39: The Heart Remembers

39: The Heart Remembers

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grand and Great

The Heart Remembers

Accept the pain, cherish the joys, resolve the regrets; then can come the best of benedictions — “If I had my life to live over, I’d do it all the same.”

~Joan McIntosh

“The mother she remembers is the mother she will become.”

These words filled my head on the morning I became a mother for the first time. And as they placed Kaley in my arms, a warm, wriggling bundle with wide eyes, I’d vowed to myself that I was going to be the very best mother, the kind of mother that I did remember: loving, patient, ever-calm and placid. My whole life had pulsed with love, and as I stroked my baby’s tiny head, felt her turn her face to nuzzle my finger, I vowed to her, “You will know only love, little one. Only that.”

I remembered the quote again two weeks later, at 3:00 A.M. as I paced in circles with my screaming, colicky newborn in my arms. At that moment, however, the words were hardly a comfort. After all, what baby would want to remember me as I was then — sleep deprived, anxious, patience worn as sharp and thin as a razor blade.

And despite my earlier vow, I sure wasn’t feeling love. I wasn’t feeling much of anything. I was numb, weak with fatigue, trying to do everything by myself even though my husband and mother were asleep just down the hall. I shushed Kaley and cradled her closer, but she just kicked and flailed and wailed even louder. Suddenly I couldn’t stop the tears. I sank to the floor in the darkened living room, lay her in my lap and sobbed into my hands.

I don’t know how long I stayed that way, but even though it seemed like hours, it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. Through a haze of tears, I saw the light go on in the hallway, silhouetting the figure of my mother as she shrugged into her housecoat. Soon I felt her hand on my shoulder.

“Give me that baby,” she said.

I didn’t argue. Defeated, I just handed the screaming bundle over and crawled to the sofa, where I curled into a tight ball.

My mother murmured into Kaley’s ear, and with an ease borne of decades of practice, shifted her to her shoulder. Eventually the crying turned to sniffles, the sniffles to hiccups, and in half an hour, I heard only muffled baby snores.

I felt relief but no real peace. What kind of mother couldn’t calm her own child? What kind of mother didn’t even want to try? I watched Mama ease into the rocking chair, watched her start the slow rhythm that I knew had lulled me to sleep on countless nights, and all I felt was a sense of desperate, exhausted failure.

“I’m a terrible mother,” I muttered.

“No, you’re not.”

“You don’t understand.” Fresh tears thickened at the corner of my eyes. “Right now, I don’t even like her. My own baby.”

My mom laughed softly. “Well, she hasn’t been very likable today, now has she? But you stayed with her through it all. You’ve bounced her, rocked her, walked her. And when none of that worked, you just held her and kept her close.”

I sat up and wrapped my arms tightly around my knees. “But all I feel inside is frustration and anger and impatience. What kind of mother is that?”

My mom didn’t reply immediately. She just looked down at the sleeping baby in her arms. But her face grew thoughtful, and when she spoke, her voice had a faraway, wistful quality. “I remember all those,” she said softly. “Especially the last one. After you were born, I used to pray for patience. Cried and begged for it.” She looked at me, a half-smile on her face. “Still haven’t gotten it yet.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “But, Mama, that’s the thing I remember most about you. No matter what, you never lost your cool. You somehow managed to keep everything going all at once.”

She had. No matter how many brownies needed baking at the last minute, no matter how many science project posters needed coloring, my mother always came through. Always calm. Always serene. As a nurse, she worked irregular hours, but at every play and every recital I was in, even if she didn’t make the opening curtain, I could always count on seeing a familiar figure in white slipping into the darkened auditorium.

This was the mother I remembered, the mother who made every moment matter. The mother who never behaved the way I felt right then.

“I could always count on you,” I said. “Always.”

But to my surprise, she rolled her eyes. “That may be the way you remember it, but all I remember is being pulled in seven directions at once. You and your brother, your father, the people at work. They all needed me, but I never had enough time to be there for everybody.”

“But you were always there!”

She shook her head. “Not like I wanted to be, not as often or for as long. And so I prayed for patience, so that I could make the best of the time we did have. But you know what they say. God doesn’t send you patience. He just sends you moments that make you practice being patient, over and over again.”

She looked down at Kaley. “Moments like this one.”

I watched the two of them, and then suddenly I understood: Memories don’t rest in our brains, which are apt to record the details wrong anyway, but in our hearts. My mom and I didn’t recall my childhood in exactly the same way, but we did share the one thing that did matter.

We both remembered the love.

I moved from the sofa and sat at the foot of the rocking chair. We stayed that way for a while — my mother, my daughter and I. And even though the crying started again at sunrise, for that golden, still moment, as I sat at my mother’s feet and lay my hand on the soft hair of my daughter, I breathed a silent “thank you.”

If Kaley somehow remembers that night, I hope she will recall only the instinctive love that kept me by her side through it all.

~Tina Whittle
Chicken Soup for the Mother’s Soul 2

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