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Reconciling With Your Mother

How illness brought a change of heart

Steven Petrow with his mother and siblings at their last thanksgiving togther


Steven Petrow (left) and his siblings gathered around their mother in 2016 as she battled cancer.

Mom’s lung cancer diagnosis came at age 81, and with that the opportunity for me to become a better son. For most of my adult life we’d had a prickly relationship, and I had kept my distance. But now I decided to be more “present” (something I learned in my meditation practice). This meant I would be involved in Mom’s day-to-day life, even though I lived in North Carolina and she in New York. I showed up for her surgeries, radiation appointments, holidays and birthdays. And despite my inner curmudgeon, I found such joy in being with her. My brother and sister joked: “Who is he?” 

My friend Don helped with my transformation. He’d had a long estrangement from his own mother and then reconnected after cancer struck her. “I could have stayed stuck where I was, hurt and angry,” he told me, “or I could let go of the past and reach out to the future.”  

For me, being more present meant not just showing up but also taking small actions: With her feet ice cold due to poor circulation, I’d help put on her fleece-lined slippers. When Mom seemed allergic to all food, I’d bring vanilla ice cream, her favorite. When the nurse had trouble inserting an IV, I pointed her to a better vein. At the time, I didn’t realize the power of those small gestures — those choices — to step up and let go. In return, Mom expressed a deep sense of gratitude. She worried incessantly about how her children — adults in our 50s — would fare after her death. I kidded to my siblings: “Who is this woman?”

As 2016 came to a close, we knew Mom’s time was nearing its end, three years after her diagnosis. For Christmas that year, she asked for a visit from her three children. She didn’t say “one last time,” but I knew that’s what she meant. My sister was overseas, so we planned to meet a little later, at Mom’s apartment right after New Year’s. Once Mom knew we were coming, she slipped into unconsciousness. Doctors call the state “unresponsive,” but my sister swears she saw Mom tear up when Julie said her final goodbye. I held Mom’s hands. My brother and I told her we loved her. Three hours after getting her final wish, Margot S. Petrow died.

All too soon, the undertakers arrived to take Mom to the funeral home. She was dressed in a beautiful chiffon nightgown that had belonged to her mother: vintage Miss Elaine with a brightly colored floral pattern. 

I prepared to let her go into the cold night, until I realized something. “Wait!” I told the two big guys as I delved into Mom’s closet. I fished out her slippers. “Her feet will get cold,” I shouted, as I realized my silliness. Still, I slipped her small feet into the lined moccasins one last time.

Steven Petrow with his family at Duke's university


Steven Petrow with his family at Duke University in 1974.

Several months later, Mother’s Day arrived. I’ve never much cared for this holiday, with its saccharine cards, pricey flowers and gooey displays of maternal affection. But now, without my mom, my aversion to Mother’s Day had dissipated. I posted a decade-old photo of us to Facebook, something I never would have done in the past. As I looked at it, I realized our love had been there all along. I wrote this slightly sentimental caption: “Mom and me. And Happy Mother’s Day to all moms.” 

Steven Petrow is a columnist for USA Today and a regular contributor to the Washington Post and the New York Times.

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