I’ve met a lot of incredible mothers. I’ve talked to Himalayan village women who have told me harrowing birthing stories. One of them told me how she gave birth at home alone, assisted only by her four-year-old daughter, who brought her the thermos of tea so she could clean the scissors she used to cut the umbilical cord. (She tied the cord with her own hair). I’ve met mothers who have raised a multitude of children, lived sacrificially, faced adversity, and grown even more beautiful with age. Yet of all these mothers, none rivals my own.
In her current job, my mother is required to write her own obituary, just in case she gets killed and nobody can spare the time in a crisis to write it for her. I find it hard to believe that anybody could consider such a task a waste of their time, crisis or not. Still, obituaries don’t benefit the dead. That’s one of the reasons I’m writing this now. My mother is alive, very alive, and she needs to know what I think of her.
My mother had a life of convenience and comfort in the warm and friendly metropolis of Los Angeles, but she chose to marry a farm kid from Canada. In her first few years of marriage, she had to learn how to butcher hundreds of turkeys, navigate small-town culture (which often proves much more lonely and harsh than Hallmark makes it out to be), and survive temperatures that make the hairs inside your nose freeze solid.
Then my parents decided to move to Asia to work with the rural poor, and my mother raised five kids in three countries. We turned out pretty well, but I know we didn’t always make it easy for her. Still, she would have never chosen “easy”. Take, for instance, my own birth. Of all the places she could have given me birth, my mother chose to deliver me at home in the kitchen of a tiny summer guest house in Pakistan. Afterwards my father ran around looking for a place to bury the placenta!
My mom is a nurse, and has provided medical advice and care to hundreds of people in Central Asia. But some of her best nursing happened when I was sick. I remember on one occasion when I was about seven or eight, I was sick in bed and she asked me what I wanted to eat. “I will make you anything you feel like eating,” she said. I thought about it, and said the most delicious thing I could think of, something I knew we could not find anywhere in the bazaar: marshmallows. A few hours later, my Mom brought me a tray of marshmallows, which she had made from scratch following an old family recipe. I was amazed!
On another occasion, I got sick to the point of delirium. It’s the only time I’ve ever been delirious, and I remember it vividly. I had just awoken from a nap in which I had seen a strange dream about a huge piano. I came out of my room and tried describing the dream to my mother. Somehow the words were not making any sense as they came out of my mouth, and they were punctuated by the loud roar of fighter jets flying low over our house. I don’t know how my mother held it together despite the many political, personal, and cross-cultural challenges of those early years, but she did it in such a way that some of our best childhood memories are from that period of time. Even this memory makes my siblings and me laugh.
People love visiting with my mother. Neighbors and friends drop by for tea almost every day of the week. She listens to their stories, laughs, and cries with them. She has a smile and a joy that the darkest circumstances cannot crumple. I think people are attracted to that. She has always had this joy, but I have watched it quietly and steadily increase over the years. I am attracted to it too.
Recently my parents have been talking about returning to Canada in retirement, and my mom is concerned that she won’t like living in Canada. She is concerned she will be lonely and without satisfying work. But I’m not concerned. The joy and love that has sustained her all these years are not dependent on where she lives. I can imagine her huddled up in a thick sweater in our Saskatchewan house, skyping with her grandchildren in some distant corner of the globe, making them giggle. Or sitting and listening to a refugee neighbor tell stories. Or pretending to fight with my dad over the last bowl of tapioca pudding. She will laugh. She’ll have tough moments too, when she misses the many meaningful relationships she has found in Asia. But she’ll be OK. After all, she has never been one to choose the easy way.