The extraordinary life of an ordinary mother

If there were space on my mother’s tombstone, I would have wanted to see this epitaph: “Courageous woman who indefatigably raised two children on her own and gave them all the love they ever needed, always made sure they were happy and healthy and got every chance in life available to them. Tenaciously pushed them to continue their education, doggedly encouraged them to do their best in everything, gently told them to pursue their dreams, and forever worried about them every single day.” Had she been asked to put her own epitaph, she might have chosen: “She did the best she could.”


She was doubtful but proud, modest but eager to brag about her sons’ accomplishments. To raise my brother and I alone after our father’s untimely demise took strength of character I can only hope to emulate. Her husband died, I almost died a few months after, both my brother and I were hospitalized, she was diagnosed with cancer and survived nearly a quarter century after that, and above all, she alone raised my brother and I in a loving home.

She was unwittingly thrust into a situation following my father’s death where time to mourn was pushed aside by the immediate necessity to take care of her children. For me, to hear the word “mother” evokes powerful feelings of strength and courage, of bravery in the face of adversity, of protection and care, and the unflinching ability to force me to eat lima beans at least once a week.


As she lay dying in the hospital bed four years ago, the nurse who cared for her came to speak with me. My brother and I had been with our mother every day since her diagnosis with brain cancer. At that point it was nearing forty days, my mother no longer recognized us, she could no longer move on her own, and the strength I knew and depended on my entire life was all but gone. The nurse said to me, “There aren’t many children who come and stay with their parents every day like this.” She was right: almost all the patients in the ward were elderly and near death, and the halls were absent from visitors. I looked at the nurse and stated the obvious: “It’s what my mother would do for me.” In my mind, I could sense my mother waving an accusatory finger at me if I did otherwise: “You’d better take care of me, Buster Boy, because I took care of you for all these years.” My mother showed me that care, love and responsibility for family was never a choice; it’s just what you did.


Like most mothers, her life was an ordinary one filled with joys and hardships. However the choices she made and the courage and dignity she embodied were nothing short of extraordinary. I had none of my mother’s extraordinary strength as she died in front of my brother and I. But whatever she taught me kicked in at some point. With every passing Mother’s Day absent of her voice, I grow more content, more fulfilled, more thankful for the extraordinary life an ordinary mother gave me.

My mother often expressed her doubts as a capable parent. Growing up, I may have questioned some of her decisions, notably the habitual presence of lima beans on the dinner plate, but overall I accepted how my mother brought me up because, as she explicitly pointed out several times a year, “If you don’t like the way I run things, Buster Boy, you can walk out the door.” She would not have let that happen, but it never, ever got to that point anyhow.

Happy Mother’s Day: Why It’s Important to Listen to Your Mother Talk about Nothing

This Mother’s Day marks the fourth one where I will not hear my mother’s voice telling me I didn’t need to call her. I won’t hear her say on the other end of the phone, “Yes, Dear, I’m still kicking around,” and then proceed to fill me in on every detail of her life since we last spoke. I won’t hear her say, “You shouldn’t have, Dear,” like she used to when I arrived at her place with a two-dollar coffee and a donut. I won’t scrunch my face in mock anguish as she pulls me down to her level in order to give me a peck on the cheek. The visits to the cemetery are nowhere nearly as fun as sitting in her kitchen listening to her talk about, well, nothing much. But she did it with such enthusiasm.

There were many times I would sit in her kitchen listening to her tell her stories of her nasty neighbour or the lunch she had with the other “old ladies” (her terminology) or insights into the latest crime book she was reading. I freely admit that I tuned out more than once, my mind wandering elsewhere. She’d always bring me back to reality by asking me where my next trip was, and then I’d have to reassure her that my destination was not dangerous. As the years passed, she relied more and more on having me or my brother be there to listen to her. And listen we did, even though there were times when I really had no interest in hearing my mother talk about the type of salad dressing she tried at the restaurant.
I don’t think I’m that patient with everyone. But when it came to my mother, it was, quite simply, what I owed her. Her life – her only purpose, and it was quite clear – was to take care of me and my brother. Nothing else mattered. The word “sacrificed,” while often overused to amplify the self-importance of our choices in life, knows no truer meaning than through the life my mother led. Her personal happiness was not even an afterthought; her life was spent – completely spent – with the unique purpose of ensuring that my brother and I lived the best possible lives. The result of this selfless act was not lost on me, although I admit I did not fully appreciate what she did when I was younger. Hopefully I wasn’t too late in telling her how much I appreciated all that she did for me. Beyond the good manners (“Take your hat off in a restaurant”), the endless array of practical skills (riding a bike, no. Ironing and effectively using Saran Wrap, yes.), and the adherence to a strong set of morals and values (“Never go to bed mad at your mother”), I take from her the importance of respecting others, of treating everyone with dignity, and having the courage to love and to remain strong no matter how hard things get.

