Jennifer Bridgman

Giving Thanks to Mom

This Thanksgiving I'm filled with a bunch of emotions--the strongest of which is deep gratitude for my mother, Nancy Dunn. A year ago we didn't know about the aggressive cancer spreading throughout her body, and eight months ago we didn't know just how gangbusters she'd be in kicking NHL's butt to the curb. But today we know; today "grateful" is an understatement.

As I'm about to welcome my third child, I reflect often on how Mom raised her own three children. It's not just that she made it look easy--she made it look like a privilege. She filled our home and daily lives with such steadfast warmth and patience that we kids never doubted how much she cherished her role as our mother. She lived each day being humble and kind, teaching by her actions instead of her words. She spoke as kindly to squirrels who hesitated to cross the road as she did to friends on the phone and strangers on the street. She hummed and sang constantly. She laughed easily, particularly at herself. As a special education teacher, my mother’s compassion, dedication and knack for knowing how to connect with others touched the lives of countless children besides her own. For years, it wasn’t unusual to hear her sitting at the family computer at 4:45 am, clicking away on the keyboard and intermittently sipping her instant coffee as she wrapped up yet another IEP report before work. (In the 90s, she was very uncomfortable around computers and electronics, and “typing” meant pecking loudly at the keyboard with just two fingers.) As a teen, I remember her Honda Accord pulling into the driveway from work long after the final school bell had rung and the sun had set. Anytime I visited her classroom, I witnessed her success as a teacher firsthand. Former and current students alike would pop in, choosing to spend any free time near “Mrs. Dunn.” She made them feel welcome, she made them feel valued. She made school a positive place to be for kids who had previously wanted to give up or whose parents had somehow already given up on them.

As the rebel middle child of the family, I felt her love strongest during those years I pushed her away most. And no matter how many times I tested her devotion, she was there waiting like an unspoken safety net. Today she remains as dedicated to her family as she did decades ago, and much like she managed with her own three children, the bond "Nana" shares with each of her six grandchildren is unique and airtight. To know that "Lucky #7" in my belly will get to experience her love brings me indescribable joy.

2015 has turned out to be a milestone year for our family, but the year started out so bleak and scary. Mom charged through treatment like a champion, however, never allowing fear to take over. Her mind and energy remained, as always, on her family. I'll never forget the day I accompanied her to shave her head. We didn't know yet how chemo would go--it was all new and intimidating. So I sat beside her at the salon, and when the clippers stopped, we gazed at her new reflection. We were both taken aback--me because of her natural beauty and inner youthfulness shining through. She looked so raw and vulnerable, and yet so brave. For a flash, I was reminded of the girl I'd seen from her old black & white childhood photographs. For my mom, however, seeing her new reflection hit a bit harder. I caught her lip quivering for just a moment before she took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. That was to be the first and last time in all the months ahead that I would see her near tears. We worried about how the grandkids might react to her changed appearance, so we bought children's books on cancer to read with them; they never once gave Nana's new look a second thought. And that's because everything about her comes from within--her grace and kindness and playfulness--and those things cannot be touched by a pair of clippers. This spring, as I went through the early stages of pregnancy and she went through months of chemo, we both experienced fatigue and nausea, comparing and sometimes chuckling over our similar symptoms. And yet, only I groaned and complained.

Recently my hubby was gone for an entire month, and I couldn't have survived caring for our two energetic boys solo while eight months pregnant without the help of both my parents. Like mind-readers, they'd just "happen to be in the area" and pop by during the boys' pre-dinner witching hour of couch jumping, wrestling and inevitable boo-boos. As I still haven't mastered my mom's unfailing grace and patience, their visits were a godsend. And on the night my older son came down with a fever, she was at my front door within forty-five minutes carrying non-expired medicine and a working thermometer...two things that I somehow didn't have in my fully-stocked medicine cabinet. She stayed until his fever broke and until we knew for sure that I wouldn't be heading to urgent care solo with both kids in the middle of the night. "I'm just a phone call away," she called over her shoulder, stepping down from my front porch and heading off into the dark night. As I locked the door behind her, I was struck with the realization that I can't imagine a day where this is not an option. Lately I catch myself muttering her trademark phrases all the time--the very ones I spent years ridiculing like, "Geeze oh Friday!" and "Holy Toldeo!" and "Bedtime for Bonzos," but now they make my smile as they tumble out. Because I've finally figured out the simple secret to life: the more like Mom, the better. Whenever I reflect on the kind of wife and parent I want to be, my answer is simple: "Just like Mom." She makes every day better, and the mere thought of her can cause my whole face to crumble into tears of gratitude. There is a saying about remembering to cherish the good moments, as they too shall pass just as surely as the bad ones. So I’m trying to be better about this and appreciate every moment with Mom, no matter how mundane.

As my mom’s health and stamina have continued to improve, her hair has begun to grow back. I love that she opts to skip the wig daily now, forgoing her usual blonde bob for a chic, naturally-darker cropped ‘do. I know this initially wasn’t easy for her, and not because she’s concerned with her outward appearance but because she’s never been comfortable with too much attention, especially related to her NHL. So I’ll allow her to keep downplaying her recent heroism--it was her own battle, after all--but that won’t prevent me from shouting it from the rooftops: “Holy Toledo…my mom is a warrior!!!”

 I love you, Mom. Happy Thanksgiving. Xo, JJ.