One hand held the thermometer under my tongue. The other stroked terrycloth, damp and cool, across my throbbing brow.
This is where my memory of mother-love burns strongest: right in the middle of my childhood sick days at home.
It was nothing serious, just the flu or a cold. But mother-love felt like arms cradling a bent body. Love smelled like Vicks VapoRub and calamine lotion and liquid amoxicillin. Love sparkled fizzy, like 7-Up in a tall Daffy Duck glass sweating onto a metal TV tray. Mother-love looked like the tiny Snoopy figurine that she set down by the cartoon glass while I was sleeping. Mother-love sounded like feet, padding double-time on creaky oak-planked floors, to help a whimpering child reach the bucket in time.
That’s why I never minded being sick as a kid. It meant that love was about to come dancing into the room, popping its head through the doorway and wearing a crazy Halloween mask, or singing a silly song in exaggerated vibrato.
It’s not that Mom didn’t love me on the days when I bounded through the house healthy and happy. But the sick days? Those were the best, because she stroked my cheeks and tucked stray strands of hair behind my ears.
Mom would wrap me in an afghan cocoon on the couch—she called it a davenport—and turn on the Zenith color console. I watched through half-open eyelids as Big Bird tried to convince his friends thatMr. Snuffleupagus was real. And she would love the sick right out of me.
By the time I traded in Muppets for Maybelline, our relationship skidded a bit. I don’t know how it happened, really, but we started to argue. I became Queen of the Eye Roll, which paired nicely with my favorite word: Whatever.
Sure, I still loved Mom, but I didn’t act like it. I deserved a big, fat time-out.
The things that seemed to charm everyone else—her silly pranks and her tendency to be the very last person out of church—were the things that annoyed me most. She once chased my friends through the house while wielding a cow tongue. They, of course, found her hilarious. I think I did, too, though I hid my laugh behind my eye-roll.
I was eager to leave home for college, away from rules.
But even college girls catch colds. I remember dialing her from the dorm, wishing she would bring me 7-Up, with ice clinking against a cartoon glass.
Now I’m all grown up. I’m the mom, and I’m pretty sure that time is turning over on itself. I stroke sweaty foreheads and deliver carbonated drinks with straws and silly songs. I am also the last one out of church, and I have begun to publicly embarrass my children whenever those delicious opportunities present themselves.
One spring, Mom fell ill. She lost weight and energy and, sadly, some of her zippy humor. We waited and waited for a diagnosis.*
A few days before Mother’s Day, Dad called: Pray hard, he said. Mom’s getting sicker by the day.
Our younger daughter, Anna, came in the room and saw me crying as I stuffed clothes in a duffel bag.
“I know why you’re going to see Mema,” she said. “It’s because when you were little, she always helped you when you were sick. And now you want to help her when she’s sick. Right, Mommy?”
Anna was right. I had to go home. I just had to. There was a long overdue favor to repay and a sick mama who needed to hear a silly love song.
* NOTE: Mom was sick for many months with a mysterious illness that was never fully diagnosed. But later that year, she was healed. Today, Mom is doing great, and believe me, she is as rambunctious as ever. I love you, Mom. Thanks for taking such good care of me, and teaching me what it means to be a mom, and how to love and show grace to my neighbor … and also to myself.
This post is a modified reprint from jenniferdukeslee.com. Jennifer’s new book, The Happiness Dare, Pursuing Your Heart’s Deepest, Holiest, and Most Vulnerable Desire, comes out in August but is available for pre-order now.
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