My mother was an artist. She got her degree in commercial art and taught high school art for many years. On her own time, she liked to pursue a variety of creative projects, from needlework to portraiture in oils. Most of that, though, I remember from my childhood.
By my teen years, I don’t have as many memories of her pursuing creative projects. Some, but not many. She tackled quilting and sewing through my young adult years, but she’d largely left illustration and painting behind, largely abandoned her passion projects.
She was tired. Tired from working full-time as a teacher for deaf kindergarteners. Tired from coming home to my father who would immediately pull her into his yard projects: landscaping, gardening, pruning. Always. They never stopped. She didn’t have nearly as much energy as she wanted for both the things she wanted and needed to do, so she gave up the wants and tended to the needs.
My whole life she had worked full-time, raised three kids, and due to my father’s constant frail health, tended to him in his severe, sometimes life-threatening illnesses.
I didn’t know that the entire time, she was waiting, in hibernation or maybe chrysalis, waiting for the day she knew she would inevitably outlive my father and free up the time and energy to devote to her artistic passions. She loved him. She had no desire for him to die. She just knew that someday, in her future long widowhood, it would be time to convert one of her kids’ empty bedrooms to an art studio and lose herself in projects for hours on end without interruption. And she was content to wait for that time. It was resignation. But no resentment.
She was right about my father dying early. He died only a month past his 60th birthday. But by then, my mother was already dying too. Breast cancer. And when I had to creep into her room at dawn one morning to tell her that my dad had died, she nodded, having known for a day or two that it was coming, having gone to the hospital weakened from chemo to sit on his bed for hours to tell him how she loved him and would miss him.
Then she cried.
There would be a lot of tears, of course. But there was also one crystalline moment of anger so stark that it haunted me in ways I couldn’t understand. It was the moment in the days between his death and burial when she sobbed to me, “I thought I would have more time on my own to do the things I wanted.”
She wasn’t blaming my father for that loss of time. She had done it to herself, and she knew it. She was grieving the time she would never get, the time she’d thought she was banking. She was grieving the time she’d given up while she waited for a future where she would get to do her art at will, to immerse herself in it without guilt, to play and explore and create without restriction and limit.
She died two months later, too sick between his funeral and hers to do her art.
That day, her outburst, the uncontrolled grief and rage from my normally peaceful mother, stuck with me for years. At first I thought it was because I was shaken by the way it revealed dynamics in their marriage I was uncomfortable with. Slowly, I realized it shook me because I realized it was the starkest example of avoidable regret I would ever see, and that she had recognized too late that it hadn’t needed to be that way.
Sometimes I feel judgment from others for my willingness to not make meals, to set firm boundaries with my kids about when they can interrupt my work and when they can’t, to overlook my messy house until it transitions from untidy to dirty and I’m forced into action, when I leave home for days to attend conferences to improve my craft or mentor others and I must depend on others for child-tending to make it work, when I’m immersed in the work of my masters program and ignoring the world, when I skip an (unnecessary) administrative church meeting to meet with my critique group.
I care a little, sometimes. About the judgment, I mean. I care until I remember my mother’s anguished, “I thought I would have more time.”
So I make the time. Of course I do.
I can’t afford not to and there’s no way to bank it.
So I make the time.