When Grief Meets Gratitude

Losing my mom hasn’t been easy. The grieving process has been complicated and exasperated by things beyond my control. Had you asked me as a child — heck, just 2 years and a day ago — to name my biggest fear, I would’ve said, “losing my mom.” I was always terrified of being motherless. I had no reason to fear her departure. She was never sick. She was youthful and radiant and playful and present, always present.

Until she wasn’t.

I’ve tried to grieve efficiently and constructively. When people tell me I’m “strong,” I tell myself it’s not so much strength as it is stubbornness. I have to be okay. There’s no other option. Clearly, life is short, and days can’t be wasted. My mom would say sadness and fears would fade quicker if we sang them away. We both sang often. As a child, I sang, then wrote, then song-wrote, and my mom, always the equally stubborn optimist, egged me on. We overcame a lot, the two of us, and we had the songs to show for it.

It dawns on me, then, that the efficiency and constructive nature of my grieving are not all mine to claim, that the strength that has enabled me to sing and write and be stubbornly strong these past two years is shared with my mom. In such fashion, I thought it’d be most appropriate to — rather than focus on my loss and on my grief over her passing — commemorate her way of living and celebrate my gains from the radiant memory she left behind.

On Thanksgiving week, it seems most timely to share my gratitude for who she was, for what she gave me, for how she raised me to be, for her lessons and her immeasurable love. I’m thankful for:

Her Dedication to Family.
My mom loved family. They were the protagonists of every story she shared, and she ensured the whole bunch was placed at the center of ours when my brother and I were growing up in Buenos Aires. When we moved to the U.S. in the early 90s, she kept them present. She made sure we never forgot where and whom we came from. Through calls, photos and now, with the amazing real-timeliness of technology, she kept us all close and kept traditions alive. Despite being miles away from our roots, we had the honor of being part of the whole — what a joy that has been. I cherish it with my being and will strive to pass on those close ties to my children and theirs, if I’m ever so fortunate.

Her Sense of Class and Fashion and Humility.
She never had much. She didn’t graduate high school and never had the chance to own her dream home (or a piece of land, for that matter). When I was 13, I promised her a diamond ring when I “make enough.” I never got around to deliver on that promise. Diamond rings and education lacking, she was the classiest lady I know. She taught me the importance of well-manicured nails and a “pop of turquoise” and made Kmart and JCPenney duds (her go-tos) look like a million bucks. With her candidness and vulnerability, she made anyone in her presence feel like a million bucks, too. Those of you who had the pleasure of knowing her also know that to be true.

Her Love of Music and Colors and Dogs and Cooking.
I am my mother’s daughter, after all… She sang her heart out (I wanted her to keep on singing), and she let me sing to my heart’s content, even when my songs of choice were not by the likes of ABBA and Paul Anka — “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” will now forever be etched on my heart. Growing up, I lived in the kitchen, by her side, observing, tasting, mixing, learning, storytelling. She fed my soul in ways I’d only be able to recognize many years later. So many kids grow up defying the traces of their parents in them. I’m a proud and solid reflection of her — music-chasing, food-craving, blue-loving, dog-obsessed crazy person that I’ve grown up to be.

Her Transparency.
This trait is hard to describe, but let’s just say you could look directly into my mom’s soul by simply looking into her eyes. She was terrible at surprises. If I ever had any doubts about anything, I’d look her in the eyes; they’d smile; and I’d know. I think it’s this pureness and realness that made her so loved by so many and allowed her light to shine through. Two years after her passing, I still feel that light here.

Her Kind Heart.
She was selfless, generous, loving, giving and always appreciative — sometimes to a fault, I’d tell her. She was definitely taken advantage of by some; it infuriated me every time. “What goes around comes around,” she’d console me. If there’s a life beyond this one, I know she’s reaping some beautiful rewards. If I grow up to be a quarter of the kind soul she was, I’ll feel like a pretty accomplished person. I have a lot to aspire to.

Her Smile and Her Laughter.
Genuine. Infectious. Always-present. At her worst, she’d smile. At her best, she’d laugh and laugh… sometimes I hear that laugh coming out of me. It’s reassuring. Even in the ICU, she had a smile to give her doctors and her nurses, who still remember her by it (I know, because they tell me. How wonderful is that?). When she passed away, we asked people to write memories of her in a journal for us. A handful of neighbors my brother and I had never met, from the building in which my dad and her lived, wrote about her “beautiful smile,” her ability to connect with them in the elevator every single day despite not always having the full English vocabulary with which to carry the conversation. The power of a smile. You think about that…

Her Constant Motivation.
She always wanted me to be better, smarter, more confident, better traveled, healthier and kinder than her. When I’d ask her about her dreams — many of which were literally left in Buenos Aires the day she and my dad made the decision to bring us to the U.S. — she’d say her dream would be to see us (my brother and me) live out ours.  By motivating me, respecting me and inspiring me, she propelled me to be a better person. She still does. In fact, now more than ever, her motivation guides me. I have a hefty order to carry out: to live my life in a way that would help make her dreams come true. I’m on it.

Her Strength.
I’ve learned strength comes in many different forms and sizes. I always knew my mom to be strong and determined. She faced and overcame a lot of obstacles. She always held herself (and us) together. But her strength roared loudest during her most silent time. For two months in the ICU, she demonstrated a fortitude I once thought unimaginable, a resilience that carried us through the hardest and most painful months of her life, of ours. She, from a bed, kept us calm and at ease, assuring us that all would be okay. I’m grateful beyond words for the strength she showed during that time, because it’s that strength, which she displayed during her darkest days, that exemplified who my Mami was, the kind of resilient spirit she left behind. No words will do her strength justice, so I will leave it at that. Those of you who were with her during those awful months know the scope of that strength and what it meant to be witness to it.

And just like that, gratitude trumps grief, I’m sure.

Gracias, Mami. 
RIP. 11.24.13.