It is excerpted from my new book The 4 Facets of Grief due out this summer.
I have mixed feelings about Mother’s Day. I’m incredibly grateful for my precious and miraculous children and grandchildren. It’s just that I also miss my son David, and I feel his absence profoundly on this day that celebrates the mother/child bond. As is my way of coping, I think about how I might create a meaningful observance of this bittersweet (for me) holiday.
Every bereaved mother I’ve ever talked with or read about has some type of belief in a spiritual afterlife. It doesn’t matter one’s religion or background; we mothers seem to cling to the notion that our relationships with our beloved children must somehow continue. It seems incomprehensible that a connection so intense could really be broken or that love’s energy would simply cease to exist.
And so, like a host of grieving mothers before me, I began looking for signs I could interpret as clues to David’s otherworldly existence and his attempts to communicate with me. I know … it sounds way out there … too “woo-woo” for many. That’s okay. I’ve chosen to embrace certain ideas that feel healing and meaningful to me, especially when there’s no way to prove them true or false.
Starting shortly after his death, the light in our curio cabinet would go on by itself. I thought at first maybe someone else had turned it on and then considered perhaps there was a short in the wiring. Never finding an explanation, I decided to view it as a friendly hello from David.
At various times of the day and night throughout the first 18 months after his death, the light surprisingly came on. Its brightness never failed to lift my mood as I imagined his presence in the room with me.
And then it stopped.
I tested the touch-switch, and it worked just fine. I told myself it didn’t mean anything and to be patient; to quit reading anything into it. Despite my reasonable self-talk, however, an unmistakable loneliness settled over me as more months rolled by.
One night, I decided to ask David directly to send me a sign that he was around and okay. The thought went out into the evening silence as love and longing welled up in my heart. Then I closed my eyes and went to sleep.
A week later, I received an email offering me free tickets to a Chicago play called The Pianist of Willesden Lane. I read the plot summary:
“Set in Vienna in 1938 and in London during the Blitzkrieg, The Pianist of Willesden Lane tells the true story of Mona Golabek’s mother, noted pianist and author Lisa Jura. A young Jewish pianist, Lisa dreams of a concert debut at the storied Musikverein concert hall. When Lisa is sent on the Kindertransport to London to protect her from the Nazi regime, everything about her life is upended except her love of music and her pursuit of her dream. Golabek performs some of the world’s most beloved piano music in the poignant true story of her mother’s experience in wartime Europe.”
Without knowing how I came to receive this offer, I was drawn to the play’s themes. My own mother, who died in 1991 after a long battle with emphysema, had been a gifted pianist and played nightly concerts for us in the secure privacy of our home. She struggled with debilitating anxiety and panic attacks for as long as I can remember. Who knows what she might have accomplished had she been able to overcome her angst? I always felt disconnected from her and strove to be as different a woman as I could be.
As I sat in the darkened theater the night of the performance, however, I began to experience my mother in a new way. She would have been only slightly older than the play’s teenage heroine during World War II and possessed a similar passion for classical piano. I wondered what it was like for her as a young American Jewish woman to learn about Nazi atrocities when the war was over. I thought about her reunion with her handsome young husband (my father) when he returned from overseas after their two-year separation.
As familiar, evocative melodies swirled through the auditorium and my being, I felt a powerful connection to my mother through the music and an empathy I could never have imagined. With tear-stained cheeks and a lump in my throat, I finally realized my mother was so much more than the frightened woman who raised me. She was also a talented, passionate artist who bestowed many gifts that I am only now beginning to open.
I’ve thought about this experience a lot since it happened. How did my name come to be on an email distribution list for free tickets? Why this particular play? Why now? I’ll never know. Therefore, I take it as an opportunity to believe something meaningful.
I imagine my beloved David, together with my misunderstood mother, illuminating my place among the generations. I envision them presenting me with a most unexpected and profound Mother’s Day gift: eternal love that spans time and place and connects us all.
Essays on Grief Resilience