I don't remember that frigid February day when Lillian Havenga gave birth to me. I heard later she felt joy when I arrived, even though she and my dad already had three children — the youngest at the time was two weeks shy of 13.
That's an integral part of my mom — to express joy, to feel thankful, grateful, blessed, no matter what life brings.
I'll never forget the story about the owner of a local music studio sending a bouquet to my mom shortly after my birth. The card essentially read: “Anybody who is so happy to have a baby at age 40 deserves flowers.”
Diapers gave way to childhood. My siblings grew up and left the house. My brother went into the Army. My sisters moved thousands of miles away.
My parents called me “their second family.” They said I kept them young.
We spent winters snowmobiling, skiing and sledding; and summers swimming, boating and water skiing. We hiked in the woods and picnicked in the hills. We baled hay, fed cows and ran through the sunflower fields. We floated down rivers on air mattresses and swam in Lake Michigan.
We took grandma grocery shopping every Friday and visited elderly aunts and uncles often. Every Easter and Christmas season, we embarked on a grand tour, visiting nursing homes and shut-ins with Easter lilies and poinsettias.
One of the older ladies we visited, Ollie, was the mom of one of my dad's childhood friends. My dad's friend lost his life in World War II. Mom and Dad never forgot Ollie.
As a child, I never looked forward to those visits with the “old people.” We spent hours listening to stories, sometimes the same ones over and over. I wanted to be riding my horse, Chico, or playing four-square with my friends, not sipping tea with the elders.
But Mom deeply understood the importance of giving of yourself, of making time for others, of listening, even if you've heard the story 23 times before. I know now how much Ollie and the others appreciated the visits. I didn't then.
We buried my Aunt Kate on her 100th birthday. We visited her regularly, right up until the end, despite my childhood complaints of “I don't want to go. She smells like Ben-Gay.”
Mom knew. We needed to do this. Just as she needed to help my Aunt Ada, after Alzheimer's hit and Ada could no longer function for herself. Mom bought groceries for Aunt Ada every week, took her out for lunches and dinners, and helped her pay bills. She never asked for anything in return.
Years rolled into decades. Mom aged gracefully. She lost Dad in 2006, but kept busy swimming and spending time with friends. In her early 90s, when her tri-level home in Grand Rapids became more difficult to navigate, she moved to Spring Lake to be closer to us.
Such adventures we shared. I rode a bike and she followed in her motorized handicap scooter once neuropathy left her legs too weak to pedal. We swam and floated in the bayou, boated to Lake Michigan, ate lunch on the beach and, come fall, color-toured like it was going out of style.
We collected leaves and pressed them in magazines. Souvenirs of the season. Born in October, Mom always treasures autumn — “the most beautiful time of the year,” she always says.
But seasons change. And so do life circumstances. Green leaves grow old, despite glorious color and light.
Our roles slowly began to change, although I can't pinpoint when. Just gradually, it happened. Green leaves turned to gold. Mom, ever the caregiver, became the one in need of more care. Driving became difficult because her eyesight dimmed due to wet macular degeneration. She could no longer get to the grocery store. She could no longer pick up prescriptions at the pharmacy.
Soon, the daughter morphed into the mom's role, and the mom into the daughter's. Still, we journeyed together, just as we always have.
Up until last year, Mom lived independently in a condo on Lloyd's Bayou, doing her own laundry, cleaning her own house, making her bed every day.
Then, it happened. A stroke. A thief of life as we knew it. Gone were the easy conversations, the cards and letters she wrote to family and friends, her interest in watching the noon news every day and reading the newspaper every night.
Thankfully, her strength and determination remain. I see that glimmer of light in her eyes — the one that keeps her getting up every morning at Robbinswood Assisted Living Community, the one that keeps her walking down the hall with assistance, the one that keeps love alive.
She's been on a journey that few of us would dare trek. She has lived with macular degeneration for almost two decades, which claimed the vision in her left eye. She sits through needle injections in her eye every four weeks, without flinching.
She battled back from a broken ankle at age 95, and fought through several bouts of sepsis that almost killed her. She has said a final goodbye and buried all of her siblings and all but one of her closest friends.
Still, at 96, she smiles. She feels thankful, grateful and blessed.
And even though trips to doctor appointments and hospitals have replaced our trips through sunflower fields, and our long hikes in the woods have been replaced by short walks to the dining room, we continue to journey together. Every day.
For that, I feel thankful, grateful and blessed.
Happy Mother's Day!