Today, CNN has a video on its website about the one word people would use to describe their mothers. It’s at http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/05/09/mothers.day.ireport/index.html — and the words range from beautiful to humble to unfailing to nuts.
It reminds me of the time, years ago, when my daughter had to come up with a single term to describe me. I was a little breathless at this point — hoping for something like “witty” or “glamorous” or “brilliant.” It was none of the above. “Tenacious,” she told me.
Tenacious? That lacked a little of the je ne sais quoi, the punch, the chic I was hoping for. Tenacious? “You know how you had an article turned down by one place?” she said. “You didn’t let it stop you. You sent it somewhere else and got it accepted. You kept on going. You’re tenacious.”
Listening to her, I decided being tenacious was better than I’d thought — and probably better than I deserved. She hadn’t observed all the times I’d ended up in fetal position, whining and moping about one slight or rejection or another.
But this all makes me think of this crazy business of being a mother and how hungry we all are for any droplet of praise or any sign that we’re doing it right. If we work outside the home, we’re conflicted. Is day care really all right for our kids? If we stay at home full time, we’re still conflicted. Will we ever be able to land a good job again? In both cases, we’re haunted by the same concerns: Will our kids turn out all right? Will they love us, admire us? Have we been good mothers?
You can talk equality all you want — and God knows, I do, at great and boring length. But men still don’t torture themselves with the same ferocious doubts about being good fathers.
Mother’s Day makes me think of the most incredible mother I’ve ever known — my dear friend, Donna Ryan. She was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in the early 1990s when she was in her late twenties. She had three young children, no college degree, little support, except for friends. All she had was sheer grit and the most incredible reserves of energy I’ve ever seen.
Hodgkin’s is, by and large, the kind of cancer that can be managed or even cured. But not always. Donna’s disease recurred again and again. She went through chemo, bone-marrow transplants, every kind of treatment there was. Over the years, she went from being a beautiful, statuesque woman to a frail, bent-over figure who hobbled on a cane.
But still she endured. The last time I talked to her, she’d tracked me down on a business trip. One of her daughters was doing a book report on a young-adult novel I’d written. Donna thought she needed to interview me, which she did, a little haltingly. In the background, I could hear Donna suggesting more and more questions to ask.
Donna’s oldest child, David, came to the hospital dressed in the full regalia of his high-school graduation gown. She got to see him, got to see that she’d lived to see at least one child graduate from high school. She died a few days later.
Writing this, I see something I didn’t really expect to see. I wanted to write about an incredible friend and mother — but I see an example of what being truly “tenacious” can really be, and how I can only hope to be a pale shadow of that.
Happy Mother’s Day to you — to us — all. Enjoy your children, celebrate your mothers. Most of them are doing the best job they can. If you’re a mother yourself, give yourself a break, even if it’s just for a day. I’ll try to remember that and to remember my friend, Donna. I hope she can rest in peace, knowing she gave it her all.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)