Note: This is a guest essay by Denise Barry.
Growing up, I didn’t really look like anyone in my family. Adults would study me and proclaim that I must have come from the milk man. When I was mad at my family, for whatever reason, I’d use this as a tool to feel sorry for myself, casting myself as the outsider.
There was, however, no denying that I had my mother’s hands. My three sisters had long, beautiful fingers – like our father’s. I, on the other hand (literally), had my mother’s short, stubby fingers. Back then I refused to see the resemblance. I was afraid that if I looked like my mother, then I would act like her too.
My mother was part traditional/part tyrannical. At least to my child’s eye. She cooked. She cleaned. She baked chocolate chip cookies. But buried deep in the pockets of her apron there was sadness, insecurity, and loneliness so extreme it manifested in many ways. She was easy to anger, hard to please and in need of a lot of attention.
As a little girl I was always trying to please her and be her favorite – even if it meant tattling on one of my sisters – just to be deemed the “good” daughter. As a teenager I rebelled. I wanted my mother to know how much she’d disappointed me. As an adult, I craved her time and attention: a lunch out, a day of shopping, a visit to my house for a coffee chat. But my mother flatly exclaimed she preferred to stay home. Years after I was married, I was able to bury the need for my mother. I focused on my own family, pretending it was enough.
On the very day my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, everything within me changed. It wasn’t about me any more. I didn’t care how she had made me feel once upon a time. I only cared about how she felt – and how to get her through this. I began calling her every day and asking how she was. There wasn’t much to talk about – other than her illness. I was happy just to hear her voice. I’d visit, not expecting anything from her other than to be near her. I didn’t judge what she said or did because there was so little time. Any time she mentioned needing something (like money for the outrageously expensive pills which allowed her to digest a meal), I’d willingly, happily give it to her. It felt good just to “do” for her.
A couple days before she died, as I was pushing my mother in her wheelchair, I got up the nerve to tell her that I loved her and shared how much I loved spending time with her. This felt very intimate to me – thereby unfamiliar. After all, my standard share was a peck on the cheek and a distracted “love you.” My mother sweetly replied, in an unguarded voice, which was lightly laced with morphine, “You can see me any time you want.” That’s when I realized maybe she wasn’t there for me in exactly the way I had wished – but yes, my mother had always been there for me.
We put her in hospice that day. As I helped care for her, I held her hands in mine and realized how dear those hands were to me. Today I look at my own, mirrors of my mother’s. I thank God for giving me these hands. They are the truest thing I have of hers.
written by Denise Barry