The other day I was running late for work, just one chapter in a comically star-crossed day that included a full parking lot at the train station, a full bladder leading me to an out-of-service public restroom, and my foot landing squarely in a pile of dog poo 5 minutes before a big meeting. At this moment, I was driving (hurriedly though of course safely) with a sense that I’d make it almost on time IF I didn’t hit any obstructions or delays . . . and at that moment I came to a stop sign while a funeral procession drove by across me. I don’t know if I’m becoming enlightened or if recent wounds are simply still fresh, but my annoyance disappeared before it even emerged. I just sat there in my car and reflected on the reality that everybody in each of those cars had lost somebody. And indeed, who hasn’t?
Mother’s Day is here, and it is a time of celebration and acknowledgment for some (most?) and a time of bringing difficulty into sharp relief for others. I am certainly not advocating that those who are experiencing the telephone-commercial version enjoy their day one iota less. Quite the contrary, taking a moment to empathize with those who are dealing with loss should only enhance the edict to enjoy and savor each moment of love and togetherness.
Growing up, I seldom gave Mother’s Day a thought. In my upbringing, one made token acknowledgment of this day, but it was framed as essentially a ruse by the greeting card, flower and chocolate industries to a) make money and b) absolve neglectful children of their guilt by giving them a one-day opportunity to act appreciative. It was really only after I got married (and thus became part of another family) that I began to first see that not everyone feels this way, and then realize that everyday appreciation doesn’t make it a bad idea to heap it on to a deserving mother on that day. When we became parents, my appreciation for Kate’s devotion to our girls increased that sense all the more.
Eventually, though, I started to see the parallel thread of people for whom Mother’s Day is complicated, and nowhere was that brought into sharper relief than learning about the world of foster care. As a kid, I had little exposure to the notion of kids being raised by someone other than their birth parents, and the relatively few people I knew who were adopted didn’t outwardly express any longing for their birth parents. Maybe I can blame my ignorance on the writers of the Brady Bunch? I guess they had to heavily edit the episode where a teary-eyed Bobby had to be restrained while screaming at Carol “You can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my real mother!”
Holidays are often hard for any trauma survivor, and over time I started to understand that there is a unique sort of challenge to those holidays revolving around complicated relationships. How does Mother’s Day feel when you can’t see your birth mom, maybe don’t even know where she is? When you are being asked to celebrate a “new” mother who you don’t yet entirely know or trust? When you are doing the work of mothering for your niece or your granddaughter or your child’s best friend, but without the ceremonial title that goes with the work? We Americans don’t like these asterisks (“Happy Mother’s Day*”) so it’s much easier to simply not think about that stuff.
*unless for some reason it’s unrealistic to expect happiness, in which case I will struggle really hard in a futile attempt to come up with something comforting and not feel like a jerk . . .
Now I find myself ever-conscious of another layer and type of loss. How do you celebrate Mother’s day when you’ve lost a child? Or when you yourself have become a motherless child? Or when you are a bereaved spouse and thus a father of motherless children? It could be violence, it could be illness, it could be any number of things, but this is the unintentionally painful flip side of every “happy” holiday – the world is reminding you of how happy you could be if not for your loss.
Last year I wrote a tune called “Motherless,” inspired by the most spiritually transcendent work of the “classic” John Coltrane Quartet and incorporating “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” That old spiritual is generally used metaphorically to refer to displacement or simply feelings of overwhelming grief and struggle. Any metaphor, however, is only effective insofar as people can relate to the imagery. And being a motherless child a long, long way from home is chilling in ways that can haunt any of us, even if we have been fortunate enough not to have experienced this directly. The bond between mother and child is one of the most sacred elements of human existence, and that means that losing this bond hurts in ways that cut right to the core. If you can’t understand what it must feel like, don’t feel guilty, feel grateful.
When I perform “Motherless,” I sometimes sing a verse or two of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Trust me, it isn’t that I’ve decided I’m the second coming of Paul Robeson. The intention is to simply inhabit and communicate the emotion as directly as I know how. Recording that for the Ripples album felt a little risky in that regard, but ultimately this is about emotional potency, not being pretty. Any emotional release for me or for listeners may be a drop in the bucket, but I’m learning not to discount the drop. And as we come together through the great brotherhood of humankind, we can’t fill the void for those experiencing this sort of loss, but we can make the suffering more tolerable. At minimum we can acknowledge those for whom “Happy Mother’s Day” is not realistic by taking a moment to send prayers or good vibes or kind thoughts their way, while savoring our own blessings all the more.