The words on my Facebook page stopped me in my tracks. They formed my college friend’s status update — solemn, careful words, the likes of which rarely grace my newsfeed. Below, he posted his mother’s memorial page, explaining that she had recently succumbed to lymphoma. [Sidebar: I HATE CANCER.] I was drawn to read his mother’s tribute, even though I was never lucky enough to meet her.
Katy Gerke raised three sons, and she did so while going to medical school and then practicing as a radiologist. She touched many, many people over the course of her life and work; that is obvious from her tribute page and from the comments on my friend’s Facebook post from his childhood friends who knew her. Katy sounds like an amazing person: a world traveler, an amateur French cook, a lover of literature and opera, and a generous and warm hostess and friend. She also inspired one of her sons and several of her sons’ friends to follow in her footsteps as a radiologist by sharing her work with her children. The line from her memorial that stood out to me the most, though — the sentence that caught my heart and placed it firmly in my throat — was this:
“Among other books, she managed to read her three young sons all 1200 pages of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They loved it so much that she then read it to them again.”
So often, I get caught up in the minutiae of life and parenting: the truly bottomless laundry, the trauma (mine) of potty training, bedtime battles, time-outs and reward charts, sibling brawls, homework and reading logs and standardized tests, sports and lessons, birthday parties and class celebrations. The details of parenting never end. I go to bed wondering if I am doing it right; I often feel like I’m not. It — I — never feel like enough, somehow. Just this first week of school, I beat myself up a million times for the small infractions and dropped balls — forms I forgot to fill out, folders I forgot to tuck in first grade backpacks, P.E. locks I forgot to buy, the missed school bus on the first day. The “best I can” often feels not even close to “good enough” mothering. It all feels so complicated in the wee hours when I can’t sleep because I’m worrying about one or more of my children for one of myriad reasons. Sometimes I feel like all I do is hold my breath and try to tread water.
But it’s not really that complicated, is it? To be “the best of mothers,” is it required that I be a queen of Pinterest? The PTA President? The CEO of a Fortune 500 company? No. What our children will remember about us is how we lived our lives, how we worked, what we loved, and how we shared that love. They will notice and remember the small acts we do for them every day: the packed lunches, the clean clothes, the new sneakers for school, the homemade, slightly askew birthday cakes, the bedtime stories. They will remember the time we spend with them. It’s that simple. It’s not complicated at all, really.
We have so much. Maybe, sometimes, we have too much and too many choices. We spread ourselves thin trying to do ALL THE THINGS and to make sure our children do not miss out on anything, that they have every opportunity to succeed, that they never need wonder if they are loved. Really, we don’t need all of that to — as my friend described his mother — make clear by “action and word” that our families are the most important things in our lives. All we need is to give them our focus, our attention, our eyes, and our voices when we can. We can do that whether we work outside our homes or not and in whatever moments we have. As I have said before, we don’t need to be perfect. We just need to be perfectly their mothers.
Make no mistake, too — our attention is a gift. It takes a long time to read 1200 pages. It takes time from screens, from texts and tweets, from emails and work calls. There’s no way to fast forward or take a short cut when we give a moment to our kids; there’s no app for that. That’s what makes it special. That’s what makes it an act of love. We all have the equivalent of 1200 pages we can find for our kids somehow, somewhere, and when we identify those special things, we need to do them. They are the things that matter. They are the gifts that count.
I’m so grateful to my friend for sharing his mother with me and giving me a role model for the kind of mother — and person — I want to be. Katy Gerke led a “normal” life, but it was a life remarkable because of who she was to many people, most notably her family. When the time comes to write my memorial, I hope my children will note the work I did and the accomplishments I made, but I even more hope they remember the Little Critter stories at bedtime, the singing in the car on road trips, the after-school Slurpees, and the snuggles in the Big White Bed that happened around that work. These are the details of my life that I hold dear when I put my head on my pillow at night, and I want them to know that. My true legacy will be if I can leave my children knowing how very much they were loved, and if I do, it won’t be because I never messed up in my parenting, or because I never forgot it was pajama day at school, or because I packed them lunches worthy of Instagram. It will be because I was the kind of mother and person who could do something like read all 1200 pages of Lord of the Rings to three young boys, bit by bit — and then do it all over again — just because they loved it.
[This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.]