It’s Saturday morning. You’re waking up from that deep sleep you can only get on the weekend. You roll over to look out the window, except that you can’t. Something is stopping you. Your arms are somehow restrained. What’s happening? You thrash against the ties, trying to scream, but your voice is silent. Everything hurts and it’s not Saturday morning and you’re not where you thought you were. You’re not at home in your bed on a fine Saturday morning, you’re hooked to a ventilator, a machine that breathes for you, and tubes are poking out from parts unknown. Your head is spinning, you can’t move, and you have no idea where you are. You just know that you’re in trouble.
A woman appears at your side and tells you that you’re waking up from open heart surgery. You start to remember, and you settle a little. She gently says everything went well and it’s going to be alright, you’re in good hands, and it’s OK to go back to sleep. She sounds like she knows a lot more than you do, like this is all very normal and all part of the plan. And your life is in her hands. As you start to accept her explanation, you hope to God she knows what she’s doing, and you close your eyes again, letting sleep take you back to where you were before.
She’s my mom, and she knows what she’s doing.
My mom, Judy, spent much of her career as a critical care nurse in the ICU, and I witnessed this scene when I shadowed her back in high school. It terrified me when that guy woke up from a dead sleep and started thrashing, but she calmly walked over to him and explained it all, while I peeled myself off the ceiling.
Mom is fierce, and when a storm comes to town, she’ll be standing Zen-like amidst the chaos, directing traffic so all the firetrucks can get through. She’s a totally unapologetic pragmatist who grew up on Chicago’s Polish south side, where working-class pragmatism usually worked. Combine all this and you can save some lives.
Mom’s early ferocity was untempered, borne of a persistent belief that she wasn’t one of the popular kids when she was little, and she wasn’t going to let anyone mess with her own kids. Any time I’ve shown people a photo of her, they’ve remarked on how striking she is, like she could be Jackie O’s cousin. But that simply wasn’t her experience and, like many mothers, I think she started to find her voice once her inner mama bear showed up.
When I was in Kindergarten, my younger sister, Tracy, and I were swimming at our apartment pool and an older boy thought it would be fun to dunk the little kids underwater. Other moms told him to knock it off, but he wouldn’t stop. The moment he approached my sister, Mom darted over, reached into the water, and practically lifted him out of the pool by his hair, screaming something about how she was going really get him if he tried it again. That bullyboy’s mom was the pool lifeguard, who threatened to throw us out for good, but Mom took the fight to the apartment manager, who took her side. When mom knows she’s right in principle, she won’t quit. Plus she never did like wearing swimsuits.
I learned it was OK to be bold when the situation called for it, to stand up for your people. I’m not saying it’s right to confront a kid that way, even if he was a horrible jerk, but Mom’s loyalty stood firmly with us and all the other little kids in the pool, and they needed help. On that day I also learned she was not the same as most rule-following, convention-driven, headscarf-wearing moms.
About the same time as the pool incident, and against our deeply conventional, extended family’s wishes, Mom brought us to my great-aunt Mabel’s visitation and funeral. I don’t remember ever meeting Mabel, but I do remember walking up to her open casket, astonished at the ancient and worn body inside. Mabel was stiff and waxy, her hands layered on top of each other but not exactly touching. My little sister Tracy and I stood on either side of our mom, who was kneeling on a bench next to the casket and pretending to pray. I’m pretty sure she couldn’t have been actually praying because I kept peppering her with questions.
“What happened to her? Why is she dead?” I asked, trying my best to whisper.
“She was old, and she just died of old age,” Mom replied, trying to close her eyes and focus on the task at hand.
“Who is she?”
“Grandma has a sister?”
“She has a few.”
“What are their names?”
And so it went, I chatted away at this curiosity while Tracy’s eyes darted between me and Mabel, who suddenly seemed to be smiling at us.
“I think she smiled,” I announced.
“No, she’s dead. She can’t smile,” replied Mom.
“No, watch. She’s smiling!”
Little Tracy chimed in, “Yeah, she smiled!”
“Maybe she isn’t dead,” I offered, wondering if this mistake happened very often.
Mom turned sharply and told me to quiet down, out of respect.
I tried in the way young children do, but quickly forgot the mandate. “Can I touch her?”
Looking back on this question, which I distinctly remember asking, I’m astounded at my mom’s reply.
“Sure, go ahead.”
She might have told me to touch her hands or I might have just been close to them, but I reached out and set my tiny hand on hers and quickly recoiled. I can still remember the words that came to mind as I pulled my hand away: Cold and bony.
“Mom, she feels like a frog!” I exclaimed.
Mom stood up to hustle us away, “C’mon girls, let’s give someone else a chance to pay their respects.”
“What’s paying respect?”
We walked back to the hall where Mom could mingle with the others, and soon after that, we skipped the funeral and went home. We’d learned all we needed to know.
As an adult I asked my mom what drove her to bring two small children to a funeral, much less let me touch Great Aunt Mabel’s hand. She said our relatives were pretty angry with her, telling her this wasn’t the sort of thing children should be exposed to, but she believed that death should be a part of life and she wanted to normalize it for us, to help us understand that it was sad, but that it was also OK. She saw this as an opportunity, and it helped that Mabel wasn’t someone we knew well. Just the same, Mabel was part of our family and it was still a loss, but it was of a low enough magnitude that a child could deal with it in a healthy way.
