With Mother’s Day just around the corner, it seems only fitting to talk about a special lady in my life. I am certain I didn’t ever realize the heart and soul that goes into parenting until I had a child of my own. I will never forget my Ah-Ha moment of being a mother and that hard realization that it takes a tremendous amount of work to raise another human being.
When I wasn’t quite three years old my dad fell in love with a woman named Denna; one who I would call “Mom” for the next 15 years of my life. She wasn’t able to have children of her own and stepped right up to the responsibility of raising my five year old brother and me. As a kid, it never really occurred to me the sacrifices she made on our behalf. In my adolescent mind, she was our “Mom” so therefore she did what she had to do, because she had to. She packed our lunches, washed and folded our clothes, instilled in us the importance of good manners, taught me how to set a proper table and insisted we never forgot to write Thank You notes… She was also a complete fashion disaster, famous for her long To-Do list of chores and the only one allowed to have the cashews from any can of mixed nuts.
When my oldest son, Grady was about 2 I recall a moment of total desperation. He was pushing my buttons in a way only a two year old can and I seriously considered leaving him in his bedroom and going for a walk by myself. Being married to a police officer and knowing that on some level this was probably illegal, I pulled myself together but man oh man was it tempting to flee the premises. It still amazes me how something so small and so darn cute can get you so incredibly frustrated. Anyway, in that moment I quickly came to my senses and realized I simply did not have another option. Raising this child was my responsibility as I was his mother. He was stubborn because I am stubborn. He was tenacious because I am tenacious. This little “mini-me” was giving me a run for my money and there wasn’t a darn thing I could do about it. In that moment of dire straits, it dawned on me. I was probably a lot like Grady and I am certain my brother was a giant pain in the butt.
Denna didn’t have to raise us…. After all, we had a mother and she lived just across town. But, she chose to raise us. She chose to teach us important skills in life, she dealt with my brother’s phase of shoplifting and skipping school, at 13 years old, she was the one who gave me a shower every day when I suffered a broken neck in a car accident and had to wear a halo for three months. All the memories came flooding back and I remember thinking to myself, “Why did Denna stay all those years, why would she choose to put herself through this? This job sucks.”
You see, when I was 18 my dad and Denna divorced. I soon left for college and began my “own” life. Their divorce was nasty and we didn’t stay in touch.
Fast forward to 2011 and there I was with a rowdy 2 yr. old and another on the way; I wanted to find her so badly. I needed her. I had to say Thank You for never leaving us (or killing us), for sacrificing her own quiet and orderly life to raise someone else’s children. I wanted her to know how much positive influence she had on me, what I had done with my life, etc. I was on a mission. So, I started with Google and ultimately found her on Facebook. It was a moment that is fresh in my mind. I sat at my desk, down on the plaza in front of two giant windows, sobbing like a child. I poured out all my feelings to her and everything that had transpired in the 20 years it had been since we last spoke. I wanted her to know I graduated from college and had a successful career. That I married my high school sweetheart and we were still married but more than anything else, I wanted her to know I was a “Mom” and I had no freaking idea what I was doing. I needed her in my life more at that moment, than ever. I am pretty sure my “note” to her was five or six pages long. I sent it off and waited….And waited….And waited. A few days later she responded and that response was the most lovely letter I have ever received. She too, sobbed as she read the letter. When she first saw it come across her inbox, she hesitated to open it. She assumed the worst and figured my dad had passed away. Why else would she be hearing from me after all these years? Turns out my Dad was fine and he actually encouraged me to reach out to her. After much pause, she found the courage to read my letter pouring through all my childhood memories involving her and my complete gratitude.
For the last few years Denna and I spent as much time together as possible. Ten hours of drive time separated us but we found ways to meet up. At our first reunion, I was 7 months pregnant with Griffin and she couldn’t keep her hands off me. “You’re so beautiful,” she said, at least five times. “My baby is having a baby.” Last summer we spent a week at her property in Washington, camping and fishing and the boys learned about bullfrogs, her garden and impressive Dahlia collection. She stocked up on gluten free stuff before we arrived and filled our trailer with goodies from her pantry. Most recently we met at the zoo and spent the whole day exploring with the boys. We exchanged Christmas presents in the parking lot and each gift she presented to our boys was special and specific to them. Grady got his own gardening tools and a miniature tractor just like the one he road with Papa Bob. Griffin got miniature trucks and books about bugs to enhance his evening routine of playing in his crib. In such a short amount of time she made it a point to learn about my boys and all that was big in their world. She periodically sent cards to us, supplements for my low iron and lotion for dry skin. She stepped right back in as my Mom, as if no time had passed at all.
Less than a month ago, Grady remarked about the beautiful red sky one evening. I started tell him the significance of “Red sky at night, Sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, Sailors take warning.” I explained how Grandma Denna had taught me that when I was little and I have never forgotten it. Grady thought that was the coolest thing he had ever heard. The very next morning I received the devastating phone call telling me Denna passed away suddenly of a massive heart attack. The love of her life, Papa Bob wanted me to know how much joy I had brought to her and how much she loved me. It rocked my world and once again I was sobbing for her but this time it was outside my office, in front of dozens of giant windows and all the passing cars.
I am so, so grateful we reconnected after all these years. I am also thankful she got to see my boys, my life and to know that she played a huge role in making me the person I am today. As I slowly use up the canned asparagus and homemade freezer jam, I am taken back to the simple roots of my childhood. She chose to love me like I was her own and she made immense sacrifices so I would be equipped with the proper tools to be a contributing member of society.
Her 62nd birthday is next month and I have been asked to speak at her memorial service. As hard as it will be to maintain my composure, I can think of no great honor than to tell a room full of people all that this Mother meant to me. I find peace in knowing I will see her again but I am also so deeply sad that I can’t call or text her when I need some motherly advice. Happy Mother’s Day, Denna. Thank you for touching my life.