Sitting in a rocking chair stroking my infant daughter's chick-fuzz hair and nuzzling her against my cheek, I think about how grateful I am to be a mother, and how much I miss my own.
My mother never got to meet Catalina. She died in October 2010 without even knowing I was pregnant with the child who would be her namesake.
But sometimes when I'm rocking my baby, I can feel my mom reaching through my arms and holding her granddaughter just the way she held her first grandson, my son Oliver, just two years ago. She's still teaching me to be a mother, even though now she is gone.
Her help after Oliver's birth was so invaluable I wondered how I'd do it without her.
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Mom came from her home in Levelland to walk me through that transition into motherhood. Nursing proved to be painful and difficult, and she sat next to me on the bed and showed me how to feed my baby just as she'd fed me and my three sisters when we were tiny. She walked around with such a gleam in her eyes, so that even though I was exhausted and in pain, I knew I'd just crossed over into the best phase of life.
Mom stayed awhile in Fort Worth, encouraging me and offering plenty of parental advice. Before she left, she cleaned and stocked our freezer with meals, her way of saying, "I know what this is. I've been there! You can do this -- and you'll love it. You'll see."
She always taught me that we're stronger than we think we are, and it's the times when we are weakest that we're able to discover our capacity for grace and strength.
I only saw her cry once, after she was diagnosed with cancer. I walked in a room when she wasn't expecting me and saw her hands covering her face, but when she saw me she smiled and told me to come in, that nothing was wrong.
Earlier that day, after chemo treatment, with a bag of poison attached to her body and dripping into her veins, she insisted on a run to Target to buy toys for Oliver. We'd come down to stay with her for the month, and she wouldn't have her grandson staying in a home that had any lack of things to play with. We'd come to help care for her, but that didn't stop her from caring for us.
More often than not, she had a sense of humor about the whole thing. My mom and I went to a baby shower for her friend's daughter. She was tired and sick, but she put on her makeup and jewelry, fixed what was left of her thinning hair, and fussed at me for taking too long.
It was obvious that people were surprised we showed up. A well-meaning friend came over to pat Mom on the leg and said, "I just worry about you!" My mom looked at her and said, "Well, Celia, I worry about you, too. For other reasons."
Two months before Mom died, my younger sister Sharon got married, and my mom got out on the dance floor and swirled around in my father's arms. You'd never know she had Stage IV cancer looking at her on the dance floor that night, lights shining brightly all around her.
That's the kind of strength I want to show my children, the kind that allows you to be dying but still full of joy and love for life, the kind that allows you to dance and celebrate life as you are losing yours, that reaches out to hold someone you love tightly until your very last breath.
I told her I didn't know if I could be as strong as she was.
"Oh, but you are that strong. You'll see," she told me.
I still remember the last time she held Oliver. I walked into the living room where my mother lay physically depleted, yellow from jaundice. She was coming in and out of lucidness, confused, almost ready to slip away. She looked up and saw Oliver, and with her very last bit of strength, she smiled and raised her arms up to her grandson, held him tight and made sure she knew he was loved.
The next day, she died.
For weeks I cried, kept to myself, ignored phone calls and e-mails and friends who reached out to me. I tried to smile but found it difficult.
And then I realized something I hadn't had time to consider in the darkness of the weeks following my mother's death: I was pregnant. I cried again, but this time with joy and thankfulness, for the hope and promise of new life. I cried out of gratefulness for the realization that although there is death, there is also life. That although my mother had died, a new baby would be born, and I would be a mother to her.
The second I found out I was pregnant, I knew it was a girl, and I knew I would name her after my mother.
Sometimes, especially around Mother's Day, I think about how not so long ago it was I who was the baby nursing in my mother's arms, and how I am thankful for the gifts my mother gave me, and for the gift of motherhood itself.