Mother’s Day Without MomMay 02, 2022 06:00AM ● By Paul Chen
My mother, Flora Chen, as a child, with parents Anna and Lu Xinyu
This is my first Mother’s Day without my mother, and I’m really unsure how I feel.
We weren’t very close, but our relationship wasn’t difficult, either. She lived in Atlanta, having moved from my hometown of Louisville in 2006. I’m the only sibling here; my brothers live in Houston. She had three years of normal life here, but in 2009, her health began to decline. I spent the whole year taking her from one appointment to the next to address her back pain. She did not want to undergo surgery, but after months of failing to find a solution, she gave in.
That’s when she was diagnosed with colon cancer, and surgery was required immediately. It took the whole of 2010 for her incision wound to fully heal, and by then, back surgery was out of the question.
The cancer cleared and never returned, but then came Parkinson’s. I don’t recall when that was diagnosed, but it took a few years for it to become debilitating. Her case did not manifest with the severe shaking that is most commonly associated with the disease; her issue was balance, and she fell many times. I’m surprised she didn’t die, directly or indirectly, from a fall.
The hardest part of relating to Mom was being exposed to her negativity. It wasn’t a horrible type of negativity, but it was constant. It showed up as worry, concern about this, fear about that. I can’t tell you much about her worries because the vast majority seemed picayune and unrelatable to me.
Even everyday greetings invited negativity. When asked, “How are you?” I don’t believe Mom ever replied positively. It’s not that she would go on and on about what was wrong; it’s that she rarely, if ever, found things to be joyful about. I finally found a way around it in an article about dealing with negative people. Instead of greeting her with “How are you,” I would say “It’s good to see you,” and then I’d launch into some small talk about the day’s events.
I allowed her negativity to really bother me while her health declined because I subscribe to the Buddhist belief that the biggest factor in determining the circumstances of one’s rebirth is their state of mind at the time of death. In a very real way, Buddhists spend many hours of their lives training to die happy. Of course, because I love my mother, I took it upon myself to change her personality.
That ended up as well as you might imagine. At some point, I learned the difficult lesson that we are not responsible for the well-being or happiness of others—even those we love completely. We can only suggest, encourage, give… and pray. The truth of enlightenment and self-realization is that it is not handed to you. There must be the wish, the desire, some initiative, and effort. Yes, others can inspire you, educate you, guide you, and walk beside you, but you must want it first.
So I stopped trying to convince my mother to meditate, to read what I found inspiring, and to think about spirituality and the afterlife the way I do. Instead, I did something that was more appreciated: I started saying the Rosary with her. She raised us as Roman Catholics, and we closed many of our get-togethers by saying the Rosary.
As time passed, the saying of the Rosary became a measurement of her health. I watched her go from being able to say the whole thing, to needing to stop short of completion, to doing one decade, to requiring prompting for words, and, finally, to just listening to me recite one “Our Father” and one “Hail Mary.”
As I’m sure anyone who has been in my shoes will tell you, the most difficult aspect of caring for a parent is witnessing their deterioration from normal to needing care 24/7. At the end, she had no mobility and even had difficulty standing. In perhaps the cruelest of degradations, Parkinson’s robbed Mom of her ability to communicate; although she passed away this January, my last real conversation with her was in 2019. For a year and a half, the words I hated most to utter came from my mouth again and again: “I’m sorry, Mom, I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.”
To watch Mom descend into an existence not worth living was almost unbearable. To see her wasting away, not being able to do anything meaningful, not being able to take enjoyment in anything at all and depending on others for practically all of her daily needs was to confront and understand hell on earth. For years, Mom asked for God to take her; I am grateful that when the end came, it came quickly.
Buddhism teaches that we should rejoice when bad things happen to us because we are paying off karmic debts that will not be revisited upon us. Somehow, that’s easier to accept and follow when bad things happen to me, but not so much when seeing Mom suffer. I’m sure that the length of her suffering—13 years—impacted my ability to rejoice and that the total destruction of her body assaulted my spiritual reserves. But ultimately, I believe the mother-child connection was at the heart of my suffering.
It is said that our parents raise us, and then, much later in life, we parent them. As a parent-to-be, I knew it would be my job to love my children unconditionally, as I chose to have them. I also knew that the reverse was true: My children are not obliged to return my love, as they did not choose to be born. For years, I felt I wasn’t a very good son, that I could do more, and even today, I feel so. But, in the end, in my heart, I found I loved my mother as I love my own children. To echo the sentiment of the last line of Sheila Ewers’ “Walking Each Other Home” article this month, I hope that my mother knew, as the most certain thing in her life, how very much I loved her. ❧
Publisher of Natural Awakenings Atlanta since 2017, Paul Chen’s professional background includes strategic planning, marketing management and qualitative research. He practices Mahayana Buddhism and kriya yoga. Contact him at [email protected]