As I sat beside my mother’s bed my thoughts wandered off to a place I had not visited in a long, long time. I was a very young child and she was teaching me how to swim. In an attempt to float effortlessly on my back, like she could, I wiggled and struggled to stay afloat. Gently, she balanced my body with her hands, supporting and reassuring me with her soothing words. “Breathe Marla, you can do it.” Just when I felt I would sink, her comforting words confirmed she had a good hold on me. “I wish I could float on my back like you,” I whined. After a few more tries, she had me believing I was doing it all by myself.
I watched excitedly as she flipped her body over in the water and began to float gracefully. Without warning she invitingly said, “Get on.” I squealed with delight and crawled on board her tummy. It always amazed me at how she could float atop the water with me in tow, like a mother otter and her baby. It always amazed me at how my mother could carry the weight of life’s demands, never giving up, and never sinking. She calmly stayed afloat, despite the many burdens and challenges that came her way.
As I sat at her bedside I could hear the tender waves of her voice. Although these vocal pitches resembled talking, there were no real words. This was her way of communicating now. Alzheimer’s had gradually robbed her of verbal communication as we know it, over a period of fifteen years. At this moment, though, there was a gentle flow to the sounds she uttered. I held her hands and she held mine back. The warmth and softness of her skin felt familiar and comforting. The strength of them took my breath away.
I looked lovingly into her big brown eyes and found a sense of calm. Her gaze was genuine and strong and as she searched my face I felt her eloquence. I laid my head on her tummy and for the first time in a very long time, I understood her as I listened to the gentleness and familiar tone of her voice.
As I lie there I felt the rise and fall of the in and out flow of her breath. She stroked my hair, tucking it gently behind my ear just as she did when I was small. Once again my thoughts drifted. I was a teenager, confused and full of the kind of uncertainty most young girls experience. My mother sat on the edge of my bed listening to me rant, “My ears are too big and my teeth are crooked!” When I appeared to be done she reminded me of where real beauty lives and of the many gifts that surround me. She taught me by example, to be grateful. Through her intuitive wisdom and gentle guidance I made it through my teen years, even when I felt like I was sinking.
As I sat up her soft brown eyes looked deep into mine and told me everything that was in her heart. She told me I had been a good daughter and that she was proud of my accomplishments. She told me she was grateful for our times together, for my love, and that she loved me beyond mere words.
I held her hand for a while longer and when I looked up once again, she was asleep. Her breathing was deep and steady. I whispered for her to stay just a little longer. I told her I wanted to be by her side when it was time.
I received the call the following morning. When I arrived she was lying quietly on her side, facing warm rays of the sun as they streamed through her window. The only sound I could hear came from an oxygen machine filling her lungs, keeping her alive just a little longer.
The attending nurse told her, “Marla’s here now Mirtle. Marla’s here.” I quickly took her hands in mine. Her eyes appeared to be looking at something but I couldn’t see what it was. It wasn’t for me to see. Those eyes that were once big and brown were now glazed over and small. I wondered if she saw me. I put my face in front of hers and kissed her forehead. I knew she could feel me, despite her cool hands. I held them tightly in both of mine. I tried to warm them in a final effort to keep her, then quickly realized I could not. I knew it would be at any moment.
I told her everything that was in my heart. I told her she’d been the best mother ever. I thanked her for giving me life, for teaching me how to stay afloat and for reminding me that life is a gift. I told her I loved her more than mere words could ever describe and that I would always remember everything about her. I thanked her for waiting for me so that I might hold her hand once more. I whispered to her, “Mom, you are a gift.” I gently kissed her cheek and she took her last breath. As she lie there peacefully, I knew she was finally free from an outer shell that had held her spirit captive far too long.
To this day, when I close my eyes I can still see my mother’s beautiful face and hear the gentle tones of her voice. I can still feel the softness of her skin, the warmth of her hands, her kindness and her ever lasting love.
Twenty years later, the memory of my mother continues to comfort me and keep me afloat in times of need.
A mother’s love is the strongest bond, one that knows no boundaries.