I have been thinking about my mother quite a lot this Mother’s Day. She passed away nearly six years ago, and since that time, I have reflected often upon our relationship. I was never really very close to my mother. I never understood her; nor did she understand me. We clashed – frequently and loudly. For many years, I believed that my mother was weak, and I found it difficult to respect most of the choices she made. I suppose she knew this, deep down, and it pains me now to think that she did. You see, I falsely believed for much of my life that my mother had imparted to me no valuable life lessons, no words of wisdom that I might apply during difficult times. Indeed, she did not speak words of wisdom to me through her lips, but I realize now that she did so through her actions and with her very being. What I once interpreted as weakness, I now know to be strength – the kind of strength that is often overlooked or dismissed.
One particular incident from my teenage years where my mother was openly and publicly mocked stands out to me to this very day. My mother was overweight, obese, I suppose, and she frequently endured stares and whispers from many unkind souls when out in public, but on this particular day, the scoffers were a little more vocal. Their comments were rude and loud, and they attracted the attention of other shoppers around us that day. My mother ignored them, as she usually did, pretending not to notice or hear, and we went about our normal shopping.
I left that store wondering how my mother could possibly be so passive. How could she stand by and say nothing in the face of such ignorance and evil? How could she allow herself to be treated in this manner? Did she have no self-respect? Did she have no sense of justice? I looked down upon her for failing to respond. I felt a complete lack of respect. I felt… forgive me… distaste for her.
But I have since reflected upon that moment and others, and I have come to realize a couple of important truths. My mother, far from being weak, demonstrated a significant tolerance for pain and bore burdens far greater than most will ever know. She did not often stand up for herself in the manner that I would have wished her to do, but neither did she fail. She endured. She endured despite illness. She endured despite cruelty and pain. She endured despite what she must have known to be my lack of respect and admiration. She picked herself up, found a way to get through, and she persevered. Despite the vicious attacks and hurtful comments, despite the laughs and the scorn, she got up every day and lived her life. She persisted. She worked, took care of a family, and gave of herself to others in need in every way she knew to do. She did not harbor resentment, nor anger, nor hatred for anyone.
And there is another truth here. It is one I have had to face about myself. And it begins like this: Where was I that day? What did I do to step up, to help? I was upset, and I felt pity for her, but I did nothing. I stood in silence as the incident unfolded. I suppose I feared that if I spoke up, the mockers would intensify their attack on my mother or maybe even turn on me. But in any case, I stood there silently and never even offered my mother a word of sympathy. Her own daughter did nothing to protect her. How must that have felt? How much damage must I have, albeit unwittingly, done that day?
I wish I had defended my mother. I wish I had confronted my mother’s bullies – not in any kind of hostile manner, but in a matter-of-fact, discussion kind of way. I wish I had asked them why they felt the need to belittle another, what they thought gave them the right to treat an individual so unkindly, and why they felt so superior to their fellow human beings. I wish I had told these wayward souls that their behavior was inappropriate and unacceptable. I wish I had let them know that someone was willing to stand up and speak for those who, for whatever reasons, could not or would not stand up for themselves and confront their aggressors. I wish I had done it because it was the right and moral thing to do. But mostly, I wish I had done it so that my mother would have known that I cared and that I was not willing to let her suffer.
I realize now that human beings respond to adversity in many different ways. We all do the very best we can to get through this life, to endure the inescapable pain and hardships that accompany it. Our coping mechanisms take many different forms, and our paths vary, but, in the end, we are all struggling and simply fighting the best we know how to get through the tough times. My mother taught me that. And because of my experiences with her, because of that lesson imparted to me, my path today is quite different than what it might have been.
I see now that others matter, that their struggles are real, and that they cannot always take the path I take. I understand that their reluctance to speak out is not necessarily weakness or fault. I know that strength takes many forms and that they are exhibiting quiet strength – the kind that helps them survive in the face of devastation. And I understand that I can be their voice. I can do my part to challenge the “nastiness” and cruelty that abounds in this world. I can act to stand up for others who lack a voice and/or the means and will to help themselves in this manner. I can fight for those who are marginalized by society and who feel stigmatized or overlooked. I can represent those who fear speaking up or are unsure how, and I can help them find a way to be heard – or I can speak for them.
Before she died, my mother spent quite a bit of time on a ventilator, unable to communicate through speech for many months and then, finally, unable to respond at all. Her voice was silent, but her fight to survive spoke volumes to me. She battled to the end with a quiet strength, forged by years of torment and hardship. Her fight and her death touched me in ways that I cannot quite express, and it has, at least in part, made me the person I am today. I saw her in a different light at the end, and God, by His Grace, allowed me to understand that it is worth speaking up for those souls who remain silent and yet so desperately need a voice.