I Still Choose “Mom”

I Still Choose “Mom”

From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

I Still Choose “Mom”

I watched through blurred vision as my husband, Chuck, walked away with his ex-wife.

The heaviness in all our hearts was almost unbearable. Turning back to my stepson’s casket I somehow helped my children pluck a rose from the brother spray to press in their Bibles. With tears streaming down my face, I rested my hand on the son spray. I no longer knew my place.

God, I silently screamed, how did I fit in Conan’s life?

From the moment I’d met my stepson, I was in awe of this angelic little boy whose bright, blond hair seemed to glow with a heavenly radiance. At only a year-and-a-half, he was built like a three-year-old. Solid and stocky, sleeping curled in my lap, his tiny heart beat against mine, and a maternal bonding began stirring inside me.

Within a year I became a stepmother to Conan and his older sister, Lori. Soon after that, a visit to the doctor revealed some disheartening news.

“You have an infertility disease,” the doctor had said. “You might not ever have children of your own.”

At twenty-two, that news was shattering. I had always wanted to be a mother. Suddenly, I realized being a stepmother might be as close as I would get, and I became even more involved in their lives.

But thankfully, four years later we joyfully discovered I was pregnant. Chase was born, then two years later we were blessed with our daughter, Chelsea.

I loved being both a mom and a stepmother, but as in any blended family, it had its ups and downs. Chuck’s ex-wife had custody of his kids and gave them more freedom than we gave our children. Needing to be consistent with our rules, I’m certain we appeared overly strict to his kids. On their weekend visitations, I usually felt like an old nag.

As a second wife, I was jealous of my stepchildren’s mother. I complained about her and her husband within earshot of my stepkids, and even grumbled about buying my stepchildren extras on top of paying child support. Somehow I overlooked the important fact that my step-children were the innocent ones thrust into a blended family.

Then one day at a gathering of my own family, I watched as my mother went up to my stepmother and gave her a hug. I turned and saw my father and stepfather laughing together. Having always appreciated the cooperative relationship my parents and stepparents had, it occurred to me that Chuck’s children longed for the same. So Chuck and I decided to work hard at bridging gaps instead of creating them.

It wasn’t easy, and changes didn’t come overnight, but they did come. By the time Conan was fifteen, a peace had settled between parents and stepparents. Instead of griping about child-support payments, we voluntarily increased them. And finally Conan’s mom gave us copies of his report cards and football schedules.

I was proud of my kids and stepkids. After graduation, my stepdaughter married, and she and her husband built a house together. At seventeen, Conan had become a sensible, intelligent young man. With rugged good looks and a deep, baritone voice, I wondered what fortunate girl would snatch him up.

But then came that phone call, changing our lives forever—Conan was killed instantly by a drunk driver.

Over the years we’d been married, Chuck had reassured me that I was a parent to his children, too. He sought my opinion in matters concerning them and relied on me to make their Christmases and birthdays special. I enjoyed doing those things and looked upon myself as their second mother.

But in his grief immediately upon Conan’s death, Chuck suddenly stopped seeking my opinion and began turning to his ex-wife. I knew they had to make many final decisions together, and I realized later that he was trying to spare me from the gruesom details, but for the first time, I began to feel like an outsider instead of a parent.

I also knew the driver responsible for the accident had to be prosecuted, which meant Chuck and his ex-wife would have to stay in contact. Those ugly jealousies from the past began to resurface when, night after night, he talked to her, seldom discussing their conversations with me.

And it stung when friends inquired only about Chuck’s coping, or sent sympathy cards addressed just to him, forgetting about me and even our two children. Some belittled my grieving because I was “just” a stepparent. Did anyone realize my loss and pain? I’d had strong maternal feelings for Conan; he considered me his second mother— or did he? As the weeks turned into months, that question haunted me, dominating my thoughts. I became driven to understand just what my role had been.

I rummaged through boxes of photos and dug out old journals, searching the house for mementos, even Christmas ornaments he had made.

There were several comforting journal excerpts, one describing Mother’s Day phone calls from Conan to me, and a beautiful white poinsettia he gave me at Christmas. And I cherished the memories old photos brought back— his loving bear hugs after cooking his favorite meal—or a kiss for simply doing his laundry. As comforting as these things were, they still weren’t enough.

One beautiful spring day, almost a year after he died, I was lovingly caressing the pressed rose from his grave that I kept in my Bible. Suddenly, I felt compelled to visit his grave alone. I had never done that before, but I desperately needed some answers.

Arriving at the gravesite, I remembered Chuck mentioning that the permanent headstone had recently arrived. Chuck had told Conan’s mom to select what she wanted. As I looked down on the shiny marble surface, I noticed she had chosen a bronze sports emblem, along with a picture of Conan that had been permanently embedded under a thick layer of glass.

I bent down and lovingly ran my fingers over his engraved name and the dates commemorating his short life. Through a mist of tears, memories of a rambunctious, fun-loving little boy filled my heart. The child I’d mothered part-time for so many years may not have come through my body, but I had been chosen by God to provide a maternal influence in his life. Not to take his mother’s place, but to be just a “step” away. I suddenly felt very honored to have been chosen.

“It was a privilege to be your stepmother,” I whispered out loud, bending to kiss his picture.

Finally, a sense of peace was beginning. With a heavy sigh, I got up to leave. But as I turned to walk away, the sun glistened on the border of the headstone, causing me to look back.

“Oh my gosh! How could I have not noticed it before?”

The entire border of the headstone was trimmed in gold shafts of wheat . . . exactly like a gold shaft-of-wheat pin Conan had given me years ago. Chills ran up and down my spine. I hadn’t seen that pin in years.

Somehow, I just knew it was the missing link. I had to find that pin.

The ride home was a blur. I was so excited. Finally, I was upstairs in my bedroom tearing apart my jewelry box. Where was it? Dumping the contents on the bed, I frantically tossed earrings and pins to and fro.

Nothing.

God, this is important. Please help me find it, I prayed.

Turning from the bed I felt compelled to search my dresser. Rummaging through drawer after drawer proved futile, until finally, in the last drawer, clear in the back I felt it. It was a small, white box with my name scribbled on top in a child’s handwriting. Prying it open, I was instantly transported back in time.

Conan had been about ten years old, and it was the night before going on vacation to Florida. He was going with us, and I was packing in my room when I heard a knock on my door. Conan stood there, his eyes downcast and his hands behind his back.

“What is it, son?” I asked, concerned by this unexpected visit.

Shuffling his feet, he quickly mumbled, “I don’t know why I don’t call you ‘Mom’ very often, even though I call my stepdad ‘Dad.’”

I hugged him and reassured him he was free to call me whatever he was comfortable with. Then suddenly, with a wry smile on his pudgy face, he handed me the small, white box.

“You choose,” he said, and darted from the room.

Assuming I’d find two items inside the box, I opened it. Instead, I found the single gold wheat pin he’d bought at a garage sale with his own money.

Scribbled inside the lid of the box were the words, “I Love You. To Mom or Connie.”

That had been almost a decade ago, yet as I pushed the spilled contents of my jewelry box aside and slowly sat down on the edge of the bed, it felt like yesterday.

Thank you, God, for finding this pin, and for the closure that comes with it.

Wiping the tears from my face, I reflected on an angelic little boy whose heart beat close to mine.

I still choose “Mom.”

Connie Sturm Cameron

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