I smile at the sun peeking through the soft waves of my satin curtains. I close my eyes to hold in the golden glow warming my face. On mornings like this, I glide into my daughters’ bedroom singing them awake for another day of laughter and play.
I jump into their beds and snuggle them, kissing their supple cheeks and taking in the intoxicating scent of their skin. I caress their silken hair and run my thumb over their eyebrows.
I ponder the beauty of these gifts, these little warm treasures in my grasp. They came through my body from the ether and into my life like a slippery dream...
Before today’s initial breath, before this affection I feel for my children, came my mother. If it weren’t for her sacrifices and loving kindness, I would not know this love she has nurtured in me.
A refugee from conception, I was born in a country foreign to my mother’s native Baghdad, Iraq. So that I might know a better life, she left behind a home strung together by bridges, date palms and street vendors selling ambah ooh sumoon (falafel with pickled mango in bread). Everything she knew, every rhythm and routine was suddenly arrested and committed to memory. She would never again walk along the Tigris river and stop at restaurants that specialize in simech mezguf (barbequed river fish encircled by hot coals and smoked upright).
Though it pained her to walk away, nothing was more important to my mother than birthing me in an environment safe from political persecution. It was worth the price she paid, especially after receiving the unexpected gift that emerged along side me from her swollen belly. Inside a hospital in Kuwait’s austere capital, my mother found in my newborn body, the softest, most tangible representation of love she’d ever known.
Having been neglected, maternal love was as foreign to my mother as Kuwait’s desert. Yet there she was, joyfully caught in its magnificent grip. Nothing, not even a dust storm, could wrest me from her arms. She cradled my body, my life in those smooth brown hands I grew to depend on.
It was love that motivated her to apply for a United States visa. Though Americeh was a whole world away, she braved the year-long journey across continents. Her fierce determination to improve our opportunities, her generosity, was only a fraction of the love she gave me.
From a space in her soul left longing for affection, my mother conjured love. She seemed to have breathed in fragments of it from the air and germinated it in her heart. But perhaps there were moments in her life that felt reminiscent of love. Maybe it was found in the kindness of her father’s words shared between long hours at work. Or the way her deeply spiritual grandmother prayed over her.
Regardless, my mother found enough love within herself to exhale it into my helpless little body. She lovingly recalls waking up just to listen for my breath as I slept in my crib nearby. Up until I was two-years-old, she watched with an eagle’s eye my tiny rib cage rise and fall almost imperceptibly. When I asked her what was behind the hyper vigilance, she said watching me sleep was how she prevented SIDS. Being my hero, ready to breathe life into me twice, gave her life a whole new meaning.
Now, thirty-four years later, it is she who must monitor her own breathing. After many months of feeling winded, my mother saw a specialist who gave her lungs a new name: Pulmonary Alveolar Proteinosis. It is a rare autoimmune disease that fills the lungs with mucus until they suffocate themselves. An oxygen machine keeps her comfortable until the surgeon preforms a life-saving operation later this week.
Apparently, her lungs lack the ability her heart has to generate an infinite amount of love, with an overflow that gives life without taking.
Since hearing all of this, I have sunk into a translucent denial. It doesn’t cloud my vision like a gray fog or curl the edges of my sight. It is more like a plate-glass window. I want so badly not to think of her condition or the possible end of her life, that I look through it. But in distancing myself from her disease, I have distanced myself from her. The one who taught me how to love. The one who gave my heart its compass.
So, in an effort to face reality before it’s too late, I am taking this Mother’s Day to reflect on the sacrifices she has made on my behalf and pay homage to the loving kindness she has given me.
I want to thank you for the love you have fostered in my soul. You have taught me that my north star is the universe itself, reaching into me as I lean into it, and that I can only find peace by looking within.
But your greatest contribution to my life is teaching me how to live and love in the moment. That being fully present will allow me to navigate all of life’s challenges gracefully and love those around me deeply.
You didn’t want me to go a lifetime empty of love. You succeeded.
And now that the tables are turned and it is you who may slip into a SIDS-like state, I feel utterly powerless. All I can do is show you how grateful I am for having your presence in my life.
I love you with all my heart and may the universe return your breath should you lose it before we meet again.
Your First Born.