What My Mother Taught Me

My mother died before I ever married, had children of my own, finished graduate school or launched my own career. She was battling a terminal illness before I even had my driver's license, but what I remember about her character and her strength is still very vivid. We had opposite personalities and, at first glance, appeared to have nothing in common. I was profoundly extraverted, high energy and light-hearted -- no, downright silly -- to her quiet and more serious nature.

So this Mother's Day, I am acknowledging the five exceptional qualities that my mother shared with me:

My mom was the first person I ever knew who had breast cancer. When she returned home after her mastectomy, instead of hiding her physical wounds, she openly wanted to show me her incision. It was important for her to share with me, her teenage daughter, how well she was healing, and to actively confront my fears about her health. She did this without words, but with actions. She did not shy away from her fate, but instead fought openly and fearlessly to stay alive.

2.Dogged Determination:
While my father was the professional and the clear breadwinner of the family, my mother was still persistent in her desire to contribute to the family in financial matters. I remember how she always kept her small blue savings book on the shelf in her bedroom closet. She would bring it down and show me how much she had saved each month working part-time as a substitute teacher. She was determined to pay at least one semester of my private school tuition each year and was so proud when she managed to save enough to contribute to my education. Now I realize that she could have spent her hard-earned money indulging herself with another pair of great shoes -- she loved shoes -- or a weekend away, but instead she spent it all on me. I'm not sure I ever even thanked her. She taught me, once again by example, that I could achieve most anything once I was determined to do so.

3.Unconditional Love:
This is hands-down is the most incredible gift she gave me. There was nothing my mother would not do for her family, especially her own children. She had endless patience to watch my 1,000 leaps off the diving board at the pool all summer and never seemed distracted when I wanted to talk to her about my worries, hopes or dreams. She always said, "You can be anything you want to be," and she made me believe it. But the most amazing part about her unconditional love and support was that there were no strings attached, no obligation or need to give anything back in return. It was just motherly love and unconditional support. I was unaware until much later in life that this was a precious gift she gave to me, a gift few others I knew had the luxury of experiencing. She made me a much better mother because of her ability to love so openly.

4. Self esteem:
A psychiatrist friend once told me that if a person has a healthy dose of self esteem, they will go through life with more ease and less angst. My mother was a perfect example. She knew who she was, what her purpose was in life and set about making a happy life for herself and her family. She raised two children who were as different as day and night, yet she gave both of us a sense that we were each just perfect being who we were. In her very quiet way, she supported and nurtured my individuality, making me feel secure and enthusiastic about my feelings, opinions and interests. This attribute of my mother's has served me well.

5. Independence:
During an era where women were often locked into the conventional role as homemaker, my mother was busy getting a teaching degree, taking art classes, planning short trips with girlfriends and generally living a life with lots of independence and freedom. She pursued her interests joyously while still running a household, cooking meals and participating in an active social life with her husband and family. This independence came crashing down when she became sick, and I am sure it was devastating for someone so independent to become so diminished. When it came time for me to go to away to college, my mother was having a recurrence of her cancer. I sat with her and asked her if I should defer starting school to stay home and care for her. She looked at me and said, "Absolutely not, this is my life and yours is out there waiting for you -- you must go." Her independent spirit knew no other way, and it was this selfless permission that allowed me to go without guilt or regret.

On this Mother's Day, I hope to honor and embrace these five attributes my mother exhibited so effortlessly in her short lifetime and celebrate the gifts she gave to me.