It was five years ago today that my mother died. Five years ago we spent this day peacefully sitting by her bedside saying goodbye. This is a regular occurrence with my friends these days, losing parents. We are the older generation now, and it feels weird.
I feel so much younger than my mother when she was my age. I wonder what her perception was? To me, my mother always seemed old. She wasn’t athletic, or particularly physically active, though she had stamina and would rally for entertaining stints. That was a physical feat; I recognize now. She’d had many back surgeries and was often in pain. She winced and sighed while walking up stairs. Yet, at church dances, she’d be out there cutting up the floor in high heels, having a good time. All the old people were. They were probably ten years younger than I am now.
Yesterday, I hosted the state meeting of nurse-midwives. We used to meet on Friday evenings, four times a year, somewhere in the middle of the state, usually Augusta. Maine is a big state, and we tried to keep everyone’s travel time down to three hours each way. That’s back when there were only ten of us; there are seventy now. Back then, many of us were in solo practice and we were professionally lonely. I’d leave my island around 3 p.m. and drive toward Augusta, collecting midwives along the way. We’d talk our brains out, not even noticing the drive and arrive with food and spend the next three hours in the company of strong, competent women, problem solving, planning, strategizing, and nurturing. We understood each other, had mutual goals, faced similar obstacles to our practice, and learned from each other. That was twenty four years ago. Friday nights were the best time to meet, since we didn’t have office hours the next day and didn’t want to take a weekend day away from our families. We looked forward to those meetings as booster shots. We’d return home well after midnight.
Now, the Friday evening doesn’t work so well. Many don’t drive at night anymore. Our children are fledged, and Saturday mornings are a better time. We’re old…er. We’ve morphed and adapted, and gathered yesterday amid hugs, exclamations, stories, and frustrations pouring forth. We shared food–– beautiful nurturing food. We attempted to have others join us via computer, trying to utilize technology to optimize attendance for those who couldn’t travel or leave their practice. It didn’t work so well. We’ve got kinks to work out.
We sat in an irregular circle, accommodating the contours of the room. I wondered if the cat had been sleeping on all the chairs, and realized I hadn’t vacuumed everywhere. The late autumn sunlight drew my attention to cobwebs and window streaks and golden fluff. I hoped no one was allergic to cats, but let that go when I didn’t see anyone sneezing. The old group mingled with the young women there, students, eager to be involved. There were women I’d met with and worked with and pushed legislation with for the past 24 years. Our hair is grey. We are grandmothers. We’ve buried our parents and some of our colleagues. A few have retired.
We went around the room and each gave a report on what we’ve been up to. There were some disturbing events that transpired since we’d last met and we amended the agenda to discuss ways to be supportive. Legislative reports were given involving complicated issues affecting women in our state––difficult decisions about risks to women and risks to our practices. There were thoughtful discussions about ramifications of our recommendations, possible backlash from the medical establishment, and barriers to our practice. There were two students there who are considering midwifery for a career. I wondered what they were thinking. When they asked if they could attend the meeting, I wonder if they thought we’d be all touchy feely, talking about breastfeeding and water birth. I tried to gauge their expressions, boredom? shock? when the meeting sounded more like a legislative committee than a Mother Jones reunion.
I listened. I listened to these women who work so many hours, then give up their free time to work on these issues. They attend meetings at the capitol. They understand the legislative process and the medical and nursing boards. They know the nuances of getting a bill passed––who to engage, which dogs to let sleep. I watched a few knit, completely engrossed in their creative design, then contribute a profound and insightful comment about how to proceed. I love these women. I studied their faces. Everyone seemed so young to me. I thought, can it really be 24 years ago I first met them? Grey hair seemed youthful on everyone. They’re all so beautiful and wise. I thought of how differently I viewed my mother when she was this age. Were the same qualities there, I just couldn’t see them? Was I just a smarty pants know-it-all who didn’t fully appreciate what she had to give?
My life was so different from my mother’s. She couldn’t understand my need for adventure and travel. She worried about me. She hated that I went overseas to work. I know now that it was out of worry and concern for my safety, but at the time I saw it as being unsupportive. It seemed I was always swimming upstream. I used to think I would love it if my kids went off and did this! Why was she always giving me grief about it?
At a book talk last week, an old friend was there who knew my mother. As I described the experience of working with traumatized women, this friend made a comment about how worried my mother was while I was gone that year. I realized in that instant, that the book may never have happened without my mother. The emails were my attempt at reassuring her that I was ok, but they turned into a story about a population the world does not know. Stories about mothers who’ve lost their children over and over again. They’ve lost their homes and husbands and sometimes their will to live. I felt like what I was offering them was so meager. I felt like my mother’s offering was meager still. All she had to do was let me go without complaining. I told her that was her contribution, just let me go. But I knew she was worried, and I promised to reassure her every week. In the end, her contribution was huge. She guided me to a path in life I’d never expected. I wish she were here to see her part in that journey.