A man came to the Prophet Muhammad (PUH) and asked him who was the person most worthy of his love and care. The Prophet replied, “Your mother.” The man asked, “Then who?” The Prophet repeated, “Your mother.” The man asked again, “And then who?” The Prophet again said to him, “Your mother!”
I never quite understood the meaning of this Hadith until recent years as my relationship with my mother turned in an unanticipated way. Now I understand how my relationship with my mother, Fatima, who recently turned 91 years old, has always been the most important one in my life and how it defined and shaped all of my other relationships.
Looking back on my life I see how my relationship with my mother evolved. When I was a child, I thought my mother was the kindest, most loving, and most beautiful woman in the world. When I was a teenager and a young adult, I thought my mother was my friend and ally. I could talk to her about anything. After I got married, I started to see my mother’s faults and my criticism and resentment of her built up to a point where I couldn’t tolerate being around her for very long. And now, in my middle age, it feels that we are back as mother and child with nothing but love between us.
It was only a few years ago that my wife and I were visiting when my mother suddenly fell ill and as a result had a drastic loss of memory and no ability to care for herself. After her illness, my mother seemed to regress to childhood. She was like an innocent child experiencing everything for the very first time. Many of her difficult habits disappeared. Her fussiness about food vanished. Her obsession with her weight and health stopped. Her habitual complaining and criticisms were no longer there. Her incessant, superficial talk that dominated our time together was replaced with an easy silence and comfort of just being together.
It seemed that my mother’s ego had largely melted away. It was remarkable how my own ego melted as hers melted. All of my desires and needs that felt frustrated by her just left me and in their place a profound loving filled my heart towards her. I found myself feeling at ease around her as the negativity that I harbored towards her was replaced with deep compassion and love.
I now see how my mother in her love for me, despite both of our egos and human flaws, enabled me to experience Divine Love. She showed me a love that was unconditional, abiding, and deeply rooted within our hearts. She showed me a love that allowed me to trust, to know that I am held and protected, to know that I can always return and find her heart open to receiving me. And she showed me how this love resonates and circulates between hearts in unexpected ways. I would like to share a deeply personal example of this:
On a recent visit, I took my mother out shopping and as we were wandering around in a store, she soiled herself. I could sense her discomfort and self-consciousness. I assured her we’d soon be home, and that everything would be OK. When we got home, I took her to her room to clean her up. As I removed her soiled adult diaper and washed her, memories of my childhood filled my heart.
I was a very shy 4-year-old. A few days after first going to school, I needed to relieve myself but was too shy to ask the teacher if I could go to the bathroom. I convinced myself that I could hold on until I got home. I couldn’t. I ended up soiling myself. I tried to hide what happened for the rest of the day and felt relieved that no one seemed to notice anything. Then on the bus ride home things started to go wrong. It was a warm Cairo afternoon and the poop started to melt from the heat. By the time I got off the bus I could feel it starting to flow out of my underwear. I got to our door and banged on it furiously with tears streaming down my cheeks.
My mother opened the door and greeted me with a broad smile that quickly turned into concern as she saw my tears. “What’s the matter, my beloved?” she inquired. Sobbing, I threw myself in her arms. She could see what had happened. I felt so ashamed. She held me tightly and told me not to worry. Then she took me to the bathroom and undressed me and put me in the bathtub, “It’s ok, my beloved. It was an accident. Why didn’t you tell the teacher you needed to go to the bathroom?” she asked. “I was too shy to ask her.” I blurted out between my sobs. My mother showed me nothing but love and compassion that day. She set things right, she made me feel safe and loved. She healed me from my shame.
And now, in the later years of my life, here I was cleaning her up. I knew she felt embarrassed about it but couldn’t even express it. I felt such love and compassion for her at that moment. I just held her closely in my arms and comforted her, telling her that it was all right and nothing to worry about. When I tucked her into her bed and kissed her goodnight, she held on to me tightly and gave me a kiss back, smiled and said, “You are my beloved.” It was hard to hold back the tears flowing from a grateful heart shown by its mother how to love.
I not only learned how to love, but also what it means to love, from her. I who am born of her womb have this knowledge of love imprinted upon my soul through her soul. This mother and child relationship is the manifestation and embodiment of that eternal Divine relationship of love between each human soul and its Sustainer (‘Abd and Rabb). Without my mother, without this relationship of the womb, it would not be possible for me to know real love. Without that relationship to my mother I would not have a longing in my heart to return to my Rabb. It is Divine Wisdom that decreed this relationship of the womb between mother and child to be the container in which Divine Love can flow to our hearts.
My mother showed me how the state of my heart is so intricately intertwined with hers and how that relationship shapes and defines the quality of all of my other relationships. I came to understand that unless my relationship with my mother is set right, that nothing else in my life can ever really be right. I came to know that unless my relationship with my mother was made whole and healed in love that I could not know what it means to be integrated, to be whole, to stand firmly in myself and know contentment, acceptance, faith, and inner strength.
When I brought my mother home from the hospital on the New Year’s Eve after the illness that brought on her dementia, we went to one of her favorite restaurants. As we sat down, I felt a wave of love flowing through me. At that moment I said to her what I could not say for many years. “Oh, Mama, I love you so much! You’ve always been so special to me. When I was a child, you were the most beautiful woman in the world in my eyes. You’ve been such a significant influence in my life. I learned so many important values from you; to be compassionate, to be devoted, to be hard working, to be accepting and patient. I could go on and on.” I paused for a moment to hold back my tears. “Most of all I learned to love from you. And I love you. I know I’ve not said these words to you many times before, but I love you so much, Mama.”