Twenty-three years ago this month, my mother passed away. It's easy for me to remember the number of years that have passed because it is one less than the age of my son Eric.
Mom never got to know him well or watch him grow up, and she never met my daughter Jessica, who was born two years after Mom died.
Mom's death was not as difficult to accept as the two years prior to it when she was waiting for a diagnosis for the cause of the pain that plagued her, or when she was undergoing chemotherapy, or after the surgery to put a rod in her arm where the cancer had eaten through the bone, or when she grew weaker and more frail each day until she could no longer get out of bed.
We spoke to each other each Sunday evening. Long distance calls were expensive. (We certainly never foresaw a time when a cell phone would allow people to converse from one part of the country to another as often as they liked for the price of the monthly service plan.)
One week I would call; the next week, she and Dad would call me - Mom on the upstairs phone and Dad on the downstairs extension so that we could have a three-way conversation.
As her illness progressed, it became more difficult to find things to talk about that didn't inevitably lead back to her cancer.
Eric was the exception. Mom had watched the other five grandchildren grow, had helped raise two of them. Eric was too far away to see very often, so this youngest grandchild was the topic of most of our conversations. What clever things had he said or done this week? What books did he like? What did he most like to play with?
I wished the distance between us were less than the 273 miles so that I could make the trip more often. During one of our Sunday evening conversations, I stood, holding the receiver with one hand and curling the long cord around the fingers of my other hand. As I stepped toward the window, I was bathed in the bright light of the full moon as it sifted through bare tree branches and slanted through the window.
I looked up at the enormous white-gold orb rising above the trees to the east.
"Oh," I gasped. "Can you see the full moon?"
Almost 300 miles away, Mom, on the upstairs phone, and Dad on the extension each strained to look out the nearest window. From their reactions, I could tell this glowing sphere must be as impressive tonight in the southern half of the state as it was up north.
"We can all see the same moon," I said. "It makes me feel closer to you." There was a moment of silence as we savored this thought.
After that evening, every time I gazed at the moon, I pictured Mom, looking up at the same moon so many miles away and wondered if she was thinking of me. I was fairly certain that she was.
A few months later, after a long, painful struggle with bone and stomach cancer, Mom died on May 7, 1989. She was sixty-eight years old. The funeral was held on a beautiful spring day with a clear blue sky and just a hint of a breeze. A few days later, I returned home.
I lay in bed, sleepless. It was Mother's Day, and I had just buried my mother. I rolled onto my left side, and the silver moonlight streamed through the window, bathing my face.
"I miss you, Mom," I said softly as I gazed at the full moon. It seemed strange that the person who had borne me, raised me, nursed me through childhood illnesses and disappointments now ceased to be.
Each Mother's Day thereafter was clouded with the memory of her death.
Last year, my son and I went for a walk in my old hometown on Mother's Day. I tried to explain to him the sadness I associated with this day, and he listened intently. Suddenly a bright red flash appeared ahead of us and a cardinal perched in a nearby tree. It sat there, stunning in its crimson feathers, and cocked its head as if eavesdropping on our conversation.
"Cardinals were Mom's favorite bird," I said.
We paused in our walk to admire the bird. It remained in the tree, not concerned by our attention. The bird seemed to be a sign of sorts, letting me know that it was time to let go of the sadness I associated with Mother's Day and appreciate the sun, the budding leaves on the trees, the blooming flowers, the flitting birds, all the happy memories of my childhood and my mother, and my son, now a man, walking beside me. It was time to celebrate Mother's Day.
Eric wrapped a long, strong arm around my shoulder as we resumed our walk.
"Happy Mother's Day, Mom."