Today is May 15th, the official date when it’s safe to plant tender annuals in your Utah garden. Sure, you can risk it and plant geraniums and lobelia around the first of May but nine years out of ten a wicked frost will come and wither your blossoms away.
I learned this, and countless bits of gardening lore as I sat in the flower beds with my mom, mixing steer manure and peat moss and learning the names and whims every plant– impatiens need shade, hydrangeas require acidic soil, and cosmos– those almost weeds– will thrive anywhere.
Because mid-May is too long to wait for beauty, my mother taught me to plant my pots with snow-hearty plants in late March—elegant ranunculus, cheerful pansies, button-cute English Daisies and one leggy graceful bleeding heart that would later be translated to the perennial garden.
While expecting my older brother, my mother’s doctor confirmed that she was Rh negative and could only have two children. The first baby would not be affected by the Rh factor, the second might have problems, but the third would certainly die.
My two older brothers came quickly, only 15 months apart, and my parents were relieved that their babies were healthy. Confident with dual forms of birth control, my mother was adjusting to life with two baby boys when she discovered that she was pregnant once again.
It was April of 1969.
Just 3 months earlier, scientists introduced Rhogam—injections formulated to prevent stillbirth during the 3rd pregnancy in Rh-negative women. I visited the Rhogam website a few days ago and cried as I read through the testimonials of women who’d been through a string of stillbirths— 1957, 1963, 1967, 1969.
I’ve been told that my mother’s pregnancy with me was uneasy, stressful. It would be her third childbirth in 2½ years and the injections were so new, so untried that nightmares of stillbirth regularly disturbed her waking and sleeping hours.
I was born 2 weeks early, fragile and dangerously jaundiced. The doctors gave me a full blood transfusion and I spent 15 days in the newborn intensive care unit.
But I lived.
By all accounts, I was a mellow baby, an easy child: quiet, respectful, eager to please. And the early years were busy yet blissful. And then, two things happened at once: my baby sister was born–healthy but still vulnerable– and a neighbor asked my mother if their foster child, my oldest brother’s age, could sleep over one night. Two days later, his foster family informed my parents, “He’s your problem now. We’re not coming to pick him up.”
And so my mother had four children at nearly identical ages: 7, 7, 6 and 5, plus an infant. It was a difficult job for anyone, but our isolated address (no neighbors for 1/2 mile), Dad’s long hours at the office and my adopted brother’s baggage of abuse and mental illness presented a Herculean task. Countless facets of normal family life are put on hold when you are juggling juvenile courts, suicide units, drug rehab and school disciplinary councils for one child.
Much is expected of an oldest daughter, and for a hundred nameless reasons my relationship with my mother was never as it should be, as it could be. It’s so unfair to be a mother, isn’t it? My kids have spilled the orange juice countless times but rather than noting my usual quiet clean-up they remember the time I lost it, that day I yelled and screamed and swore I’d never buy orange juice again.
And so, when I push away the cobwebs of misunderstanding, I see so many things she did right:
A golden autumn afternoon when she gathered us around her sewing machine and offered, “What do you want to be for Halloween? Name it and I’ll make it.” We chose ambitious disguises: a robot, a centipede, a lion and a sparkly witch. Days later the elaborate costumes emerged from the sewing room as if spun by magic. A wide scarlet ribbon bedecked my black witch hat and the iridescent silver skirt cascaded to the floor. A twig broom, spray-painted silver, was my prized accessory. I remember feeling sorry for the kids with store-bought costumes.
A black and white cat that became my very own—because she knew I loved kitties the most.
The year she drove me to 4:30 a.m. swim practice 5 days a week. On the return trip, from the pool to school each day, she handed me a mason jar of orange juice and an English muffin filled with scrambled eggs.
And in high school- when our relationship was shaky and guarded- she knocked on my door at 5:30 each morning to ask if I needed anything ironed. My groggy answer was always “No.” But I see now that she was saying, “I love you. I care about you.”
The bleeding hearts can’t wait until mid-May. Two weeks ago mine became wilty and angry and begged to stretch their roots in the garden. Mary wore her stiff pink garden gloves and chatted with me as I dug deep holes over by the rose arch, “What’s this called? Is that a weed? Why are you putting that funny dirt in? Let me do that one!” I couldn’t help but smile and acknowledge this legacy of dirt and roots and blossoms.
Finished with the transplanting, I turned to the beds to pull a few hearty weeds. Erik emerged from the house, “It’s your mom,” he covered the earpiece with his hand, “it sounds important.”
Wiping my hands on my jeans, I took the phone and sat on the porch. “Hi Mom.”
“I have good news and bad news.” She chirped.
“I have the best, most treatable form of liver cancer. But I have liver cancer.”
Honestly, and I’m sure this sounds heartless; the news of cancer was expected. My mother’s health had been poor for a decade. She was the last of my children’s four grandparents to have cancer and her eventual diagnosis felt inevitable. But her next words could not have surprised me more:
“During this past week, as I’ve waited for the biopsy, I’ve been examining my life. I’ve been thinking.” I heard her voice crack and strain.
“And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ever since you were a little girl I’ve been hard on you. I don’t know why. I know I made you feel unloved.”
I wanted to object. She didn’t need to apologize; our relationship has been fine for the past several years. It was OK; I understood, and I have made oh-so-many mistakes of my own. But her words split my heart right open and filled an empty aching hole.
“Are you still there?” she asks.
By now, my throat has contracted and tears spill relentlessly from my cheeks. The only reply I can manage is a sharp intake of breath, a fragment of a cry.
“And I want you to know that I love you. I’m proud of you. I cherish you. My time left may but short; but it will be….” Sobs steal her voice too, and as the sun sets on my porch we sit and cry together.
Finally, I find words, “I love you too, mom.” We both hang up, because it’s all we can take. I’m amazed and overwhelmed and frightened too because my heart has never felt so clean and soft.
I have no baby pictures. My early advent and the ensuing chaos at home precluded any kind of photographs. But in my mind I can clearly see my mother:
She is young, her brown hair curling around her pretty face and her figure still slim despite her recent pregnancy. Wrapped in a blue knee-length robe, she peers into a glowing isolette. A sleeping newborn lies under the glowing bili lights wearing nothing but a cloth diaper and a tangle of tubes and wires. Baby’s umbilical cord has dried to a brown stub and will soon fall away and her body is a sickly deep yellow as her weak liver struggles to clean the blood.
Anxiety rests on my mother’s shoulders and trickles down to her slippered feet, but I can feel her luminous, brimming love for this fragile unexpected babe. And I can see a beginning, a fresh new future for both of us.