My birthday is in February. It was a Thursday and as I drove my daughter to school, I found myself trying to work out – is it my champagne birthday if I’m turning 55 and I was born in 1955? Or was it my champagne birthday when I turned 18 on the 18th, which was in 1973?
We chatted for some of the forty-minute commute we have each morning to school. Given that our local high school is five minutes away, you might ask why in God’s name did we say yes to the request to attend this high school, which may as well be in Zimbabwe for the miles I put on my car doing drop offs, pick ups, trips back down for parent nights, high school dances, evening basketball and weekend football games. That is for another story.
After dropping my daughter off at school, it suddenly came to me what I needed that Thursday morning of my birthday. I drove to the assisted living complex where my mother lives, which happens to be five minutes from school and where I grew up.
I knew my mother would still be sleeping at 8:15 am. In another time, when I was a child, there was hell to pay for waking my mother. But this morning, I parked, walked into the building, climbed the stairs to her floor, walked down the hall and knocked lightly on her door. Her aide let me in, surprised to see me there so early and whispered that my mother was still sleeping. I told her I figured as much, walked into my mother’s bedroom and climbed into bed with her. My mom opened her eyes, looked at me sleepily and said with pure joy, “Oh, it’s you!” She rolled over to make room in her twin hospital bed, wrapped her arms around me and pulled me close. I began our ritual, asking her which “you” I was (my mother has five “you’s”). She answered in her Viennese lilt and feigned aggravation, “Don’t be ridiculous!” I cajole and remind her that I am her Lisele, just so she doesn’t have to grapple with remembering names. I also remind her that as long as she doesn’t call me Fritz, the family German Sheppard (of course) now long gone, we’re o.k.
But I know she knows exactly who I am to her as she holds me close and kisses my forehead. She asks what am I doing here so early in the morning and I tell her, “Today is my birthday”. She pulls back a bit to see me better and make sense of this. “It is?” “Yup. It is. Fifty-five years ago you gave birth to me. And I’m here so my mommy can wish me a Happy Birthday!”
Which is what she did, the way she always has, in German, “Acchhh, Happy Geburtstag, my dahhling.” She pauses, then asks, “If you are fifty-five, how old does that make me?” When I share with her that she is ninety, she takes that in and responds simply and pragmatically, as she always has, with “Vow….”.
And so, on my 55th birthday, I climbed into bed with my mother and the gift she continues to give me at nearly ninety-one is her unconditional love. This, I have come to believe, is what enables me to mother my daughters with unconditional love, whom I hope in turn will then be able to mother theirs from this same place.
I am struck by the notion that maybe this is what is truly meant by the definition of “Doula; mothering the mother” – teaching love this way from one generation to the next, over and over and over again.