We are born into this world with a few rudimentary survival instincts, but the remainder of our time on this planet typically unfolds in a series of Wait. What? reactions to life’s various and frequent surprises.
The journey begins. If you gave birth in a hospital, after a few surreal “nice t’meetcha” minutes between newborn and mother, a nurse whisks the tiny cream cheese-covered body away for a first bath, “scrubbed down like an old pot,” as my husband liked to say to torment me. “Welcome to the world, darling baby,” we were just beginning to coo, when suddenly, “Wait. What? Where are you taking her??”
But we’re Mama Bears. We’ve read all the books and we quickly remember this protocol. Instantly we are barking orders at the baby’s father, “Hey, you there! Follow that baby! Don’t let him get switched up with any of the other babies in there. Pay attention! Watch carefully and MAKE SURE they tag the right baby!”
Meanwhile the poor infant is saying nothing but “Wait. What?” for the probably the entire first month of it’s life. And of course infants don’t have any words yet, so that’s what all the ear splitting shrieking is about. Yet soon enough, he begins to sort things out and realize, the breast means comfort and a full belly, the singsong-y mommy voice means my diaper will get changed, and the deep daddy voice means it’s playtime. And if I’m not happy with anything, anything at all, just shriek. This here, not too shabby.
But then, a disruption. The infant’s first vaccination. It’s times like these I’m convinced kids learn to start distrusting their parents, and most adults in general. “Oooo, that shiny, pointy object coming toward me is surely just a harmless and mundane thingamajig that will entertain —Wait. What? God DAMN it, that hurt!”
Babies, of course, do not curse, but it’s always been a dependable comedic art form to capture their delightfully expressive angry or pooping faces and imagine what they would utter, if they could.
By preschool, these wise little souls begin to catch on. Life is full of ambush. “Wait. What? You are LEAVING me here? You actually expect me to hang out with these other nose-picking half wits all morning? And I thought this lunchbox was just another impulse purchase.”
Then elementary school. “Wait. What? Homework isn’t optional? I thought it was just for the Kumon kids.”
Summer. “Wait. What? Why did you sign me up for swim team again without my blessing? I already know how to swim. All we do is swim laps and the coach gets mad if I pretend I’m a mermaid.”
Middle school. “Wait. What? All my girlfriends act different when there are boys around.”
High school. “Wait. What? I don’t get my own car?”
My oldest daughter is now in the home stretch of her freshman year in college. I was pleasantly surprised last month when she announced she had applied for an internship, without, I might add, any parental threats or manipulation. For a brief time I was beginning to feel like maybe I could pat myself on the back for somehow instilling an innate sense of motivation and a solid work ethic.
Last weekend she was home for a visit. “How’s the internship?” I asked. “Wait. What? You quit? After one week?”
Seems my daughter also had another Wait. What? experience of her own, once she found out there was no corner office and expense account, let alone a paycheck. “They literally had me doing bitch work,” she announced matter-of-factly. “Like making posters.” Apparently no one ever told her that “bitch work” and “internship” are synonymous.
There went my bragging rights. And, also, I was a little miffed that the term “bitch work” wasn’t coined thirty years ago when I was new to the work force, because it undoubtedly would have made my personal sucky job stories garner the most laughs at Happy Hour.
As we transition into adulthood, the Wait. What’s? lurk around every corner. Most we can recover from quickly.
But perhaps the biggest and most daunting Wait. What? moments of our lives involve death. Especially the deaths of our parents. Those can seriously stall your engine.
My mother was a gift. And no, I most certainly did not think of her this way during my adolescence and teenage years. But as I passed from my 20’s into my 30’s, and into motherhood myself, I realized then that she was superior Mom material, and I had been a fool not to have seen it all along. And now, twelve years after her death, I still have Wait. What? revelations about her. The latest is this: “Wait. What? You mean we don’t even begin to fully appreciate, or truly understand our mothers until they’ve been gone so long you have to really strain your brain to remember the sound of their voice?”
Whatever it is that won’t let us see how amazing our moms are when we’re teenagers and twenty somethings is the same forcefield that prevents us from really, truly comprehending them till they’ve been gone for an eternity. I still have new revelations about my mom all the time. I guess that the less they are here to mother us, the more we start seeing them for the person they were to themselves, to friends and those who knew them. To see them as their given name, instead of “Mom.”
My mother did such a darn good job of being there for me my entire life, I assumed she would continue to do so until the day she turned 100. When she reached her late 90’s, then I would start worrying that her passing might be imminent.
She died at age 82. And, although her health was not great, I never expected her to die from a heart attack in the middle of the night, three days before I was due home for the Thanksgiving holiday. “Wait. What? We had holiday plans. We had holiday plans for the next 18 years.”
But here I go again, thinking only about myself. Her heart attack and impending passing was literally the ultimate Wait. What? moment ever. I wasn’t able to be with her when she died, but I hope that moment for her was filled with awe, joy and relief, the spiritual equivalent of waking up early, then remembering it’s Saturday.