As conventional as she was, that’s a pretty bold move. And never in a million years would I remember Mabel if not for that day.
I’ve come to realize that although we think of raising kids as an 18-year endeavor, a little longer than raising a dog, our kids are our kids no matter their age. This is important. I’m my mom’s kid just as much as my twenty-something kids are still my kids. My mom and I are dear friends, and I’m also my mom’s fifty-year-old kid. I mean that in a mature, adult way.
In 2001, when I was my mom’s 32-year-old kid, I learned that my (now ex-) husband wasn’t into monogamy. I was devastated. A couple years later, after a one-way attempt to work things out, I had a funny feeling. And by funny, I mean bad. He insisted everything was fine but after a little digging, I figured out how to crack his Blackberry, where I found all the email evidence I needed.
I confronted him, he moved out, and a couple days later he was off with his new girlfriend instead of soul searching, per the plan.
In a nutshell, my world fell apart. My parents paid my mortgage until I could finally sell the house and pay them back. I had to start a career, usher the kids into a new reality, and try to help them understand what it means to commit to another human being with integrity. There was no sharing in this load; my ex was just… gone. Like, a complete no-show for all of us.
He was telling the judge to put me in jail because I hadn’t shared all the photos with him, even though I had. He was taking his girlfriend to New Zealand in spite of being fired from his job. And he was not showing up for teacher conferences and soccer games, or bedtime stories, or boy scouts or homework or walks in the park. He wasn’t there for two little kids who needed their dad.
Considering all of this, what would you do if you were my mom? Curl into a ball? Blame someone? Try to fix it? Rage against the world? Or God?
If my mom did any of that, she kept it to herself. Instead, she became superhuman with casseroles, babysitting, scheduling, interceptions, counseling and shuttling. At Halloween she bought us an electric pumpkin, at Christmas she brought cookies and a wreath for my front door and took extra care to make the holiday less threatening. She swooped in unannounced to take the kids to Dairy Queen and the zoo and the Children’s Museum. She dusted and vacuumed my house and had the three of us over to her house when it became too painful for me to be in a place that seemed to melt as the days wore on. She bore witness to everything, right by my side, caring only about our forward momentum.
Then my kids and I moved in with my parents for eight years and I learned that mothers never, never give up. You read that right. Eight years.
A few years into living with my parents, we all got to talking.
Dad started telling me about a dinner conversation they’d had the night before with some old friends. “They asked why we were all living together, and if it might have been better to just help you with rent, or maybe help you buy a townhouse.” He went on, “And I could see her jaw tighten. You know how your mother gets when things aren’t sitting right with her…” His voice trailed off.
The conversation started to worry me, and I couldn’t quite tell where it was headed. Were they going to tell me to move out? Were they re-thinking their generosity? I gathered all the calm I had in me, smiled a little, and asked, “Do I want to know what she said?”
The drama was killing me and then Dad replied with a little nervous laugh, “It was pure Judy.”
Mom looked at us like we just didn’t get something truly fundamental and completely obvious, surprised because she always considers her actions to be completely normal and altogether rational.
“Well yeah,” she began, “I told them that a family is more than a physical place to live. It’s a support network, a place where kids learn how to handle conflict and human dynamics. I told them that I didn’t know what kind of environment my grandchildren would live in if they were to live in some apartment far away, and I knew that none of you would have the advantages you’d have if we all lived together.”
And Dad added, “Don’t forget the part about if you didn’t have grandchildren to worry about, you would have just patted Karen on her back and wished her luck.”
Mom’s voice suddenly became more intense, more firm. “Well that’s what this whole thing is about. It’s not about Karen, it’s about those kids,” she said.
And I got it. Suddenly I understood absolutely everything, and like Dad said, it really was pure Judy.
I can imagine her tone of voice in that dinner conversation with old friends, smiley and measured in her chatter about doing whatever it took to ensure her family’s needs were met. I can also hear the steeliness underscoring her words, a certain tone between the tones, letting everyone know that if they pushed it too far, she would walk to their side of the table and pull them out of their seat by their hair.
In my mom’s mind, there was a road map for everything and where the map ended, her instinct took over and she created new one. I remember a day when my ex stopped by to pick up the kids; we’d been living with my folks for a month or so. As he walked back to his car, Mom went out to the driveway and quietly slipped him a hefty gift card to a local grocery store, then chatted with him like a long-lost friend.
Everything was so fresh to me and as I watched her out there smiling and nodding her head, I went into a silent, blind rage, feeling like her loyalty had suddenly switched. My dad, also incredulous, asked her what the hell she was doing once she came back into the house.
She was absolutely certain about her response and without hesitation said, “That man is the father of my grandchildren and I would never alienate someone so important to them. And those two grandkids of ours need to see people treating each other well. Besides, if anything were to ever happen to Karen, I need to make sure I still have access. I won’t lose them, too.”
She rested her case to our stunned silence, because we both knew she was right.
My mom taught me about a new kind of dedication, a different kind of practicality that extends beyond society’s norms, and rises above one family’s agony, by being insanely, impossibly, fiercely practical. When my kids were born, motherhood seemed almost like a temporary state: 18 years, give or take, and it’ll be over and I’ll have to find a new gig. My mom taught me—she showed me through her own example—that moms are never done being moms, that some of the greatest lessons are the hardest to swallow, and that it’s never too late for a kid to learn a thing or two.