Mom began sprinting up the hill, pushing me in the wheelchair. As we reached the halfway point of the walkway, the front wheels caught a spacer in the pavement. CRACK! The front wheels snapped off, immediately halting the chair and turning me into a human projectile. I landed on the ground, half-laughing, half-panicking as mom frantically tried to figure out what to do while worrying about the broken leg that put me in the wheelchair in the first place.
I often like to tease my mom about funny stories like this one. Reflecting on it a bit deeper than the immediate humor, however, I’m struck by how it reflects my relationship with my mom. Sure, Mom got rambunctious and started sprinting with her child in a wheelchair. But deeper than that, Mom realized how the 7th-grade bullying plus the broken leg had reached a tipping point. Not only did she let me skip school, but she took a day off of work to bring me to the Missouri Botanical Gardens. The Gardens had been a favorite spot for the two of us as I grew up. Visits there usually involved feasting on poppyseed bread smothered in butter before going to feed the koi in the Japanese garden.
This Mother’s Day, I want to look beyond the requisite flowers and phone call home to something a bit fuller – What did Mom teach me about Mother’s Day?
When I was in the fourth grade, my class had to re-design animals in a way that was both creative and that had some kind of positive impact on the world. Vegetarian lions? Extra-egg producing chickens? Nope. Mom pushed me to imagine a breed of catfish that would extract mercury from the water, thus improving the environment and making other fish safe to eat, especially for pregnant mothers.
Fast forward to AP Statistics during my senior year of high school. All my classmates worked on baseball, football, and hockey analytics. As for me? Mom directed me to analyze the effects of lead paint on maternal and child health.
And I would get mad at my Mom, telling her to stop taking over my projects and allow me to do my own work. Yet all these years later, lead paint and environmental justice are the exact things I teach my juniors about in our Catholic Social Doctrine class.
Among her favorite hobbies, Mom likes to imagine what my future should be, including not only if I should continue in my studies, but what exactly she thinks I should study and what communities I should serve. She sometimes considers calling my Jesuit superiors to enlighten them to her plans. That’s when I get frustrated: sorry, Mom, it doesn’t work that way!
Yet all of these examples are emblematic of my relationship with Mom.
Now, Mom is President of the Sinai Urban Health Institute, the public health arm of Sinai Hospital. Although much of her research currently revolves around reducing gun violence, her lifetime focus has been on maternal health. While she has always been an excellent mother to me, Mom has done amazing work to ensure the livelihood of all mothers.
Each little memory of my mom – the wheelchair, school projects, imagining my future, my frustration, and Mom’s enduring patience – point to something far greater that Mom taught me. Her dreams for my future are never about appeasing her, but fighting for a more just world for all mothers. Pushing my education has never been about status or achievement. It’s about challenging me to help shape the world so mothers don’t have to fret about lead paint, mercury levels in fish, or proper maternal health. Her imagination is not only directed at what might happen to my life. Rather, she imagines how I can give and share my life with others.
Mom taught me that love for her was never directed solely at her. Mom’s love went further than that. Mom was always thinking about other mothers. So she taught me to love, cherish, and tenderly serve others with a wild imagination. She helped me see that my love was never just for her. It needs to be for all mothers, because all mothers are affected by the problems of the world, from environmental pollution to lead paint.
Through projects, dreams, degrees, and imagination, Mom has shared her love with me. And it is a love that cannot be shared only over flowers and a phone call, but demands that my love goes further beyond. So what did Mom teach me about Mother’s Day?
Selfless love: for others, and especially for mothers.
To the biostatistics professor, environmental defender, hiking buddy, and dreamer who taught me to love Mothers: Happy Mother’s Day.