When you’re sitting on a plane: A reflection on a mother’s love

By Lillian Mongeau Hughes 

When you’re sitting on a plane and you aren’t sure when you land if you are going to learn that your mom has months— weeks? days? — to live, the lack of elbow room feels particularly constrictive. Because, what you really want to do is scream and flail your arms even though flailing one’s arms is not an actual release anyone over age 3 engages in. Because, what you really want is to have your mom at your elbow, smiling and joking and telling a story you’ve heard before and asking after your friends, women you love and she’s barely met but loves anyway, by extension, just because you love them. 

When you’re in the middle seat between two men who won’t look at you and seem scared to ask you if you’re OK even though you’re not-that-silently sobbing, you kind of wish you could have planned this flight further in advance and secured a better seat. Because, in fact, you bought this ticket three hours ago, spilling out nearly every last airline mile you’d saved up that year in your job that involves so much travel you always have a running balance. Because, when you woke up for your morning run, you saw the text: metastatic. Because, you didn’t know exactly what that meant but when you called your running buddy to explain you probably had to cancel your run, buy a ticket and get on a plane, she told you what it meant: Cancer. Cancer that came from somewhere else and got to her brain and will kill her, surely and soon. 

When the flight attendant realizes the state you’re in because he makes a joke about the airplane bathroom being the men’s room and you turn your face to him, confused, and his face goes white with shock, you realize that you must look worse than you thought. Because, you think of yourself as the kind of person who can hold it together. Because, your mom taught you to find the bright spots in the darkness, to take the world as it comes, to see people as they are and as they want to be, to be unfailingly polite. Even as you fumble with the weird accordion door to the tiny all-gender bathroom, you feel bad for the guy. The joke was objectively funny. In other circumstances, you would have laughed. And he couldn’t see your face. He couldn’t know this was so far one of the worst days of your life. You’re not mad at him. And even in that moment, you know you’re not mad at him because of how your mom taught you to be a human in the world. And you remember that right now she can’t talk, that she went from talking normally, to stumbling a bit, to near silence in a few short weeks and you didn’t notice until it was almost too late. And you think, you should have noticed sooner. She would have noticed sooner if it had been you. 

Me and mom some time before 1990.

When the minutes are inching by on the longest five-hour flight of your life and you can’t manage to distract yourself with the Mueller Report, which you inexplicably bought at the airport newsstand, you almost laugh out loud at the absurdity of the fact that your cousin and your sister’s boyfriend are on the same flight as you right now, a few rows back. Because, they work together and are returning from a business trip in Portland. Because, they live in Boston, near your mom, a place you do not live. They have better seats. They were planning on this flight. For them it is a flight home from a city you have come to call home but were not born in. They live about 30 minutes from their parents. It strikes you for the first time in nearly 20 years that there are advantages to that. And you cycle through all the things your mother has ever said to you about living so far from her. And you cycle through all the things she hasn’t said to you, but you know she thinks. And you settle on the one she’s repeated the most. She wants you to be happy. If you’re happy, she’s happy. And because you have a daughter now, you know that’s true, so you try to stop the cycling.  

When the sandwich that the shamefaced flight attendant offers you for free tastes like cardboard and makes you gag, you reflect that you’ve rarely felt so bad that you couldn’t eat. You’re like your mom in that way. There are other ways too. You can sleep anywhere. You love quilting. You like the same books. You have the same opinions of most people, though yours, you flatter yourself, are more nuanced, and hers, you know for certain, are more generous. You talk a lot. You don’t mind being the center of attention. You have the same eyes. Usually, the differences are what you focus on. She’s so unfailingly kind and you have to work at it. She’s forever comforting people and you’d like them to get a grip. She’s scattered and impulsive and unfocused and you exert every single muscle in your body and mind not to be that way even though you love her for it and wouldn’t change it, in her, for anything. You can’t imagine a life without her.  

Lillian, left, in Dublin, Ireland, with her mom, Janice Ruell. 

When you’re walking through the airport next to your sister’s boyfriend, who you’ve met a handful of times but still don’t know well, it occurs to you that if he sticks around this will be one of your first really shared experiences – that time we walked through the airport — you an empty husk, wrung out and aching, him carefully navigating us towards your sister’s new car, which he recognizes and you don’t. You know almost nothing about this man, but you get a sense, in those few moments, that if he sticks around it will be no bad thing, this calm and quiet presence in your sister’s life. In some distant part of your brain this reminds you that you haven’t always known your husband; your mom hasn’t always known your dad; both of you had lives with other families before the life you have now in the families you’ve created.  

