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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

“Every day is Mother’s Day,” my mom used to say. As a child, I could never understand what that meant. How could every day be Mother’s Day? Did we not need one day of the year to stop and express our gratitude to mom for all her hard work? To offer her a yearly overpriced brunch of prime rib and a bouquet of grocery-store flowers and make good our debt?

Every day is Mother’s Day? Was she speaking in proverbs? Being sarcastic? I never bothered to ask.

My mother died in 2008 of a ruptured aortic aneurysm. I think she knew her time had come when she started feeling unwell in early 2007. We visited doctors who planned tests, theorized risk and discussed surgery. But before any action took place, her aneurysm ruptured.

In all probability, she should have died that night but, somehow, she endured an emergency surgery and, against all odds, survived 10 months in the intensive-care unit. I know that she held on for those 10 gruelling months in the ICU solely for our benefit – so that we could have time to adjust to a world that didn’t include her, so that we could temper our grief with a sense of relief that her suffering was over. She fought and she suffered to ease our pain. That’s what moms do. Right up until the end.

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When my mother passed, I myself had become a mother three times over. My children were little the year she died and I often pondered her words which seemed entirely paradoxical. If every day was Mother’s Day, then there would be no Mother’s Day. And how could a day that’s intended to honour moms fall on those days that seemed impossibly frenzied and left me feeling entirely inadequate and incompetent?

I don’t think she could have explained the answer to me because the answer, as equally paradoxical as the statement, is that one only knows when one stops trying to know. That is to say, when I released myself from the limits of thought and language and could just gaze into my child’s eyes or catch his smile or see him run toward me, I could understand her words.

And each day was rife with those moments – moments filled with wonders both ordinary and miraculous at the same time, and as abundant as stars in the night sky if I made myself aware enough to notice, if I stepped out of the busyness and let myself see. In those moments of presence, all time and space, all conditioned thinking and vocabulary acquiesced to the mystical, the way a sunset suddenly disarms you from thought and leaves you awe-struck. These were the gifts each day that were not only given to me but also that taught me how to receive, breaking me open to allow more.

There were times when I was overwhelmed and overworked. There were times when I was buried under tasks and schedules and frustrated that my little ones were behaving age-appropriately and not like middle managers of a Fortune 500 company. During these times, it was difficult to see the wonder right in front of me, but each day continued to offer it to me regardless. Underneath the manic veil of going and doing, the truth waited patiently for stillness. Every single day.

I often relied on my mother’s words to pull me back into this deeper reality, to make me see that every day is Mother’s Day if only I let it, if I could reframe my perspective and realize that what I was so desperately trying to juggle was an overabundance of blessings.

I didn’t always get it right, but when I did, I got first-hand witness to the interplay between the human and the supernatural – these three incredible lives handed to me by a universe so generous and humble that it surrenders all credit when I have done little to earn it.

Over the years I grew to understand that my mother’s words pointed to all the paradoxes of motherhood. Giving birth is a statistically very ordinary event that is simultaneously the most extraordinary event imaginable. In the most menial of my daily duties, I was building solid foundations that would expand into many generations. In kneeling down to comfort my children, I became larger than life. In giving my children roots, I was giving them wings. And in the moments I was firmly in the present, I could see eternity.

I am the recipient of gifts beyond my imagining. So while I appreciate all the thoughts and thank-yous that go into this one Sunday in May, there really is no debt to be paid. It seems to me that there is almost an absurdity around the notion of Mother’s Day, much like there would be around a day that celebrates lottery winners.

The most important paradox I learned from my mother is one that is so common that it’s been reduced to a cliché: It is in giving that we receive. (Maybe it is no coincidence that we call it “giving” birth.)

Perhaps the poet Hafiz said it best when he wrote: “Even after all this time, the sun never says to the Earth, ‘You owe me.’ Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.”

As a mother, the greatest gift I have received in this life is one that I was privileged enough to give: a love that wants nothing in return. Such a gift awakens the divine in us. It is the stuff of moms and God. It shatters our smallness. It reaches through the confines of flesh and bone.

It keeps us alive in the ICU.

Although my mother died 14 years ago, I still think about her daily. I miss the taste of her food, the sound of her voice singing French lullabies to my children, the perfumey smell of anything that came from her purse.

My three sons are young adults now, each one towering over me. I have to look up to see their faces, and when I do I see my mother’s immortality in their eyes. I see the past and the future merging into the present. And how miraculous that present moment is. It is right now. It is today. Which, as I have learned, is always Mother’s Day.

Hana Zalzal lives in Toronto

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