“I don’t care who started it!” my mother screamed at her four arguing children. “Don’t make me come in there.”
During my childhood, my mom had a litany of one-liners she’d yell at us to get her point across. There was “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” “eat everything on your plate, children are starving in China,” and, of course, her tried-and-true explanation for everything, “I just want the best for you.” But my favorite was “I love you with all my heart.”
In the 1950s, I found her statement odd. What did love have to do with a fist-sized muscular organ responsible for pumping blood? Equating that mushy thing beating in her chest with how she felt about me was a little unsettling. Nonetheless, those words were etched into my mind and somehow made me feel safe.
As we became teenagers and young adults, the last thing she wrote on every card or said as we walked out the door was, “Remember, I love you with all my heart.” Not a day went by that I didn’t hear those endearing words.
Years passed. I too became a mother of four. I tried to follow her example of what it meant to be a good, moral woman. And just like her, I found myself repeating mommyisms , “life is unfair,” “because I said so,” and “one day you’ll thank me.” Strangely enough, I steered clear of her signature trademark.
Was I too cool to be so sappy? God knows I adore my children and gush over them ad nauseam. Perhaps I felt the words were a bit old-fashion for this hip mom to say. But one moment changed everything.
From the time my mom was 57, she suffered one excruciating ailment after another. For the next 30 years, she survived on an arsenal of narcotics as each limb and organ disintegrated. Outside help was unheard of in the Madden family, and I was placed in charge of her medical care. There was nothing I could do to alleviate the constant pain of the most important woman in my life.
One day, in 2003, as she lay writhing in pain, I bent over to gently kiss her and fluff her pillow. I’m sure that my teary eyes made my inner sadness evident to her. Besides knowing our time was limited, my personal life was in ruins as I struggled through my divorce. My entire world was crumbling and she could see it.
Being the quintessential lioness whose first instinct is to protect her cub, she put her own pain aside. Pulling my 51-year-old body into her bed, she held me close, trying to soothe my aching heart.
“Jackie,” she whispered into my ear, “always remember, I love you with all my heart.”
In that moment, the intensity of those words reverberated in my soul. It suddenly became crystal clear: no matter how old we become, nothing in this world will ever compare to the love a mother has for her child.
A week later she was gone. Standing by her bed, holding her hand as she slipped away, I knew I’d never be loved again to the depth she had for me and I wondered if my children really knew how much I loved them.
Now, when I bid my adult babies adieu, I lovingly call the same words my mother made so rich with meaning. I’m sure they think I’m weird, but I don’t worry. When they’re parents, they’ll understand what it means to love with their whole heart – beautiful, unconditional and eternal.