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How To Mom, Without A Mom. Almost.

Maya Enista Smith / May 10, 2019

Maya Smith is Executive Director of Born This Way Foundation.

Today’s blog discusses suicide which may be triggering to survivors or to the family and/or friends of victims. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please seek help. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day or reach out to one of the other resources listed below for assistance.

Today’s blog also discusses grief and loss. Please visit Bo’s Place, which connects you with a variety of resources for helping those who have lost someone in their life.

Mother’s Day is mostly a celebration. It’s a day where we honor our mothers and mother figures who have birthed us, raised us, sacrificed for us, guided us, and/or helped us in any way. I also know that day can be complicated for many of us.

I’m writing today for those of us who may feel joy but also some pain on this holiday. My boss encourages us to be brave and share our stories. And at Born This Way Foundation, we believe speaking our truths not only help the people sharing, but also those who are silently relating – not yet ready to speak out themselves.

My husband and I have an ongoing, morbid argument in our home about how long it should take a person to die. His father died by suicide – quickly, devastatingly and while our family knew he had been suffering, no one woke up that day knowing that they’d lose George but by mid-afternoon, the world had cracked open and he was gone. For me, my heart skips a beat every time my little brother calls and I instinctively keep my phone close to my bed while I sleep because we’ve had practice with late night emergencies and dozens of nights in the hospital. My mother has multiple system atrophy, a rare, complicated disease that causes her autonomic and nervous system to slowly, but surely, shut down. I’ve never experience the kind of grief and trauma that Dave (my husband) has because my mom is – technically – still here.

This presents a hard to explain, painful balance for me on Mother’s Day, Grandma Day at preschool, when I’m at a loss for how to comfort a crying child, or when I want to celebrate the milestones that seem to happen every day in a house filled with two beautiful, hilarious, and adventurous babies. I am simultaneously heartbroken, and grateful. There are many blogs about the holes that those days and those experiences create in our lives, especially this weekend. For me, it’s also especially hard to take long drives, to get in arguments, to go to Starbucks, and to see airplane cutlery.

My mom immigrated to this country from Communist Romania to start a family in a community that valued choice, democracy, freedom, and rebellion. She was obsessed with my brother and me and if part of the recipe to a successful life is to know, deep down to your core, that you are loved then we are going to be OK because Duncan and I have that in spades. I spoke to her at least 5 times a day, from when I got my first pager and would call her back collect from pay phones around town debating curfews, to when I moved across the country to California to chase love. My phone and my time, even years after she lost the ability to use a phone unassisted, feels empty.

She and I were so alike, a funny fact that is repeating itself with my own four-year-old firecracker of a daughter, and we were both stubborn, opinionated, prideful, and biting with our words. We would argue – all the time – about things big and little and the arguments would end when I stormed off, without resolution, exhausted, and impressed by her commitment to continuing the mental jiu-jitsu of a trained psychoanalyst. She would come into my room or call me at the conclusion of each of our fights and tell me, especially as she was starting to get ill, that arguing releases endorphins and drives our adrenaline so we had both just done something really great for our bodies. I would roll my eyes and continue to stew, but I’d give anything to argue with her.

I was in high school when the Starbucks in the town next to ours opened. She and I would go every day that I didn’t have to be in school and she wasn’t with a patient. She was known to all of the baristas; they would come up to her and whisper about their marital problems or job woes and seek her pro bono mental health support. She would order a grande dry cappuccino and she would put her elbows on the bar, getting as close to the barista preparing her drink as she could, and direct them on their foam to espresso ratio. I would stand as far away from her as possible, so embarrassed by her violation of personal space but grateful for the free Frappuccino. Today, I walk into a Starbucks every single day of my life and I order a grande, dry cappuccino and I resist the urge to ask the baristas to hold the heavier-than-should-be cup when they hand a poorly prepared drink to me. I drink the mistakes, wish I was as bold as my mom, and make a mental note to not let Stephen make it next time because he just doesn’t take the dry request seriously enough for me.

Lastly, I was on a plane a couple days ago, as I often am for my work, and when I was served breakfast, I started to cry. It’s common and Delta is patient with me but my mom took us around the world – she showed us everything from Liechtenstein to the Louvre to Magic Mountain. On every flight home, she’d sit behind us, drink gin and tonics, and promise to never take us anywhere again because we had bickered too much and yet, there we went – on more adventures. I’m not sure how my brother passed the ethics portion of the bar because she’d also steal everything that wasn’t nailed down on the plane. At home, we’d eat with tiny Lufthansa forks, watch TV while nestled in Air France blankets, and sip coffee from those stackable, plastic KLM cups. She specialized in living as both entitled American measuring out dollops of foam in her cappuccino and thrifty immigrant, unsure of when she’d be in a situation where a tri-fold plastic airline escape postcard would come in handy.

I am waking up this morning – on Mother’s Day – the mother of two beautiful, hilarious children, married to a man that loves me and tolerates my Alina-like behaviors (all the way down to the airplane theft) and I am preparing for a trip to Switzerland, one of my Mom’s favorite places, to present my work eliminating the stigma around mental health (work that I do because of her) to the World Health Organization. She may not know all of these things but they are because of her so Ma, Happy Mother’s Day. Thanks for the adventures, the love, the confidence, the jokes, the strength, the bravery, the memories, and the family.

I hope reading my story helps you make space to reflect on and process your own, and maybe even share it. I promise, it helps.