37 seconds: an ode to my mama
The first time my mother held me in her arms, it was for exactly 37 seconds. To put it simply, everything I know about faith, and God, and why we must keep moving when things are bleak, I learned from my mom.
She had four miscarriages between my sister and me. Four. “Five to six pregnancies, two successful” is what her medical charts say. Four miscarriages over roughly four years.
She says my sister and I were the two who were strong. “You were strong before you were born. That’s how I knew you could do anything.”
It was supposed to be impossible for her to carry a baby to full term.
Day one of week twelve, she went into labor with me. The doctor said there wasn’t much they could do to prevent it, other than give her a medication that might cause some health problems later on, but it also might allow her to carry me closer to term.
Even so, I was almost two months premature. Seven and a half weeks early. My lungs would not perk and I was in the NICU for two weeks. I wasn’t supposed to make it and if I did, I wasn’t supposed to develop fully. “They told me you wouldn’t make it to your first birthday. They told me not to get my hopes up.”
The first time she ever got to hold me or touch me, I was one week old. They disconnected me from most of my machines and set a timer for one minute, and put me in her arms. “They thought it would be easier if I couldn’t get attached to you.” At 37 seconds my alarms started going off, and she put me back. She got to hold me for 37 seconds, and it was possible, in that moment, that 37 seconds would be all she would get this side of heaven.
“I knew you were special because I didn’t lose you. They asked me if I wanted to bring the equipment home and I said ‘Will it keep her alive?’ and they said no, so I said ‘Nope. I’m going on faith.’”
Faith. She always instilled faith in me, but I never understood it until much, much later. When I got very depressed in college, she always used to tell me that something good was coming, even in my darkest moments. I looked at her with such a horrible blend of disbelief and disdain; what an ignorant thing, I thought at the time, to believe that God is present here and that good is coming.
It wasn’t my brightest time in life, but it was hers. Oh, it was hers. She held me again. This time for about three months instead of 37 seconds, while I was on a medical leave from college.
“I had to go to work and do things so I remember praying over you a lot, watching you sleep and knowing that you had to go through whatever it was for some reason. I remember the dog always wanting to be in the bed with you; I don’t think she ever left your side. I didn’t know if it was to teach me something or to guide you down a certain path to help people. But I remember praying that if it was a lesson for me to learn, that I could learn it quickly, and not at your expense. It hurts to watch your child be so sad, so despondent. You question things. But once you give something to God you can’t take it back.”
“That’s too fluffy and happy. Be real,” I said to her the other day. (I am the skeptic of the family.)
“That is real,” she said, all the sincerity and hope in the world in her eyes.
She says that walking me through that taught her how to be a better person, a better parent, how to embody empathy, how to have a more ironclad faith; that everybody has strengths and needs, and everyone needs empathy and love and support, and everyone deserves that regardless of their walk in life. She had faith when I couldn’t. She says that God told her that there was something more than the sadness, the depression, the questions, the doubt, the listlessness, the utter fear on my part.
“I never had any doubt about that. I got a lot of strength from it and a lot of admiration for you because it’s hard to come out of that. You had to rest your body and your soul, and that’s what you were doing here. You were getting what you needed to rise up out of it.”
She didn’t even tell my dad everything. She is a warrior. It was her way of holding me, protecting me, protecting him. Someone described me as a warrior the other day, but I am no warrior. That is my mama.
“My first thought when you went back to school was that I hoped you knew you could come back home if you needed to. My second thought was wondering if you would. I wanted your friends to support you, I wanted you to do well, I wanted you to be okay. I think at that point I’d gotten over the big hurdle. I didn’t know it wasn’t over then. I didn’t understand a lot of things about mental health that I’ve learned since, right? It’s like alcoholism or any other illness, even the ones that are so-called acceptable, that it’s ongoing and you have to do maintenance. You can be well and still have triggers and I understand that and respect that now, because of you.”
I asked her if she was scared. I knew she had to be scared, right? I knew I was. I remember being very scared, every day. I remember sleeping a lot and being very scared.
“I wasn’t scared. I think I was vigilant and protective, but I don’t think I was scared because you have to remember that I had given you. God was in control of everything. I had absolute faith. It was unquestioning faith. There are still some things I question about faith, but I don’t question God’s promise that He would always look out for you. God spoke that to me. You can’t keep making deals with God. I didn’t want to say “well if this happens then…” You’re a gift from God, you are an absolute, you were created for something special in this world, and I felt it the first time I held you."
I doubt myself pretty much daily. I have all these dreams and plans and ideas and sparks of creativity, and I almost always talk myself out of them. I should be safe, I should be grounded, I should be practical. Nothing scares me more than practical. What my mother has taught me, though, is that there is so much more to be said for joy than fear. There is so much about God to be trusted than wary of. And of all the things I question: what kind of woman I'll be, if I'll get married, if I'll ever get to be a mom, if I'd be good at it, if I'll change lives...the thing I do not question is my mother's faith. It is not mine to question.
"So whenever you’re asking about fear, I never felt fear. I might feel perturbed at people who present themselves as obstacles to God’s plan for you, but that’s not fear. When you were at your lowest, when you were so sick and sad and were literally fighting for the courage to live, I didn’t get impatient and try to fix something I couldn’t fix as well as God. It’s a matter of really believing…really believing. I really believe. To this day, I really believe that you are here in this world for something specific, something that no one else can do. There is greatness in you, and that is why you were born and that is why you are here. And it may be very small but it’s very important."
Her day began today when I called her at 1:00 in the morning because I was upset; I missed Maggie. This is a thing that just happens, and more frequently in the summer. Graduation weekends especially get to me because that was our last thing we did together, save the constant texting 24/7 for her last month of life. And all I had to do was sob for .2 seconds before Mama chimed in with, "Honey, she is so proud of you like you cannot even believe. She makes all of Heaven go into #celebratemode whenever you help someone, and the Angel Fridge has unlimited champagne because it's gonna keep happening. Her spirit is in everything you do, and she is still with you even though she isn't with you."
I just wouldn't be anywhere near where I am today without the love of my Mama. Her faith in me is what brought me into the world, and quite frankly, what kept me in it. At times, it is the only driving force in my life that I can feel. Nothing against any of you guys; it is just that I have a tendency to white-knuckle it when things get hard, and isolate because the "you are too much" voice is very loud on certain days. Well, my mama is louder, and she makes sure I know that I am not too much. I am lucky for this, and it is especially important on the days when I do not especially like God. He is loud, too, but usually the first one I block out. He sends her an alert, I think. Whatever the system is, it works, and I always come back into believing The True Things before too much time passes.
Mama Liz, I will always need you to remind me of The True Things, and to make me a cup of tea when I roll in from South Carolina, which you stay awake to make me even though it's usually 1:00 in the morning. That is sort of our perfect time. Most of the world is asleep, and so our big hearts can just spread out and keep everything on lock. Love you more than actually everything else combined.
"If you weren’t supposed to be here, you wouldn’t have been born. I knew you were going to be okay because you went through all that to be born, so I knew you’d be okay no matter what. I had to give you to God very early and say ‘This is Your child. Take care of her, and thanks for letting me hold her.’”