A little over a year ago, I sat in an east coast coffee shop and the very basic idea of these words started to find their way into a word document, as I reflected on an experience I had earlier that spring. During an online writing course a few months later, the below essay began to take shape. It was still a work in progress this spring, when the Coffee + Crumbs website had opened up submissions for their blog. It was at that time that my mom fought a chest infection and editing this piece felt strangely out of place, and yet it didn’t. Our circumstances left me with a feeling of urgency to finish my essay before it became completely irrelevant; it was one year since mom had moved into a personal care home and she was fighting for her life, and I was almost halfway through our third child’s pregnancy - one that I had resigned myself to believe would never happen when I originally began writing.
It’s now been a few months since I completed the editing of this piece and since I pressed ‘send’ on the submission form. I intended to put these words up on my own website immediately after I heard that it was not accepted. But I was scared to put this vulnerable work out on the internet when it had already been rejected. I had begun to question if my words were any good, especially when I would hear of other writer-friends being published, one after another. Today, months after that terrifying spring when we didn’t know if mom would survive the night many times over, I’m finally sharing my essay. I don’t want it to hide in my google docs account any longer, even though it is now a different season of the year (and life). I want it to honour my mom and our story.
The sun was low, casting a serene glow on recently seeded fields on either side of our rural gravel road. I could feel its warmth, the sweat on my forehead and down my back. The rhythm of my running shoes against the ground and my breathing had me transfixed. And then, suddenly, I feel myself shift out of auto-pilot mode and back into focus, as the voice in my earbuds informs me that ‘we’ would be picking up the pace shortly.
Like every other spring, the transition into the new farming season is hard for our entire family—all for entirely different reasons. For my husband, he will spend hours checking that all of the required equipment is in working order: that the seed and fertilizer are ready to be planted, and praying for the precise weather systems ideal for seed growth.
For my kids, spring means the snow (hopefully) is gone and the opportunity to play outside without layers upon layers of clothing is finally here. It means quick hellos and high-fives to their dad as we drop off meals on the side of the field. More often than not, those moments are their only ‘dad-sighting’ of the day. For me, it’s the start of parenting solo for the majority of the year: no one to help with bedtime routines and mealtime standoffs. It’s the beginning of our farming season, one we love in so many ways and for so many reasons. And just like parenting, it can be exhausting and overwhelming and hard and lonely.
In the spring, my running shoes take me outside, and I am able to clear my head during the time it takes to pound out a couple of miles. The days grow longer as the sun pushes back on the dark a little longer each evening, increasing the likelihood of me squeezing in these solitary moments. It’s a funny thing - the constant pressing needs of my little (and big) people - to feel so lonely and suffocated at the same time. I find necessary, life-giving comfort and relief in those 30 minutes all by myself.
After completing a handful of solid 5k runs in the week previous, I confidently opened one of my running apps, and found a coaching program that looked challenging. The recording was motivating and the workout was hard. The length of time I ran versus jogged steadily increased and then tapered. My body was exhausted yet satisfied, having tested the limits of what I could tell it to do.
I turned off the gravel road and onto our lane, looking up the hill to where our farmyard was waiting: my proverbial finish line. The woman’s voice in my headphones tells me the workout is almost complete. “Only a 30-second, full out sprint is left!”
Years ago, on a different country lane, I ran with my mother. Not often or with much regularity, but a handful of times prior to my school track meets or ‘for fun’. Every time, without fail, my mother would prompt me, indicating we would sprint the distance between the last two power line posts. She knew my body was capable, even after logging miles of running, of giving more. After she said “Go!”, I would sprint, seeing how much distance I could put between she and I in those final 50-ish meters. While I gave everything that was left, she would cheer me on, encouraging me to push harder and faster. And she wouldn’t stop until after I passed the last post.
“Alright, I wanna see you leave it all out now! Empty that gas tank! You got this! 30 second sprint at 100% starts in 3… 2… 1… go!”
The music resumed in my ears after the coach gave her final pep talk of the workout and my legs picked up the pace. I was in a full sprint when I heard it, over the volume of the music, over the sound of my labored breath, over the crunching of the rocks underfoot, as I ran towards home. I heard it so clearly, I could feel it - my mother’s voice. As clearly as I heard it years ago, I heard her quietly, but oh-so-firmly say “Go. Go Karla, GO.”
Thirty seconds of sprinting is long, and even longer when a person is choking back tears. When it was over, I nearly collapsed from the emotional and physical exhaustion. My mother knows me best: she knows when I need her to speak gentle encouragement or give a strong push.
Springtime has always been a difficult transition time for me as a farm wife. Last spring, however, was exponentially harder than any previous spring. On top of all the usual changes, we were moving my once vibrant and active and still entirely too young 54-year-old mother into a personal care home. The weight of primary caregiving had become too heavy for us, her immediate family, to shoulder alone, together, the way we had been. So the difficult decision was made. We were now fully into palliative care with her.
But until that run, on that warm spring-almost-summer evening, I had managed to pretend it away.
My mom’s voice, strong or shaky, is not something I can easily recall anymore. It has been five years, maybe longer, since I last heard her voice sound as strong as it was in my head during that run. It has been almost as long since she has been able to form words, her only communication is now limited to simple audible sounds or eye-blinking. But what I heard that day while running was clear - it made my heart skip a beat and my stride falter, as if physically halting might allow me hang onto her words, her voice, just a little bit longer.
Mom’s terminal diagnosis came on the heels of our first pregnancy announcement. When we announced our second baby, she could no longer walk and her speech was increasingly difficult to understand. When I shared with her our difficulty in growing our family further, she simply looked into my eyes – hers sparked with life, encouragement, compassion… and pain. We both knew the words she wanted to share with me were now confined to her thoughts.
Transition seasons in farming, parenting, and grief are difficult. The beginning of leaving what is normal, to the fumbling-while-learning a new normal is when I find myself missing her wisdom and encouragement the most. It’s in the transitions that I’m most overwhelmed and the ache of losing her, my constant cheerleader, is greatest. I thought that role was lost forever when she lost her voice.
At times I question myself, if her voice was something I created in my head. Regardless, I know it felt real, like years ago when she was running beside me, cheering me on.
For almost seven years, I have wrestled with losing my mom and have been searching for a motherly source of encouragement that I could rely on. But I learned that evening, under the golden glow of the prairie sun and on a road between fields sprouting tiny green shoots of potential, that my mom’s voice will always be with me. It may not be audible and I may not remember it perfectly, but I know her almost as well as she knows me. I don’t need her spoken words, even if I really want them.
I know what she would say to me. She would tell me that I’m not done, that there’s more in me, and that I can finish strong.
Even though her disease increases the distance between us, she is forever cheering me on.