When I was ten years old, I began to have episodes that verged on panic attacks. I would lay in bed worrying about school work, and obsessing over the important things I would miss if I couldn’t fall asleep. It was a cycle of paranoia that could only be broken by the caring touch and soft words of my mother.
Years later, when in the midst of my adult life, I would occassionally feel that tinge of panic well up in my mind. It might be when a major life decision was ahead of me, or when the challenges of adulthood weighed heavily on me. Each time, a phone call to my mom brought back a sense of peace, calming my fears. She eased my (often irrational) anxiety and, through her advice, gave me back the confidence to move forward.
But, not all of my mother’s influences on my life were so obvious. For most of my memory, she worked as a middle school nurse in a high-poverty community that was affected by the mobility of military families. It was always clear how committed she was to helping children and building meaningful relationships. She was the bedrock of the school community, remaining in her role while the rest of the faculty and administration changed over several decades. My sister and I inherited that desire to help children, and our chosen careers–education and nursing–mirror her life. In small ways, she inspired us to make a difference.
My dad is famous for his extroverted devotion to his friends, and my mother’s personality was often overshadowed by his. At her memorial service, however, I learned that my mom’s coffee maker in the nurse’s office at school was a meeting place for teachers every day–a central part of the school culture. This was especially surprising because my mom was never an extroverted person. She was not as gregarious as my father, but she was fiercely dedicated to her smaller social circle.
When she got sick, I felt completely helpless. I was surrounded by my father, sister, and brother-in-law–all nurses–and as badly as I wanted to make her feel better, it seemed beyond my reach to do so. Those days were excruciating, and it wasn’t until just a few weeks ago that I felt some comfort, in the form of science.
A recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab, featured some research about fetal stem cells that can be found in the mother’s blood. This was a topic I had learned a bit about several years ago, but hadn’t connected to my relationship with my mother. The science has shown that a mother’s blood contains lots of cells from the fetuses that she has carried, and that those cells can remain in her body for decades. This idea–that my cells and my sister’s were carried around by my mom throughout her life after we were born–was romantic and comforting. But, then it got better:
“When they examined compromised tissue from [the patient’s] liver, they discovered lots of fetal cells. ‘We found hundreds and hundreds,’ he said. Normally they’d expect to see five or ten, but in this case there were ‘literally sheets of cells — whole areas’ gathered at the liver apparently turning themselves into healthy cells.”
-Robert Krulwich quoting Dr. Kirby Johnson
My mind swirled with the possibility that my cells (and my sister’s, although it’s much more likely that hers would irritate my mother after all those years) might have been helping my mom to fight her hidden cancer. I pictured cells that date back to before my birth swarming all over her wounds, healing and repairing. Selfishly, I wondered if maybe she lived as long as she did because of me.
I still get that panicked feeling from time to time, and I’ve been forced to find my own ways to deal with it. Appropriately, it is often memories of my mother’s soothing words and gentle touch on my back that do the trick. And so, this Mother’s Day–my first without the comfort of my mother’s voice or her smile–I choose to think about the gifts that she gave me…
And the possibility that I was able to give a little back.