This is my 19th Mother's Day without my mother. She died of ovarian cancer at the age of 62. Over the years friends of mine have lost their mothers and have had to go through their year of “firsts.” The first Thanksgiving without their mother, the first Christmas, her birthday, their birthday, family gatherings and special occasions without the first person you instinctively think of for all celebrations.
A few years ago when a close friend lost her mother right before Mother's Day I helped her plan a “Remembrance Celebration” and we invited all our friends who no longer had their mothers. It was part catharsis, part ritual, part party. I asked my friends to bring photographs of their mothers and we created a make-shift altar with the pictures, candles and flowers.
I opened and closed with prayer, but the time in between was the part that was truly holy, as each person lit a candle and shared a tribute to their mother. Stories and memories were exchanged, as were tears and laughter. As I listened to my friends share the profound influence their mother had on their lives, on the depth and breath of love that guided them, and shaped who they were now, I knew I was seeing them at a deeper level than ever before. Talking about the strengths, weaknesses, humor and foibles of our mothers and ourselves there was a vulnerability and trust that went beyond the sharing of even my closest friendships.
Sharing stories of my own mother and the ways she taught and encouraged me feels like the best way to honor her on Mother's Day. To this day when I am thinking of expressing an uncharitable thought I can hear her voice “If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything.” Although this may sound like a cliché, it is a teaching that I am relearning once again in a class called “Wisdom of the Desert” and finding that my mother's sensibilities had many similarities to that of the early Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers. Gratitude and hospitality, two huge teachings of the desert monks, were also lessons I learned from my mother.
Throughout my life my mother taught me by showing me. She demonstrated what it meant to be kind, considerate, gracious. She lived her life in a way that I saw what it meant to be humble, compassionate, and selfless. But it wasn't until she became terminally ill that I truly came to understand what a remarkable woman she was. In the 14 months between when she was first diagnosed with cancer and when she died peacefully in her home, she revealed extraordinary inner strength.
Despite the inherent unfairness of her life being cut short, before she could enjoy her retirement and her grandchildren, she accepted her fate without anger, bitterness or self-pity. She understood that there was value and grace through suffering. A number of her health care workers commented to our family about my mother's uncomplaining nature and appreciate attitude. She was an inspiration in life and in death. I can only hope through her example that I'm able to face my own challenges and eventually death with the same courage and dignity as my mother did.
Cynthia J. Martens is Director of Circulation and Production for Sojourners.