By Kate Kerry Spencer
Our parents are the lead characters in our first story. Whether they loved us, left us, or lost us somewhere along the way—or we lost them—our parents are the passageway of our arrival into the world. Our parents, particularly our mothers, are the first and most intimate bond we have with the world and ourselves. What they imprint on us can make life feel welcoming or fearsome—and sometimes both.
“Someday you’ll know,” my mother used to say to me. When I was little, it was often said to reassure me that her love was so big that it would take my becoming a grown up to fully comprehend the depth of it.
My mother was my father’s second, much younger, wife. When I was a child, I thought she was the most beautiful, magical creature ever born. Her laugher was contagious, her smile as big as the sky, her stories the ones I wanted to hear over and over again. But none of my mother’s magic could keep my father from drinking himself to death and nearly taking the rest of us—my mother, my sister, and me—with him.
I imagined there was a perfect place we could escape to. I imagined our life without his rants, rages and tears. I didn’t understand why my father couldn’t stop drinking. I didn’t understand why my mother couldn’t leave him. Then my father died and I didn’t understand why it broke all of our hearts.
My mother took up lying—to bill collectors, to old friends, to strangers, to her kids and to herself. She told glorious stories about buying presents that never arrived. She told righteous stories about paying bills that were never paid. She told elaborate, detailed and charming lies that took more energy than a simple truth, plainly spoken ever would.
And then one day, my mother suffered a major, smoker’s stroke. It paralyzed part of her body and liberated part of her mind. She had six weeks left to live and in those weeks she never told another lie. In fact, she told the greatest truth of her life.
Prior to that stroke, I had spent years away from my mother, often angry, sometimes anxious, and always on high alert for her next tall tale. In those years away from her, I felt I had unwound the story my mother had told me about myself, but had I unwound the story I told myself about my mother?
Then overnight, as her only family member in town when my mother had the stroke, I had to learn to how to tell—and to hear—a new story about my mother. The wonder of it was that the story came full circle. In the end, her love was so big that it took my becoming a grown up to fully comprehend the depth of it.
The magic of real love stories is that we have an integral part in creating them. Go create—and live—a story worthy of your big, brave heart.
Tonight, before you go to bed, sit down in a quiet place and put your hand on your heart. Think of your once-tiny heart beating for the very first time in your mother’s body. Think of how it might have been for your young mother who was carrying your brand new life: her joys, her fears, her uncertainty and her resolve to bringing you into this world, whether or not she actually raised you.
Then think of your mother’s heart beating in your body, think of what she gave you to live with, and perhaps, to live against. Think of how that living, both united and separate, is part of the joy of being a child and the work of becoming an adult.
Kate Kerry Spencer is a Pacific Northwest writer, editor, and publisher. Learn more about her upcoming memoir, Smoke: A Story of Love, Lies and Cigarettes.
Smoke is the story of fatal consolations--tobacco, denial and deceit--and the second chances that can come to us in the most unlikely places. For this mother and daughter it was a rehab center where the two women wrestled with cigarettes, scrambled brains and each other--and in the process, found the long way back to love.