Celebrating Mother’s Day is never easy for Seymour resident Jessica Olsen.
On one hand, she gets to spend the day with her sweet daughter, Elise, who at age 4 is a gift in and of herself, Olsen said. But it’s also another day she is reminded of her greatest loss.
Come Sunday, Olsen will remember, celebrate and cherish the person she loved the most, as she does every day — her own mother, Lisa Raynor, who passed away five years ago Feb. 20, 2011, at the age of 57.
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“Mother’s Day is a very bittersweet day, along with the anniversary of her death and her birthday,” Olsen said.
She can’t avoid all of the reminders on Mother’s Day of the simple moments they will never share.
“It’s a day filled with social media posts with mothers and daughters and church services dedicated to mothers, so it’s hard not to think of the great loss I have on this day,” she said.
But as much as her heart hurts, Olsen, 32, is able to look at pictures of herself and her mother together and smile, even as tears fall.
“Mother’s Day is also a day to celebrate all the wonderful years I did have my mother with me,” Olsen said. “Is it easy? Absolutely not, but it is exactly how she would want me to treat this day.”
Olsen said when she and her two brothers were young, she remembers them making cards and crafts at school for Mother’s Day and bringing them home, proudly presenting them to Raynor.
“She treasured them all, and knowing her, she kept them all,” Olsen said.
Now, Olsen said she understands why those things meant so much to her mother.
Recently, with the help of her preschool teachers, Elise planted a flower in a cup to give to Olsen, along with Happy Mother’s Day messages and a keychain with her thumbprint.
“This year was the first year I felt a full-circle moment,” Olsen said. “Elise was so excited for me to receive the gifts she made, and now I know exactly why my mother kept all of ours. They are treasures, for sure.”
Although some people say it’s hard to truly appreciate or understand a mother’s love until they become a mother themselves, Olsen said that was never the case with her and her mom.
“I knew how incredible my mother was from a very early age,” she said.
Being a single mom to three children, a music teacher and church choir director and battling a chronic lung disease for 20 years, there was no doubt Raynor was strong, and Olsen said she strives to have that same level of strength.
“When you saw her fighting to just simply breathe, you saw her strength quickly,” Olsen said. “But she very rarely said, ‘I can’t.’”
Olsen called on her mom’s strength when she experienced complications during her pregnancy with Elise.
Two days before Christmas and 10 months after Raynor had died, Olsen and her husband, Grant, found out they were having a girl.
“Secretly, I wanted a daughter so much so I could begin to grow that mother-daughter bond that I had shared with my mom,” she said.
Olsen thought it was just the stress from her job as a fourth-grade teacher, along with her pregnancy, that was causing her swelling, tiredness and fatigue, but it wasn’t that simple.
“We learned I was living with very high blood pressure, and it was putting a lot of stress on Elise,” Olsen said.
Due to the stress, Elise was born premature Feb. 8, 2012, at just 25 weeks gestation. She weighed 1 pound, 4.5 ounces and was just 12.25 inches long. The birth was nothing like what she had expected, and she didn’t even know if Elise would live.
“The first time I saw her little fragile body, she was covered in wires and literally laid in a plastic bag to contain her body heat,” Olsen said. “This wasn’t my dream of how motherhood was supposed to begin. I was living a nightmare.”
Next to losing her own mother, that first night after Elise was born was the worst of Olsen’s life.
Around midnight, doctors woke up the family to inform them Elise was seizing on the ventilator, and they were pumping her full of medicines. It didn’t look good, Olsen said.
“I couldn’t cry. I was numb and still confined to bed rest,” she said.
That’s when Olsen began praying to her mom, asking for her help.
“I said, ‘Mom, I beg you to go into the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) and rock our baby to health. Wrap your arms around her and never let go. I beg of you, please let me be a mother to this fragile little girl,’” she said.
Raynor answered those prayers, Olsen said.
The Olsens left the NICU 106 days later with their 5-pound, 15-ounce baby girl. She was on one medicine, no longer required oxygen and had no wires hooked up to her.
“She was a complete miracle, and we continue to say to this day, ‘Thank you, Mom,’” Olsen said.
But helping others was nothing new for Raynor. It’s what she did on a daily basis, Olsen added.
“The biggest lesson she always instilled in us was to help others,” Olsen said. “Once she passed, we were so touched by the number of people who told us our mother inspired them in some way.”
Raynor couldn’t run a marathon with anyone, due to her condition, but she showed her love and support for people in other ways.
“Could she mentor another single mother through a divorce or be a motherly figure to a fifth-grader who had no support at home or be the one person that gave a high school student the self-confidence to sing a solo on stage? You betcha. And she did it flawlessly without wanting recognition,” Olsen said.
If her mom were here today, Olsen said there are two words she would say that children don’t tell their mothers enough — “thank you.”
“Thank you for providing us an immense amount of love and never having to provide it through materialistic things,” Olsen said. “Thank you for raising three teenagers who were hormonal and not always grateful. Thank you for always answering your phone on those college days I needed to call you six times a day just to chat about nothing.
“Thank you for demonstrating that singing is a gift, not an easily acquired talent. Oh, how I miss your voice, and thank you for allowing me to find my husband before you left this Earth. You knew I would not do well alone without you — my best friend.”
But even more importantly, Olsen said she thanks her mother for protecting Elise.
“Every night, we talk about her and look for her in the stars before bed,” Olsen said. “Elise always says, ‘I love you Nana Lisa.’”
Come this fall, the Olsen family will grow by one. Olsen is 20 weeks along in her second pregnancy, with another girl, and everything is progressing just fine, she said.
Thrilled with the prospect of raising two girls, as she had two brothers herself, Olsen said she knows Elise will be a wonderful big sister.
“She asked me if the baby was swimming in my belly, and I responded with a yes so her 4-year-old brain could understand,” Olsen said. “She then followed with the question, ‘Is the baby wearing a cute bikini while swimming?’”
For anyone who may no longer have their mother with them, Olsen said she encourages those people to seek out other women who can coach and encourage them and share past stories of their mother.
“I am so very close with some of my mother’s cherished friends,” Olsen said. “I am forever grateful to these women for their words of encouragement, memories shared and the shoulders lent when I need to shed a tear or two.”
Olsen said she is more than happy to be recognized by others as her mother’s daughter.
“Every day, I look in the mirror, I see my mother, with two differences,” she said. “My mother carried the patience of a saint, and she had straight hair.”
But humor aside, Olsen said the best compliment she can receive is when a complete stranger walks up to her and says, “You must be Lisa Raynor’s daughter.”
“I always answer with our huge smile and say, ‘Proudly,’” Olsen said.