From Chicken Soup for the Mother's Soul 2

My Mother’s Face in the Mirror

“You look just like your mommy.”

I couldn’t have been more than three or four years old the first time I heard someone say it. I’ll never forget the feeling of pride as it welled up inside my tiny chest at the mere notion that someone thought I resembled my mommy.

After that, for a while, I stood a little taller.

Gentle. Soft. Kind. Loving. Beautiful. These are my earliest recollections of my mother. Yet as I grew older, I grew less elated about looking like her.

I must have heard it a million times: “You look just like your mom.” By the time I was eight, I equated my mom with a stifling barrier standing between the “me” I was forced to be and the “me” I wanted to be. I began to hate those six words.

By the time I was ready to cross the threshold into puberty, when someone mentioned the likeness, I wanted to scream, “Nooooo! I don’t look like her! I look like ME!”

When I moved away from home, our relationship could only be called turbulent. Over the next thirty years, our lone commonality was the certainty of our differences; at the crux of those differences were evidence of the generation gap, as well as some of the world’s most “significant” troubles.

For example, in the 1960s, while I was gaga over Tom Jones, Mom clung to her conviction that Bing Crosby was the greatest singer the world had ever known. In the seventies, when women’s roles were evolving from traditional housewives into independent entities responsible for their own livelihood and happiness, Mom and I were at odds over what she considered my cavalier interest in finding a man to “take care of me.” In the eighties, when I financed three trips to Europe, she admonished me for squandering “a small fortune” on travel expenses instead of investing it in a retirement plan. And finally in the early 1990s, we bickered constantly over the proper way to raise my new son.

“That baby needs to be on a schedule!” she’d insist.

“He’s hungry now,” I’d respond defensively.

Throughout those years, if she said, “Black,” I’d say, “White.”

If I said, “Black,” she’d say, “White.”

And so it went.

Our relationship revolved around superficial issues. Too bad we dealt with them like children. Bickering, nitpicking and competing.

Never in all those years did the thought occur to me— and I’m sure it didn’t occur to Mom, either—that a time was approaching when we would be forced to cast aside our differences and respond to one another with mutual respect and to demonstrate the love undeniably ingrained deep in our hearts.

That time came when she was diagnosed with cancer, a deadly variety at an advanced stage. Then everything changed. There would be no more bickering. No more nitpicking. No more competition. There wasn’t time. And I realized there had never been time.

Posted at her hospital bedside during her last five months, I watched her grow weaker and sicker as layer upon layer of the protective coating that shielded her most private vulnerabilities was stripped away. I came to understand what an incredibly messy ordeal dying is— chemotherapy, dialysis, being poked and prodded, bleeding, swelling, deteriorating and even suffering from dementia caused by improperly prescribed medications. Yet through it all, my mother maintained her pride and her dignity—two very important qualities I had arrogantly overlooked in all those years of squabbling.

As the clock measuring her life approached the twelve o’clock hour, we made our peace and I rediscovered the beauty, gentleness and kindness of the woman I was so proud to resemble so long ago.

“Mom, I’m here,” I had said to her upon my arrival around noon of the day before she died. I am certain, even though a veil of pain-numbing medications shrouded her senses, she knew I was there. She nodded ever so slightly.

But then she stopped responding.

I stayed at her bedside all that night. Except for her arduous breathing, the monotonous gurgling of her oxygen filter and the sporadic beeping of the machines to which she was attached, the hospital room was still. The half-lit fluorescent wall fixture above the bed emitted a surreal illumination that was relaxing in spite of the critical urgency of the moment. I was propped up in a chair next to the bed, alternating between nodding off and waking up every few minutes. When I checked the clock, it registered five o’clock. Mom’s breathing was labored and shallow, but no different than it had been for hours. I meant to stay alert, but I couldn’t help drifting off again.

At forty minutes past five, shortly before sunrise on Valentine’s Day, I awoke. The machines were still beeping, the oxygen was gurgling, but from Mom came only silence. And that’s how she slipped away. Quietly, while I slept.

I like to think that as she shed the tired, worn-out shell lying in the bed, she felt whole again. And free of pain. And that before she crossed over to the other side, she took a last look at me and saw the traces of herself that she was leaving behind.

I like to think she knew that my feelings for her had come full circle.

Four years have passed, and I still miss her so. She visits me sometimes in my dreams and assures me she is still nearby. It’s immensely comforting. But I have found that when I want to see her, I don’t have to wait for sleep. I can simply turn to the closest mirror. The reflection looking back at me may be mine . . . but the face is my mother’s.

I see that, and I stand a little taller.

Janis Thornton

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