Sometimes, I’d find myself pretending I’d been hurt just to have that ritual with her. As I grew up, the ritual changed, but she always found a way to ease the pain and increase the joy I felt in any area of my life. On difficult days during high school, she’d offer her favorite Hershey chocolate almond bar when I returned home. As a young adult in my twenties, she’d call to suggest a spontaneous picnic lunch at Estabrook Park just to celebrate a warm, sunny day in Wisconsin, and always, a hand-written thank you note would arrive in the mail after every single visit she and my father made to my home, reminding me of how special I was to her. But the most memorable ritual remains her holding my hand when I was a child and saying, “When it hurts, squeeze my hand and I’ll tell you that I love you.”
One morning, in my late thirties, following a visit by my parents the night before, my father phoned me at work. Always commanding and clear in his directions, I heard confusion and panic in his voice, “Mary, something’s wrong with your mother and I don’t know what to do. Please come over as quickly as you can.”
The ten minute drive to my parent’s home filled me with dread, wondering what was happening to my mother. When I arrived, I found Dad pacing in the kitchen and mom laying on their bed. Every bodily fluid that could release itself had. Her eyes were closed and her hands were resting on her stomach. I called to her, trying to keep my voice as calm as possible, “Mom, I’m here.”
“Mary, is that you?”
Yes, Mom, it’s me.”
I wasn’t prepared for the next question and when I heard it, I froze, not knowing what to say.
“Mary, am I going to die?”
Imagine if you were asked that question, how you might answer it. Tears welled up inside me as I looked at my loving mother laying there so helpless. My thoughts were racing, until this question crossed my mind, “What would Mom say?”
I paused for a moment that seemed like a million years, waiting for the words to come…“Mom, I don’t know if you’re going to die, but if you need to, it’s ok. I love you.”
She cried out, “Mary, I hurt so much.”
Again, I wondered what to say. I sat down beside her on the bed, picked up her hand and heard myself say,
“Mom, when it hurts, squeeze my hand and I’ll tell you that I love you.”
She squeezed my hand.
“Mom, I love you.”
Many hand squeezes and “I love you’s” passed between my mother and me during the next two years until she passed away from ovarian cancer. Each day I am reminded that we never know when our moments of truth will come, but I do know now that when they do, whomever I’m with, I will offer my mother’s sweet ritual of love every time, “When it hurts, squeeze my hand and I’ll tell you that I love you.” And if you’re by yourself, put your left hand in your right, squeeze it tight and tell yourself “I love you.”
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This story led to the publication of Mary's book, My Mother, My Friend: The Ten Most Important Things To Talk About With Your Mother. To read about how this happened, read the follow-up story that was published in Chicken Soup for the Mothers Soul II.
To learn more or order a soft cover copy or Kindle version on Amazon, click on My Mother, My Friend : The Ten Most Important Things To Talk About With Your Mother.