I went to my mother’s funeral in a maternity dress, because I was five months pregnant.
I wasn’t planning on getting pregnant. My mother was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, in the fall of 2008. I was anxious to avoid the emotional upheaval of pregnancy on top of the horror of my mother’s disease. It was a horror story from my childhood, in a way. Mom had been two months pregnant with me when her own mother died, and she never got to tell her. She told me the story over the years with tears in her eyes, bitterness in her voice. On some level, I promised, it wouldn’t happen to me.
Pregnancy and motherhood are really things that all the talks and reading in the world can’t prepare you for. But age-old motherly wisdom is supposed to be helpful. I wouldn’t really know. We never talked about it, and then when it happened, my mother couldn’t talk at all.
In the spring of 2011, working long hours and not paying close attention to birth control, I got pregnant. By this time, my mother was bedridden and could no longer smile or laugh. The second I knew for sure, I called to tell her, my dad holding the phone up to her ear. He told me she looked at him and he could tell she heard me, her eyes said everything.
My mother-in-law took me shopping for maternity clothes. We looked around at the nicer dresses, ones that I could later wear while breastfeeding. She told me to pick out something pretty, for going out to dinner. I picked something black, thinking I might need it for a funeral.
It is easy to spend a lot of time worrying about what can go wrong when you’re pregnant, especially when you carry the burden of genetic disorders. We have a history in our family of spina bifida, and I wanted, needed to talk to my mother about her experience when my brother was born with it – I wanted reassurance, I wanted to hear her refute the statistics and tell me my baby would be fine. When I asked, she blinked, the last thing she could do, and her gaze shifted away.
So I asked for every test I could get, not wanting to be caught off-guard. And everything was fine – I was tired, and that was all. My doctor grinned and told me, get more sleep. You’ll need it, he said.
It was difficult to accept all of this. It was strange, to know nothing was going wrong, when it seemed everyone I knew had a horror story – up to and including my own mother. And I was cursing the timing of it all. I was sad and angry, and had a hard time with joy in those first few months. It made me a terrible friend, and a hard person to get along with.
The call from my dad came late on a Friday afternoon. It was unbearably hot outside, the way Texas summers always are. The first time I felt nauseous while I was pregnant was in the wake of that phone call.
During her wake, I spent a lot of time answering questions about my tiny baby bump. There at the front of the room at the funeral home was Mom, and I stood in the back near the door to say hello to people. I’m so sorry to hear about Lillian, they’d say. When are you due, in the next breath. My eyes filled and I nodded and answered the questions and screamed inside that this fate should befall first Mom, then me.
My darling girl kicked and squirmed as if to joyously respond to the proceedings, saying life goes on, telling me she would be there soon to cheer me up. In January, she arrived on time and healthy, and brought with her laughter and joy that was hard to fathom mere months earlier.
Mom and I were not very close, in those last few years, and every day I wish I could talk to her about this strange new world that she traversed before me. Motherhood took me mere months after she was released from it, and that transition has been poignant.
Unwittingly, Mom did leave me with one final lesson in those hard, bright August days. Motherhood is full of the unexpected; that is practically the textbook definition. And for every hard thing we must do, there is a smiling, kicking, giggling prize to balance it out.