By the time we moved to the tiny tobacco town where she was in a full-time nursing care, my Grandmother Evelyn had advanced Alzheimer’s. I hadn’t known her as other family members had — a vibrant Baptist mother of five with a big heart for community — but I felt a deep fondness for her. Most days after school, I walked to the hospital where she was confined to a bed and doodled her pictures and notes on a marker board. She died on Mother’s Day when I was in 9th grade.
Over two decades later, my own mother, a former nurse, was diagnosed with a fatal illness that swiftly landed her in the intensive care unit. The last photo I have of my happy, healthy mother was taken on a breezy Mother’s Day afternoon. We wore matching fuchsia tops and the sun hit her cheeks as she sat in a rocking chair. Neither of us knew that she would soon die.
Whether it’s last year’s Mother’s Day or last century’s Mother’s Day, none of us imagined we’d spend this spring helplessly taming a pandemic. COVID-19 amplifies a tenuous holiday, especially among people of faith. Even in “normal” circumstances, this Hallmark holiday highlights not only gifts but pain: infertility, loss, and issues of maternal health care access. But in a year when our bodies, minds, spirits, hope, and patience are worn thin, Mother’s Day 2020 triggers unprecedented challenges.
Mother’s Day was founded by Anna Jarvis as a Christian-centered day of gathering, remembrance, and letter-writing based on mothers’ “matchless service to humanity.” In 1908, Jarvis sent 500 white carnations to Andrews Methodist Episcopal Church in West Virginia to honor her deceased mother who devoted her life to community service. In the years that followed, Jarvis petitioned state and national leaders for the second Sunday in May to become a federally recognized holiday — balancing existing male-centric ones. By 1914, President Wilson obliged with a Mother’s Day proclamation.
But Jarvis’s intentional day of gratitude for honoring living mothers with handwritten letters and memorializing deceased mothers with white carnations quickly turned commercial. Floral and greeting card sales spiked and capitalism does what it does best: exploit. By her death in 1948, Jarvis spent her inheritance trying to abolish the holiday for what she saw as “a means of profiteering.” She died childless, broke, and buried next to her mother.
Four years after President Wilson’s declaration, the 1918 Influenza — described as the "mother" of all pandemics — struck the states. It infected 500 million globally, one third of the world’s population at that time, and in two years killed more soldiers than wartime battle. The widespread calamity reinforced its unfortunate maternal moniker, as epidemiologists claim that all subsequent influenza A global cases and pandemics are “descendants” of the 1918 outbreak. Nearly a century later, historical accounts are eerily similar to our current COVID-19 culture and forecasts: shuttered schools, churches, theatres, quarantines, masks, protests, second waves, and diary entries of families cobbling together means and meaning in devastation.
Though Jarvis Mother’s Day was only officially four years old when 1918 Influenza struck, and not yet a commercial success, the essence of her holiday was amplified by remembering and mourning the 50 million who died from the “mother” of all flu viruses. Jarvis’s holiday, after all, began with grief.
When I was a hospital ICU chaplain, the first patient I saw die was a mother’s daughter. I stood at the foot of her bed when she was removed from a ventilator. She was an energetic, twenty-something from a small town who had been intubated following a respiratory infection. Because hearing and touch are the final bodily senses lost as humans die, chaplains are trained to help families focus on appropriate rituals conducive to patients’ changing needs. Essential staff and I gathered physically around Lily’s bed, praying and rubbing her feet as her mother sang the last lullaby her daughter would hear. As her mother’s singing grew softer, Lily’s skin turned to a dusky rose — pale, then gray and cool to the touch. Her mother had birthed her child into the world, and she sung her out of it.
In that moment, we — the essential hospital staff — felt her mother’s visceral grief: loss at the soul level, like tiny butterfly wings fluttering against our own hearts. A COVID-19 Mother’s Day in American health care facilities may mirror this one, only with Jarvis-era, 1918 heartache: no comforting touch, hugs, nor hand-holding. For the dying and their loved ones, there will only be soft voices of grief-ridden goodbyes over phones and walkie-talkies.
Like the 1918 Influenza and its tandem catastrophe, World War I, COVID-19 has unveiled death: It is no longer tucked away in my Grandmother’s Evelyn’s skilled nursing unit, nor my mother’s hospice bed, nor the ICU rooms of my chaplaincy residency. Death — the single universal thread that connects of humanity — is making headlines, occupying our news feeds and minds. Our mounting, collective pandemic loss is on American soil for the first time in a century. I see it in the uncertainty of friends whose children are immuno-compromised. I see it in my 92-year-old neighbor and mother of six who won’t receive visits from her grandchildren this year. I see it in my community college students, some of whom are mothers, struggling to balance school, caregiving, and bills with vanished sources of income.
Should we cancel Mother’s Day? Perhaps it’s already canceled in the traditional sense. At the very least, we are invited to return to Jarvis’s original intention: muting commercialized cards, candy, and flowers — in favor of reality: remembering and honoring moms with time well spent, not things. Instead of our usual proclivity to buy and brunch, might we pause to consider the heaviness of a COVID-19 Mother’s Day? No in-person gatherings, worship, passing of the peace, or embracing. Might we grieve for mothers and children gone, women delivering infants in lonely labor rooms, and a questionable reopening of an economy that makes money off the backs of hard-working moms?
Processing the months of individual and communal loss of lives, incomes, and routines will be essential to assigning meaning in what will be an otherwise be a string of hopeless holidays. Instead of spending stimulus checks on showering mom with material goods, let’s trade mundane capitalistic urges for sacred pauses: honoring mothers lost to COVID-19 and remembering those whose partners have been lost to illness.
The perky, pinned carnations of past Mother’s Days have dried and died. This year, we are invited to honor mothers with our voices, tears, and acknowledgement of their lives and legacies. That’s the kind of authentic Mother’s Day that would make Anna Jarvis — and my own Grandmother Evelyn and mom — proud.