A tough day for mothers

On Mother's Day we celebrate the mothers in our community, and the great gifts they bring to the world and to their children. Yet amidst the flowers and dinners out, not every part of motherhood is lifted up equally. Motherhood may be the hardest vocation in the world.

Unlike fathers, mothers necessarily make room for new life not only in their lives, but in their very bodies. Then, there is no childbirth without pain. Ever since there have been mothers, they have fed their children, sheltered and protected them, taught and nurtured them, and sent them out into the world with prayers that they might be well. Mothers live knowing that their child's safety is not a given, and that their worst fears can be realized when children come to harm.

Over the past years and this week I have spoken with mothers who grieve the death of their children. While I have not taken a poll, I believe that every single one of them would have traded their life for that of their daughter or son. Every single one lives with the pain of continuing to live when their beloved child has been taken from them. It doesn't matter what continent the mother and child are from, or if the death happened today, a hundred years ago, or two thousand.

Iraqi, Armenian, Chinese, Palestinian mothers with their children

That is an inescapable part of mothers' vocation. And we do well to give it every bit as much honor as we give the "Hallmark" moments. The original observances of Mothers Day in America began in 1870 as a movement for mothers to fight for an end to wars. Julia Ward Howe called for women, as wives and mothers, to stand up against the abhorrent evil of war, inflicted by one woman's child against another's.

She wrote: "Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly:... 'Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.'”

Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo - Mothers of the Disappeared, Argentina
Mothers' Day witness, 19th century

The other day I encountered this poem, by Dunya Mikhail. It ripped my heart apart, maybe moving me an inch closer to the experience of these mothers.

Bag of Bones, as read by the author (English), on the New Yorker Radio Hour, May 11, 2018.


What good luck!
She has found his bones.
The skull is also in the bag
the bag in her hand
like all other bags
in all other trembling hands.
His bones, like thousands of bones
in the mass graveyard,
His skull, not like any other skull.
Two eyes or holes
with which he saw too much,
two ears
with which he listened to music
that told his own story,
a nose
that never knew clean air,
a mouth, open like a chasm,
it was not like that when he kissed her
there, quietly,
not in this place
noisy with skulls and bones and dust
dug up with questions:
What does it mean to die all this death
in a place where the darkness plays all this silence?
What does it mean to meet your loved ones now
With all of these hollow places?
To give back to your mother
on the occasion of death
a handful of bones
she had given to you
on the occasion of birth?
To depart without death or birth certificates
because the dictator does not give receipts
when he takes your life.
The dictator has a skull too, a huge one
not like any other skull.
It solved by itself a math problem
that multiplied the one death by millions
to equal homeland.
The dictator is the director of a great tragedy.
he has an audience, too,
an audience that claps
until the bones begin to rattle
the bones in the bags,
the full bag finally in her hand,
unlike her disappointed neighbor
who has not yet found her own.

Mikhail, Dunya. The War Works Hard. New York: New Directions, 2005.
Translation © 2005, Dunya Mikhail with Elizabeth Winslow and Dan Veach.
From poetryinternationalweb.net, the page also includes the author reading her poem in the original Arabic.


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