There is Joy and Pain in Every Season of Motherhood

A photo of the winter sky — taken by my daughter from her bedroom window about six weeks before she died

he season of my daughter’s death is winter. It is, in fact, the darkest part of winter. Four years ago, Ana’s oncologist told us she was terminal. That was sometime in the summer of 2016. By January of 2017, it became apparent that she would not live to reach her 16th birthday in May. As the weeks grew colder, the weather harsher, and the landscape increasingly grey, she withered and faded and ebbed.

She died two days after the spring equinox so I guess that, technically, spring is the season of her death. But so much of her dying happened during winter, that I’m able to give spring a pass. Plus, spring is the season of her birth. It’s the season I became a mother (twice over). First in May of 2001 and then in April of 2004.

Even so, early spring is hard for me. As the world begins greening and birds start the busy process of nesting, I’m reminded that Ana died right before things began to bloom. But as spring pushes forward, the bleakness of winter — and grief — fades.

I ride these cycles of grief and motherhood year after year, enjoying autumn, dreading winter, anticipating spring, and spending summer in a state of contemplation — on trails, watching birds, and getting lost in the long bright days that inevitably grow darker and shorter.

Winter always comes too soon.

December is a welcome distraction to the season, but after the presents are opened and the decorations put away, January returns, with that same, relentless grey sky that filled Ana’s bedroom window in the last months of her life.

Motherhood is made of seasons. The springtime of my own motherhood is a distant memory, a thing I charted with singular intent — ovulation, menstruation, and the peaks and troughs of basal body temperature (recorded carefully, hopefully.)

That part of my life feels like a dream, a season that came and went in an instant. I’d planned for Ana, my first baby, a child who was supposed to turn 20 next year, never dreaming she wouldn’t live past the first season of her life. Then I’d planned for her sister, Emily, who will be 17 in April.

The summer of my motherhood, when the girls got a little older and our family felt complete, was the happiest time of my life. I can’t help but envy my younger self, the not-so-new mother who loved all the seasons equally.

Spring was about birthday parties, flowers, and Easter egg hunts. As the girls grew from babies and toddlers to giggling children, it became a busy time of school plays and milestones, and the sweet, wide-eyed anticipation of summer.

Ah summer, with its long days and warm nights, its sidewalk chalk and swimming pools, and the hours of digging holes, catching frogs, and eating ice cream— all of it leading to the next, wonderful season.

Autumn, with its blaze of color and all those first days — third grade, fourth grade, fifth…and the Halloweens with their pumpkin patches and face paint and piles of candy, a precursor to the best season of all, winter with snow and lights and Christmas.

Those two little girls, circling around me and through me, became inseparable from the seasons. For me, the line of motherhood starts with my babies being born in spring and ends with two little girls surrounded by Christmas presents. That line forms a circle, a cycle, an endless pattern tied to the promise of each new season.

Back then, I didn’t recognize that the seasons had bound themselves to motherhood so completely and, in doing so, distracted me from contemplating my own life and its next, waning season. I embraced the distraction. Why go there? Like all seasons in their prime, early motherhood felt like it would last forever.

I entered the autumn of motherhood, though I didn’t know it at the time, in September of 2012, when Ana was diagnosed with cancer.

That was the year I turned 41 and my girls turned 11 and 8. It should’ve ushered in an exciting time for me, dominated by newfound freedom as my children became more independent and my identity, and attention, began to shift away from them and back to me.

But instead, motherhood grew older (and me with it) beneath the cloud of Ana’s illness. She struggled with it for nearly five years as I aged without realizing it. I clung to the memories of early motherhood and stopped looking forward to each new season because each one held the threat of Ana’s loss.

I tried to hold the seasons in place, but we all know that’s futile. They kept moving forward and, before I realized it, I was no longer a new mother, a young mother. It happened without me noticing, so intent was I on pausing time. Then came that terrible winter, the year we lost Ana. By then I was well into the autumn of motherhood.

At 49 years old, I am standing at the cusp of winter. In a few years, my youngest will fly the nest and my ripest season of mothering will be over. What then? I’ve spent so much of my time yearning for those early years or trying to keep time from moving forward, that I’m not sure I know how to embrace this final season. I wonder, though, what will it look like if I try?

For me, grief and motherhood are intertwined. There is joy and pain in every season. Spring is when Ana died, but it’s also when she was born. Winter brought her the most joy — oh, how she loved Christmas — but it also brought her the most sorrow as she recognized that she was dying. She understood all that she was losing.

I now know that Ana’s final season was going to come whether I wanted it to or not. I didn’t understand that when my grief was still fresh. I felt that I had failed her. I had not been able to stop winter from coming. The irony of time is that we lose so much of it when we try to stop it from passing by.

Ana knew this. She would’ve reminded me that some people are lucky to live long enough to experience all four seasons of life. I’m bracing myself for the coming winter, but I’m also trying to see things from a new perspective.

Winter has its joys. Ana understood that, even though she didn’t live past her own spring. There is hope in acceptance — in embracing this phase of my life with its slowing down and its hard-earned wisdom. And there is still much to look forward to.

The future holds the promise of watching Emily move into to next season of her life and the next one after that. The prospect of seeing her bloom has me hoping that my winter will be a long one.

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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