When you’re sitting in your sister’s car and she is driving you through the Boston traffic towards the hospital and telling you it’s not metastatic, you can barely manage to feel relieved. Because, there is still “a mass on her brain” and apparently no one knows what it is yet. And because, at some point while you were in the air, everything changed for good anyway. No matter that in four days’ time your mom will have a successful surgery to remove the baseball size mass that has been growing in her head for over a decade. No matter that as her language floods back in a euphoric wave she’ll tell you she’d not worried about you much, trapped in her head during those silent days in the hospital, because she knew you were the kind of person who could keep it together. No matter that 10 days later you’d have a diagnosis: Cancer, but not the kind that kills instantly. No matter that there’d be a treatment plan, new flights to arrange, thank-you notes to send, hats to buy. None of this, it turned out, not entirely to your surprise, would shake you the way those first hours had. 

Because, something clicked for you that day over some far northern state or maybe Canada. You had no regrets. Not a second of the time you’d spent with your mom was time you wouldn’t live through again. Her shining brown eyes brightening every time you so much as walked into a room – that was a gift you’d carry forever. That day she made you show up at your first ski race, sick to your stomach with fear, and waited at the bottom with complete confidence while you got down the hill better than you’d expected – that was a gift you’d carry forever. The moment she held your baby girl for the first time, right in the hospital room she’d spent the last three days in with you while you’d moaned and rocked and forced that baby out into the world – that was a gift you’d carry forever.

Mom and Clare in 2018.

Your ability to cook, sew, write a coherent sentence, make a friend, keep a friend, laugh, help someone – all of these were sparkling daily gifts you never had to give back. And if there were no more gifts, God help you, so be it. If there were no one to call the next time you needed her voice, no one to brainstorm party themes with for your daughter’s second birthday, or her 10th, no one who was quite precisely that happy you existed in the world, well, so be it.  

You were luckier than you deserved, you saw now, to have a mom like yours in the first place.

And while you would have untold tears left to shed when you lost her, you knew now that you’d be OK. You were the kind of person who could hold it together. You were the kind of person who could find lights in the darkness. You were the kind of person who could sew and cook and whose eyes would brighten — un-jealously, uncritically, unselfishly — every time your daughter walked into a room for the rest of your life.  Your mom, she’d seen to that.  

The whole crew, post-surgery. Lillian at bottom left.

Lillian Mongeau Hughes is a journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her mom is a wonder and a marvel who lives in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Her daughter has their eyes.  

Editor’s note: I’ve known Lilly for 12 years now, starting when she was a contributing writer to The Oregonian. I love the generational perspective she brings as a Millennial and appreciate her willingness to write for this blog year after year. (A personal favorite: “Dear Boomers”) At Lilly’s wedding 8 years ago, I met her amazing mom — a dynamic and generous woman.

Tomorrow: Gil Rubio | Our hands

9 thoughts on “When you’re sitting on a plane: A reflection on a mother’s love

  1. My eyes are leaking and I can’t get them to stop. Your mom has made me want to be a better mother. Thank you for sharing her with us. I’m so glad you get more time with her, what a gift.

  2. Lillian, I doubt that many of us who no longer have their mother, father or both lack regrets over our relationships with our late parental(s). It was a treat to read that you have none and that you still enjoy time with your mom, no matter the distance. Thank you!

  3. Lillian, didn’t your mother come to one of our get togethers in Portland? I could swear I’ve met her. I’m so sorry she, and you, are going through this. It sounds like you just have THE BEST relationship with your mom. She seems like the nicest person, a real sparkler. You definitely have her eyes. May they shine for you as they do for your mom. God bless you all.

  4. Reading this was almost like reading a suspense novel, pulling me foreword with increasing dread at the expected outcome only to discover my dread was unnecessary, that for now, the ending is happy. It’s uncanny how much you are your mom look alike!

  5. Lilly Your writing is as beautiful as the “sparkling daily gifts” from your mom that have shaped your life. I wish you both the best. Thank you for sharing your story this year.

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