Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I don’t remember how old I was when I first woke up from a nightmare and walked into the kitchen in the middle of the night to find my mother there, almost as if she was waiting up for me. I do remember that she welcomed me with love—no frustrated gritting of teeth or demands to get back to bed. She quietly put the kettle on, tore open a packet of instant hot chocolate, and popped some bread into the toaster. There was something about those quiet moments: stirring the cocoa powder until it dissolved into my mug and spreading the toast with butter and sprinkling it with cinnamon sugar—just enough so that the butter soaked it up and the surface of the toast turned a delicious brown. I had two younger siblings, so I treasured these midnight one-on-one meetings. I have no idea how often this actually happened, or whether there really was hot chocolate each time, but I do remember how they made me feel: comforted, loved, and valued.
We have no way of knowing what our kids will remember of their own childhood experiences with us, but our relationship with our parents becomes a core part of who we are.
I, for one, have failed countless times at making my four kids feel the warm fuzzies. But I like to think circling back to the calm, loving, and ever-patient mother I strive to be has a lasting effect on what my kids will feel when they look back.
Oftentimes we’re not aware of the small things we do that will make the longest-lasting impression on our children (or anyone for that matter). Nonetheless, I’ve become adept at knowing when a scrape needs a motherly kiss or when a Band-aid is called for—my kids will go through them like candy otherwise. I know when my youngest is particularly whiny a little extra one-on-one time will help calm the waves of angst—the same goes with my 13-year-old. None of these would qualify as medicinal remedies, but as mothers we instinctively know when such simple actions are needed. We looked to our own mothers to intuit what was needed whenever we ailed. And now we look to ourselves to find calm in the big and small storms that come to us daily. To find—or be—the closest shelter.
There are some things we just don’t know how to heal, though.
Last fall, my nine-year-old son spent nearly a month out of school and in the hospital. There’s nothing that makes you feel more powerless as a mother than when your child is hurting, especially when it results in a trip to the emergency room. Driving with him to the hospital and then spending half the night in the ER, a strange calm came over me. I suppose it was probably adrenaline that gave me the ability to be hyper aware and focused. And just as a toddler looks to their parents to decide whether they should cry after a fall, I knew my son would be looking to me to see how to react now. But when the paramedics came in the early morning hours with a stretcher and I climbed into the ambulance with my son as he was transferred, I never felt more lost and utterly unsure of what to do. It was compounded by the fact that I could hardly make out where we were as I sat facing backwards and peering through the tinted ambulance windows as the city flew by.
I’ve always prided myself on having a pretty accurate internal compass. Send me on a hike or on the crazy streets of a city like New Orleans and I could pretty much always place the direction of where I came and where I’m going. Just when I thought I could pinpoint where I was along the streets of my hometown that late night in the ambulance, I found myself completely baffled and even more helpless. I couldn’t figure out which way was north—physically or emotionally.
During the days and weeks to follow, there was no map for navigating my way through the maze of hospital visits. I had to reroute my life around the heartbreak of balancing the best way to take care of my son while caring for my other three children as well. My own mother was there with me every step of the way. And I had a large community of friends who stood by my side throughout it all as well.
In fact, it was during a lunch with friends right at the beginning of my son’s hospital stay that ended up shining a lasting light on the situation for me. During that lunch I had one particular friend who made it a point to insist that I could bring him things like crayons and coloring books. During the early bustling back and forth from the hospital I hadn’t thought of that, but something clicked when she spoke up and it gave me back a sense of power to help and heal. When I found out that my son was learning how to make origami while I wasn’t able to be with him, it became my mission to buy all the origami paper and books I could get my hands on.
I brought them to him at the hospital and felt so relieved to have something physical to offer him. Each time I visited we would work on mastering a new origami figure. And when he got stuck and frustrated—and I was just as cross-eyed at the enigmatic diagram instructions—I would look up videos so I could go back and conquer these paper puzzles with him. The first thing we mastered was the crane. We’d fold together quietly, and those square pieces of paper that transformed beneath our own hands took us beyond those hospital walls. There is a Japanese legend that says that anyone who folds one thousand cranes will be granted a wish, and my only wish was for my son to find peace and healing.
He was soon ready to return home and go back to school, and we’ve continued folding cranes as an entire family to this day. I don’t know if we’ll reach one thousand cranes any time soon, but I do know that the ones we’ve made have certainly knit our hearts together a little closer. I don’t know if these simple paper birds will ever hold as much resonance in my son’s memory, but they will forever reverberate in mine.