It can be a bittersweet day for mothers facing their first Mother’s Day without their own mums. As Dahlia Malaeulu writes.
It’s been four months and 14 days since I became a life member of a club that I never wanted to join. A club where, once a year, the world fills with mothers facing our first Mother’s Day without our own mum.
My mother, Lagimauga Gray, was a strong and proud Sāmoan woman. My number one teacher, advisor and supporter who was everything to everyone.
She was a straight-shooter who hated talking in circles. But, at the same time, she was charismatic and caring. The “hold you up” and “catch you when you fall” type. Always hopeful when all was hopeless. A courageous adventurer and free spirit until the very end.
Mum was born in Sāmoa and grew up in the village of Vaivase Tai on Upolu. She was the second youngest of 11 children, and, by all accounts, she was the spoiled one. As the only one of her siblings to make it into Sāmoa College, she was dubbed “the clever one” and given special privileges — she didn’t have to do chores and she was the only one who got to sleep in a proper bed, so she could be well rested for school.
When she was 15, her parents sent her to New Zealand to live with her older sister in Porirua. She finished her high school years at Porirua College where she proved to be as good at sports like volleyball and table tennis, as she was at schoolwork. Something we didn’t know until one family holiday when she easily beat us all at table tennis, although she was in her 50s at the time.
She met my dad, Malo Gray, at a party when she was 21, and they married five years later. Dad became her chauffeur through their 40 years together. She hardly drove a day in her life.
Mum’s first job was with New Zealand Railways, which gave her free train trips and the chance to explore the country with her friends and Dad. She loved to travel. She was always going somewhere.
Later, she worked in the kitchen at Wellington Hospital, then at the now closed Griffins biscuit factory, and then at Lever Rexona. She made life-long connections wherever she worked, staying in touch with the friends she’d made — and their families. My sister and I would laugh about how we couldn’t go anywhere without Mum bumping into someone she knew.
Mum always had our backs, too. When I was at college, I told her that I had a boyfriend. I’d kept him a secret because I was worried about how Dad would react. Her advice? “Tell Dad after you’ve won something at school. And don’t tell him I know.”
She was right. I got runner-up to dux for my final year and it helped to soften the blow when I told Dad. Then, as predicted, Dad asked Mum if she knew. Turning to exit the room, she looked at me, saying: “No, how could I?” Luckily, this boyfriend became my husband.
About four years ago, just after her 60th birthday, Mum and our family were forced to embark on a rollercoaster medical journey that changed our lives forever.
Diabetes runs in my mother’s family and Mum didn’t escape its worst effects. After a series of complications, she endured numerous surgical amputations, and was diagnosed with kidney failure and placed on dialysis. There were many times when doctors in the ICU told us to say our goodbyes. But they didn’t know my mother. She woke from her coma every time.
She told us that the reason she came back was because she was determined to fulfil her dream of taking her grandchildren on new and exciting adventures.
Mum never lost her spirit. Even after everything she’d gone through, she discovered Facebook and online shopping, and even started selling lipstick from home.
But she was living on borrowed time — and last year, we finally accepted that. So we made sure to confirm her wishes for her final “farewell party”, and then I sat with her and made a bucket list. She wanted it to be full of unforgettable family experiences: overseas trips, a family cruise, and family gatherings which my sons entitled “Adventures with Nan”.
But knowing that her final day was close didn’t make it any easier when it came. Nothing can really prepare you.
On Boxing Day last year, she’d ticked off the last item on her bucket list: a final reunion with her family here in Wellington. The very next day, surrounded by our family and grandchildren, I held her in my arms as she took her last breath. She had completed her mission here on earth. She was 64.
Like my mother, I’m a planner, do-er and problem solver, so in a weird way her “farewell party” was a welcome distraction. It helped to feed the numbness and keep the grief sidelined. For a while at least.
As people returned to their own lives, I knew the reality of life without my mother was waiting. But first, I had to make sure my mother’s wishes were taken care of. That meant a trip to Sāmoa to organise the inheritance of family fanua (land). Then there was my father to think of, as he adjusted to the newfound silence in his life. And my children for whom Mum had been a daily presence in their lives. And then there was feeling bad for my husband who was waiting to catch me when it all eventually hit.
But none of that delayed the inevitable.
I know now that grief can’t be assigned a date on a calendar. I know that grief comes with a gauntlet of emotions, and that its timing can be random. That even when the bereavement leave ends and everyone returns to their “normal”, the grief goes on. And that incidental things can trigger it all to rise to the surface again, reminding you of how things will never be the same.
I thought I’d mentally prepared myself for the year’s major events — holidays, birthdays, and Christmas — when I knew I’d need extra prayers and boxes of tissues.
But now there’s Mother’s Day — and the commercials and social media that, for the past few weeks, haven’t let me forget that I’ll be motherless.
Mum raised me to be strong, but losing her has broken me into pieces that I’m slowly learning to put back together. And, in a strange way, the grief has been the unexpected glue.
Taking steps to face my new normal has meant surrendering to the grief. Letting it come in and wash over me. Some days, it almost drowns me. But I’m so grateful that the sun’s rays have been able to shine through the cracks of grief. Giving me good days. Leaving me hopeful that more are to come.
All of it has helped me feel her and sense her again. I was lost without her, but now I feel like I’m finally beginning to find her, which means I’m finding myself again. She’s with me still — just in a different way.
I’ve accepted that time will help, but it will never heal. That I’m allowed to be happy because happiness and grief can actually co-exist. That it’s okay to not cry about her every day and that doesn’t mean she’ll be forgotten.
How could she be? I see her every day in the mirror. She’s in me. I see her in my youngest son’s cheeky spirit and my eldest son’s loving nature.
And both my boys still see and speak to her. They pass on messages like: “Nana said there’s no such thing as gone.” Or that Nana said that they could have ice cream anytime of the day. Something Mum definitely would have said.
I’ve even been bombarded with obvious signs of her presence. Like randomly coming across a poem I wrote for her a few years ago, during one of her stints in ICU, which I’ve decided to use for her Mother’s Day card this year.
‘U‘u lo‘u lima tinā,
never let go.
‘Ua ou misia oe,
push rewind, play life slow.
‘Ou te mānatua,
all your lessons and graces.
‘O lea ou te va‘ai ia te oe,
in my children’s faces.
‘O oe le toa tinā,
you were always there.
‘O la‘u ‘āgelu,
I still feel you here.
“Lototele,” you say,
because now I know.
‘Ou te alofa ia te oe ma
fa’afetai lava tinā,
For never letting go.
So today, for my first Mother’s Day without my mum, I find myself somewhere between celebrating and commemorating. I still ache for the past and what was, but I know for sure that she wouldn’t want to see any of her family sad or in pain.
My mum’s happiness truly came from our happiness. Family adventures. Living life to the fullest.
And giving her grandchildren ice cream whenever they wanted.
Ia manuia le Aso Sā o Tinā, Mum.
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