When I was a kid my grandmother used to say to me, “Someday you’re gonna have ten kids, and they’re all gonna be just like you.” Whether she meant this is as a blessing or a curse (I’m pretty sure she meant the latter) I always got her underlying message: I was a handful-and-a-half for my mother.
My mother, on the other hand, never wished a prodigious amount of children for me. In fact, I think the prospect of my having children at all frightened the bejeezus out of her. I was that child who often forgot to comb my hair before going out in public. If I had socks and shoes on, and those accoutrements matched each other, she’d breathe a sigh of relief.
Hurray! Her child was at least presentable.
For a woman who balanced three jobs and cleaned our house with religious zeal at all times, there were no limits to the differences between myself and my mother.
I was born to relax. She was born to get things done. I began the day around noon under duress. She was always up with the sun. I liked to read. She liked to watch television. I had no common sense. My mother had so much common sense it came out of her ears.
In short, growing up, my mother and I were opposites in every way.
But something remarkable happened when my mother lost her mother and our family lost its matriarch. I called my mother instead of my grandmother to talk. I asked my mother for advice and really listened to what she said. In the two months after I graduated from college before I married, my mother and I had a brief window of time where we ate supper on the back deck, woke up and read the morning newspaper, raced each other to complete the jumble, and sat down together to watch the nightly news.
We discovered that despite how different we were, we loved each other more than we knew how to express.
On the morning I wed my husband, I remember how she struggled to get me into my wedding dress.
“If you can just get up on the bed and step into it, then I can pull it up,” she said through gritted teeth.
Somehow, between my stepping down and her pulling up, we got into a fight. She raised her voice and I raised mine back, and the whole thing was right out of the movies, and not the “Father of the Bride” kind, either.
This was the outtake reel where you see the actors coming unglued and you think, “Yeah, it’s a good thing they left this scene out.”
That’s the thing about mothers and children. Our relationships, as epic as they are, aren’t really meant for the big screen. There are so many times when moms are supposed to be dispensing this wise advice or braiding their child’s hair, holding hands and crying, that just don’t happen the way Hollywood portrays it.
In the movie of my life, I don’t listen well, my mother can’t braid, and we don’t cry together.
We freak out on the morning of my wedding. I say, “Ma, you’re doing this all wrong!” while she says, “Oh, just quit your whining and hold still!”
Those are the women that I come from, and that’s what our lives sound like.
What we don’t say to each other is really more important than what we do say.
For example, when I was nine, my mother was walking on the pond outside of our camp and she fell through the ice. While I watched my father frantically work to pull her back up through the frozen water I died a thousand deaths.
Those five minutes of unbridled fear have never left me.
I never told her that everything inside me stopped when I saw her go down. Watching her struggle to climb back out of the water was actually just like the movies. Everything happened in slow motion until I saw her crawl onto the ice. And even then, I was scared to death she had hypothermia and wouldn’t make it.
Many years later, on her 65th birthday, my mother was bitten by a mosquito while she was out getting an ice cream. She had only unrolled her car window for a minute so my father could hand her a chocolate cone, but in that minute a mosquito flew into the passenger side of the car and bit her on the arm.
The mosquito was carrying EEE (Eastern Equine Encephalitis) an extremely rare but serious, often fatal infection that causes encephalitis or inflammation of the brain.
What’s worse, it took several days of dehydration and fever before my mother would allow herself to be taken to the hospital to be treated.
By the time she was admitted, it took them six hours to get the IV into her and several more days before they could accurately diagnose her infection.
After four days of constant worry I asked the doctor, “Just tell us this isn’t the swine flu. She’s going to be okay, isn’t she?”
She looked me in the eye and leveled my heart with one sentence, “I can’t tell you that.”
Miraculously, my mother pulled through. She fought and we prayed. We fought and she prayed. We did what families always do in moments of crisis — we came together.
There have been times since then where I’ve seen my mother’s life waver in front of me, and I’ve grasped the reality that no matter what happens, she won’t always be with me. This doesn’t mean I’m more comfortable with that reality or even okay with the thought of losing her. It just means the older I get, the more loss I endure, the more I realize her loss is not hypothetical anymore — it’s certain.
And it still stops my heart.
One day last summer while I was visiting my folks I asked Mom if she wanted to go for a ride around town. We do this sometimes, hop in the car and go for a drive around Lakeview Street where she grew up. More often than not we end up at the cemetery to visit her mother’s grave, and she shows me where everyone else in our large family is buried.
I knew I didn’t really want to know, but I asked her just the same. “So where’s your plot?”
I felt a bit like Scrooge in that Dickens story, looking at gravestones and saying, “Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be only?”
She pointed down a gentle slope at the edge of the field and said, “We’re underneath that big elm tree over there. We wanted to be down in the corner where no one would bother us.”
Leave it to my mother to be socially distant, even in her death. Her humor never ceases to amaze me.
I wanted to make some joke back to her, to tell her how funny she was or how I was quite sure other bodies wouldn’t be on the move at night, trying to crowd her. I wanted to tell her how I would put geraniums on her grave and I’d talk to her everyday and how just because I knew where she was going to be buried didn’t mean I wanted her to head there in a hurry or anything.
But I couldn’t say all of this, or any of this really, because I’ve always been better with words on paper than in real life.
All I said was, “Yeah, you picked a good spot Ma.”
In fact, it wasn’t until this morning when I was reading my own Mother’s Day card from my oldest daughter that I realized what I’ve been trying to say to my own mother for the past forty years.
She wrote, “You have a way of making me feel like everything’s going to be okay.”
So simple, so unaffected, so true. That’s what mothers do for us, isn’t it? They make us feel like no matter what happens in our lives, or theirs, that somehow it’s all going to be okay.
I have no doubt that this world will be colder without the blanket of my mother’s love. I have no doubt that there will be moments, now and then, where I will wish I had the words to tell her this without dissolving.
She doesn’t like crying or huge public displays of emotion. She likes short and to the point, and by now, this is neither of those.
But if I could go back to my nine-year-old self I would run up to my mother when my father pulled her out of the pond, and I would hug her tight, no matter how wet she was. I would tell her that she scared me, and that she should never do that again. I’d wrap her in the blanket of my love, and I’d never let her go.
Instead, I call her and tell her that her hair looks lovely and “I love that new shirt.”
She says, “You keep doing something funny with your mouth. If your retainers are bothering you, why don’t you gargle with hot water and salt?”
But now I know what we’re really saying to each other, thanks to my daughter.
“I love you so much Mom.”
“I know,” she tells me. “It’s all going to be okay.”