A few years ago, my husband took my daughters to pick out Mother’s Day gifts for me. They came home with two tiny trees, a dogwood and a Magnolia. It was a sweet gesture with real meaning behind it.
I’d grown up with a sprawling dogwood tree on the front yard of my Long Island home. I’d wanted to plant a dogwood of my own ever since we’d moved to upstate New York and purchased our house. The desire for a Magnolia tree came later.
My neighbor’s yard boasts an expansive magnolia tree whose pink blossoms blanket her yard with color each April. I’d thought it was just a very tall dogwood tree until she corrected me. Then, of course, I wanted one of my own.
On that Mother’s Day four years ago, we planted the trees together about twenty feet apart. They were fragile and small, not much more than sticks poking up out of the ground, but their roots took hold and they grew.
Today, both trees are thriving.
The dogwood hasn’t bloomed yet. The Magnolia tree bloomed for the first time in March of 2017, two weeks after my older daughter, Ana, died from a rare childhood cancer that she’d battled for five long years.
Both trees remind me, with equal certainty, that I have two daughters. I’ll always have two daughters, even though one isn’t with me anymore.
Putting mothers on display
There is no occasion that glorifies mothers more effusively than Mother’s Day. It is an in-your-face public display of affection celebrating one of the most aspirational idealizations of women — motherhood.
If I sound cynical, it’s because I am — just a little. I used to dismiss Mother’s Day as a Hallmark holiday, not worthy of much fuss (beyond sending my mother flowers and a card).
After my children were born, Mother’s Day became about them. It was also a way for me to celebrate motherhood as part of my identity, at first tentatively, then with gusto.
Motherhood settled itself around me like a comfortable old shawl and being a mother became the only definition of myself that really mattered. Suddenly those goofy cards and sappy commercials resonated with me. I was part of the tribe of mothers and I loved it.
The commercialization of Mother’s Day seems to grow exponentially each year. The ubiquity of social media gives us the ability to share our Mother’s Day moments — the smiling photos of our children, the cherished gifts of flowers and jewelry, the joyfully prepared breakfasts in bed.
For those of us that struggle with grief of any kind, but particularly for mothers who have lost children, Mother’s Day can be a perilous landscape of painful memories, guilt, and heartache. No one wants to put that on display and, I suspect, no one truly wants to witness a bereaved mother’s pain.
Perpetual love means perpetual grief
Grief over the loss of a child changes over time, but it doesn’t fade. Two years after Ana died, my grief for her is as sharp and real as my love for her. I hold them together, close to my heart.
Parents who lose children keep losing them — with each year that passes, the enormity of our loss becomes crystallized.
I lost my daughter when she was 15 — young, beautiful, and endlessly sad. Ana knew she was dying. She was old enough to feel cheated, old enough to understand that there was nothing we could do to save her.
I lost her again on my first Mother’s Day without her, weeping as I sat between the Magnolia and dogwood trees.
I lost her on what should’ve been her 16th birthday.
I lost her on New Year’s Day of 2018, the start of a year that she didn’t live to see.
I will lose her again this June, when I watch her friends and classmates graduate from high school, leaving an empty seat on the stage in her memory.
With each passing year, I will lose a little more of her as the decade and a half that she was alive begins to recede, and I turn a bit greyer, aging into a matriarch without her.
There will come a day when I’m so changed that I doubt she would even recognize me if she were to suddenly appear. On that day, I will lose her again.
Please spare a thought for grieving mothers
Mother’s Day for bereaved parents is punctuated by loss. It is an empty bedroom that has become a shrine. It is the wrong kind of quiet — a vacant silence that was once filled by a familiar, cherished voice.
It is a reminder that I once celebrated the miraculous joy of being someone’s mother and now that someone is gone. Where does the love go when your child dies? Nowhere.
On that first Mother’s Day, all I felt was anguish at the loss of my daughter. I didn’t understand what kind of mother I was anymore. Did I have one child or two? Nothing made sense to me back then — my identity was shattered. It was impossible for me to find joy in motherhood even though I still had one living child.
On the second Mother’s Day, I planted flowers and spent the day with my younger daughter. I still grieved, but the ache had become a little more bearable. I was a changed and broken mother, but I realized that I was doing both my daughters a disservice by spurning a day that we’d all celebrated together.
On this third Mother’s Day, I am ready to once again wrap myself in the comfortable shawl of motherhood. My pain is part of the fabric of this well-worn identity, it’s woven into every holiday and event, and every part of me.
Magnolia trees come in yellow
This year I learned that magnolia trees come in yellow. A teacher from Ana’s elementary school sent me a photo of one.
They’d planted the tree at the entrance to the school, a tribute to Ana’s memory. The email was simple and sweet. It read, “Ana’s tree made it through the winter and is blooming. Not many leaves yet, but the flowers are beautiful. It’s got us thinking of Ana.”
The teacher attached a snapshot of the flowers in bloom, butter yellow and vibrant, a perfect tribute to my girl. It filled me with joy — actual, unencumbered joy — to see those yellow flowers. It felt like a gift from Ana. Her tree had survived the winter, and so had I.
I drove to the school this morning to try and get some pictures of the tree in bloom, but the petals had already fallen off. They lay strewn atop a heart-shaped stepping stone that we’d made when we planted the tree last May. Magnolia flowers are fleeting, but beautiful. Like Ana, they are a gift. This year, I’m going to ask for a yellow Magnolia tree for Mother’s day.