A few days before she passed away, she had lost her ability to say anything coherent, to move on her own, and to feed herself. There was, from all appearances, nothing left of the woman who cared for me. As I sat on the hospital bed feeding her, I could no longer hide my sorrow and let tears fall down my cheek. She struggled to grab her napkin. At first I didn’t know what she was doing, then realized she was bringing the napkin up to my cheek to wipe my tears away. The essence of what makes us human, what makes us caring, what makes us strong,can be seen no more clearly than by the love a mother has for her children.
Related post: My Mother’s Memory


My Mother’s Memory

In front of a crowd of human rights educators a number of years ago, I yelled out a tirade of some things that bugged me about human rights abuses and violations. The one statement that got the biggest roar of approval from the audience was “I’m tired of women being treated as second-class citizens around the world.” The idea for the phrase came from an unlikely place. At a train station in northern Tanzania a few years ago, I walked along the platform with some friends and we passed by the women’s toilet with the sign “First and Second Class Ladies Only” written above the door.

There isn’t much reason to believe that women are any better off than a few years ago. Granted, there are more girls worldwide going to school (but less in some places), some countries have improved access to health services for women (but others not), some countries have ensured (in theory if not in practice) greater pay equity between men and women (but there is a still a huge gap), and women’s political participation has increased globally in recent years, but it is nowhere near that of men.

While equality for women is moving at a glacial pace globally, it’s days like today – Mother’s Day in North America – that should give us pause not only to appreciate our mothers but to strongly assert, respect and promote women’s rights.  If anyone ever needs a reason to justify equality for women, I ask you to take a moment and think of the sacrifices your mother made for you.

My mother passed away over two years ago, and the time leading up to her death was the most painful experience of my life. Widowed when my brother and I were three and six years old, she constantly reminded us as we were growing up that she was both a mother and a father to us. Caring and overprotective, always worrying and firm with her rules, gentle with an indefatigable energy, my mother demonstrated to me the absolute strength, courage, and grace that a mother can yield. Fiercely proud of her boys, she made sure we had the education she and my father never did. She wore the same clothes for over ten years while my brother and I outgrew our new K-Mart shirts and pants at least twice a season. She taught us the importance of traditions, from Friday night “chocolate bar night” to summer trips by the sea. She taught us to take our hats off in a restaurant (but women were allowed to keep theirs on), to get up at the dinner table when a woman stands up, and to “always hold the door for a lady.”

She stayed at home and did not work until I was ten. At that point, with her savings dwindling, she took a job as a receptionist at a trucking company down the road, worked from 5 until 9 PM Monday to Friday. A hot meal was always prepared for my brother and I, and she came home from work and kissed us goodnight. It was not an easy job – the environment was ripe for harassment, but she handled the job with a dignity that only she could pull off. Her next job working in a high school posed a different set of challenges, but she insisted on good manners from students showing up at the reception; anytime they said “What?” she politely reminded them that “Pardon me?” was the only way to talk to her.

Her emotions were often masked, and it was only in later years that she finally let the burden of raising two children on her own finally give way to the joy of spending time with her four grandchildren. She offered to tell her story to anyone who was prepared to listen (and just as often to those who were not). But in recounting the days when she raised my brother and I, even the most trying times were turned into humorous stories that regaled all who listened.

In December 2009, I took her to a bookstore and found her behaviour a little unusual. She sometimes spoke in sentences which made little sense. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but went to her apartment later that evening and knew by the way she was speaking that something was not right. My heart sank at that point and I knew that I’d lost her. She was diagnosed with cancer in the brain, and there was no hope. For the following six weeks, my brother and I spent every day at the hospital with her until she quietly passed away with us at her bedside. In her final weeks she maintained the same dignity and composure facing her imminent death as she did throughout her life: calm, stoic, occasionally stubborn, but never self-pity. As I look back at what she taught me – not only explicitly (“always hold the door for a lady”) but implicitly through her grace, kindness, selflessness, and dignity, I can’t help but try to live my life by living the values she cherished.

For me, this is the best way to honour my mother’s memory, to act with others as she did towards me. I didn’t know it growing up, but she taught me everything I needed to know about human dignity, and for that I am ever so thankful.