Learning Mom’s Language of Love by Michelle Goering

Watching my friend Christy care for her mother, I am awed and a little ashamed. Rosemary is eighty-nine and in hospice. Christy is her full-time caretaker. I’m awed because Christy is oriented toward Rosemary like a new mother with a baby: engaging her, coaxing her to talk and to walk, cleaning her, feeding her, trying to keep her comfortable as she struggles to prepare to leave her body behind. 

My own mother went through this transition a year ago and died in April 2021. I was not there to care for her through the last months, though I visited as often as I could. I live in San Diego; Mom’s Mennonite retirement community in Kansas provided independent living and assisted living and, eventually, nursing care. Mom insisted she didn’t want to move to San Diego. And though I offered, I cringed when I thought about moving in with her or having her move in with me. 

And that’s where the shame comes in. I didn’t want to take care of Mom’s physical needs. Bodies are unpredictable, and I was afraid of what hers might do: afraid she might fall on my watch, or choke on something. I was afraid of her physical pain and nausea, and of my helplessness while watching her suffer. But more than that, I was afraid of the blankness where my mother should have been, and our lack of communication. I was afraid of the silence. 

For years already, when I visited, I struggled to stay in my chair in the small apartment with her. I fidgeted and bounced my knees and tried not to bolt. The walls pressed close. Our options were limited. “Shall we play another game of Scrabble?” I might ask. “Want a cup of tea? We could watch Wheel of Fortune.” or “Let’s go get the mail.” She usually said yes, and she was able to do these things, but remained quiet and detached. If we weren’t doing something together, she just sat.

 I felt okay as long as I kept moving. I brought her Wendy’s Frosties and made casseroles and soups to stock her freezer. I took her out for drives past the farm where she and Dad had raised us, and the nursing home where she used to work. I hung pictures in her apartment and helped her address her annual Christmas cards. But when she declined an outing and we didn’t have a task, she would just sit and look at me or pick up the newspaper, and I felt I was failing. There was nothing to say. And for me, relationships are built with words.

I knew Mom was happy to have me there. She loved me; sometimes she said she didn’t know what she’d do without me. I think she was content to sit in her chair and watch me sit in mine. But Mom wouldn’t talk to me, and I felt lonely. And a little bitter. 

When I reflected, I realized the times she’d opened up with me were so rare I could count them on one hand. With these few exceptions, she didn’t talk about her hopes and dreams, or her disappointments. Not her childhood, or her first loves, or her experiences as a wife and mother. She didn’t ask me many questions or advise me. How could it not be important to talk about your inner life and experiences? I wondered. I share a lot with a lot of people. Possibly too much. And when I shared with Mom, she had little to say in reply. My suburban life in San Diego, away from the Mennonite community I’d grown up in, was foreign to her.

When I asked Mom questions about her childhood, she would say she didn’t remember, I’d have to ask her sister Ada. When I tried to talk about her wordy husband of thirty-seven years, my Dad—about his letter writing, his woodworking shop, his punny jokes, his temper, his crazy outfits, and how I missed him—I was met with a polite chuckle. When my brother died of alcoholism, she clammed up entirely. Talking wouldn’t change past failures.

Spending time with Mom in her last years accentuated everything I’d already lost—my dad, my brother, my childhood home. I was angry that through her silence Mom had checked out before she was supposed to, leaving me alone too soon. 

But then, words are my love language and the way I make sense of the world. I need narration. I’ve long entertained fantasies in which Mom and I talk about everything: our marriages, raising kids, our working lives, friendships, our secret likes and dislikes, what we’re afraid of. But this was never our relationship, though we have spent countless hours together. 

When I feel sad about all that we never said, I try to remember what a friend intuited. When I poured out my heartbreak at not being able to talk with Mom, she reached across the table. “Sit down with her and just hold her hand,” she said. “Maybe the words aren’t so important. Maybe that’s not who your mom is.” This had not occurred to me. Maybe Mom didn’t need words to feel connected. In fact, maybe all my words felt like a demand she couldn’t meet. And maybe I could still communicate with her in a different language, one she spoke more fluently.

So as Mom’s memories and words got ever scarcer in those last months, I hugged her more often. I brought her flowers and ordered her pizza. I massaged her feet and clipped her toenails. We sat together and ate chocolates. I played the guitar and sang her songs. I rubbed lotion into her dry skin. 

And I pulled a chair up next to her recliner, or sat on the arm of it, and simply took her hand. Even during the pandemic, when she was in hospice and the staff had said I was supposed to stay six feet away. Her hand was small and fragile and shook a little, but it felt soft and warm. I kept my mouth shut then. And Mom smiled and chuckled and squeezed my hand back in her language of love. Every single time.

Michelle Goering has been writing forever, and for an audience for about a year. She is a musician with a background in publishing, married and the mother of twin college-age sons. A San Diegan who grew up on a Kansas farm, she’s recently published in Her View from HomeSaseeand Christian Science Monitor: Home Forum.