I grew up in a house, at least from my childhood lens, that was one mixed with love and fear. I never knew which father would show up. Would it be the happy go lucky, joking around man that everyone loved, or the monster that would drag my sister across the floor, give my mom black eyes, and slap the snow shovel across my back? I don’t mention this out of anger or resentment. My forgiveness is intact because I had to heal and move on. I simply state it as fact because these events shaped us. I also grew up in a home where my mother loved me and my siblings with all of her heart, unconditionally, and with a protectiveness from a man that could go from kissing her one moment to throwing her across the room the next.
I write about my mother for many reasons. She is eighty and has spent a good part of the last three years in and out of hospitals. She says in her southern accent, “I’m like an old car, hon, my body is breaking down and parts need to be replaced.” I also write about her in regards to mental health because she struggles with her own demons. Most of her anxiety and depression comes from a mother who she doesn’t feel truly loved her, losing a father too early in life, being in an abusive relationship that started when she was seventeen (My dad was the first and last man she was with), and losing a child.
My mom was born in Alabama in 1939. She met my dad through an arranged date from their parents. She was pregnant shortly after, dropped out of school, and started having babies. Her story, at this point, is hers to tell so I won’t continue. However, I will say that my dad was a very handsome, charming man and I can see why she was attracted to him. Many women were when he was young. My mom will say she never regretted meeting my dad because he provided her with five children. See, my mom never got the chance to finish high school, let alone go to college, but I can say with my whole being that she was meant to be a mother. As you all know, that is the most important and difficult of all professions.
As a boy, my mom was like the air. She was the key to my survival. I don’t say this because she provided me with my basic needs. Sure, that is true but it’s so much more. My mom taught me to love by loving me. She nurtured my sensitivity as a child and somehow taught me to harness it in order to help others. She helped me grow into a man and be resilient. My mom has grit and toughness that passed over to her children. We are all survivors and we had to be. There was really no other way to raise us because she knew the kind of dirt life could throw at you. Giving up was never an option.
Growing up, especially in middle school, I could be a terror. I was suspended several times for fighting, arrested once for breaking into a local school while it was in session to fight a bunch of kids, and I skipped classes all the time. I was truant, stole from stores, drank, and chased girls, all by age twelve. Through my educator lens, I look back and realize I was an angry kid rebelling against my dad, but my mom stuck in there with me. She would patiently wait for me to get home, waiting on the front steps, hands on hips, and if I was one minute late I would get her “angry mom” look which would sink my head into my shoulders knowing that I disappointed her, but she never failed to say, “Goodnight, I love you, hon.” That love kept me going as a kid, knowing it was always there. My mom also had a different sense of justice than most. If I did get into a fight, she would find out if the other kid started it, and if he did, she would ask, “Well, did you finish it?” One time, I came around the corner at school and saw a student picking on a boy with down syndrome. I lost it and began bouncing the kids head off the locker. My sister, Charlotte, had a disability, so perhaps I was extra sensitive, but I think most people would have had the same reaction. After that incident, the principal was considering suspending me but my mom was at the school and told that suited man, “I raised all of my kids to stick up for those that can’t defend themselves.” I took a break in the office that day instead of being suspended and when I got home my mom said, “If he does it again, you have my permission to sweep the floor with him.” That may sound like my mom was encouraging me to fight. Not at all, it was what she thought was right. We defend the defenseless.
One more story. My mom was leaving to visit her family in Alabama. I was eight years old and hardly had ever been away from her in my short life. I couldn’t take the thought of her being away for a week and being with my dad, so I took desperate measures. I snuck into her suitcase and took a pair of her socks and stuck them in my pocket. I kept those socks in my pocket that entire week. I’m sure if the kids at school or my teacher would have known, they would have thought I was crazy. I just needed to be close to her in some way, and in my eight-year old brain taking her socks made sense. That’s the love that a boy has for his mother. I could feel her pain when I was little and I can feel it now as a middle-aged man. Perhaps my wife is right, I am an empath. It can be a blessing and a curse to feel other people’s pain.
My mom has been through a lot lately. When I was looking at her in the hospital bed reality hit me that she will obviously not be around someday. My mom and I have often talked about death, so it’s not a subject we shy away from. She looked over at me from her bed and said, “They haven’t gotten rid of me yet.” That resilience keeps her going. That’s how she survived an abusive husband and that’s how she survived losing a child.
When I see my mom, I don’t see an old lady who is breaking down. I see a woman who was beautiful and young and lived that part of her life to the best of her ability. I see an artist who expresses herself in paintings and poetry. I see someone who had dreams and still has them. Mostly, I see a mother, who has loved all of her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren with all her might. We, and anyone that surrounds us, should thank her for that because without her strength, I’m not sure the rest of us would have survived or even be here. She has sacrificed her entire life for us.