Wait. What?

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.

 

 

 

If It’s in a Song, It Must Be True

How many times have our favorite song lyrics controlled our destinies? I know I listened to Duran Duran way too often during the 80’s, and, no offense to the fans, it led to some very poor choices, both fashionably and morally. Alas, I am not Rio, dancing on the sand — with my freshman fifteen and permed hair — no matter how convincingly the song had me believing I was an elusive, invincible vixen, beholden to no one.

I’m more thoughtful about it now, but I still allow song lyrics to guide me through this confusing and confounding hedge maze of life. When my oldest daughter left for college, all I could hear in my head were the lyrics to Closing Time by Semisonic. The irony is that the song itself is actually about Last Call at a bar, and hoping you hook up with someone worthwhile.  This is, obviously, an area of my daughter’s personal growth I prefer not to dwell on. However, there is one line of the song that has always managed to pierce me right in the solar plexus, causing the little squeezey feeling that secretes the emotional onion juice that makes my eyes water and my nose run:

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

Such an almost matter-of-fact statement, but why does it make me want to burst into tears? Perhaps because it really means that life’s path is taking on a new trajectory, and we were perfectly happy, or thought we were happy, with the old one. Some times we want change, and some times we don’t (which might explain why the Mounds/Almond Joy jingle became an ear worm) and some times we both want it and reject it simultaneously, as was the case when my daughter moved into the dorm.

These same lyrics also reverberated in my head as I worked to close down my mother’s house, my childhood home, after her passing. Exhibit A for someone not wanting change, but getting it dumped in her lap.

A child growing up and leaving home is part of the Circle of Life concept, and while emotionally difficult, we all know we eventually have to come to grips with it. When confronting a painful reality that was not anticipated, I turn to one of my favorite Seal songs, Crazy, packed solidly, like nutrient-rich leafy greens, with healthy advice.

About a year ago, when I was in the middle of repeat mammograms, a biopsy and an MRI because of suspicious cells in my right breast, I was trying to act like my carefree pal Rio, but inside I was freaking out like a lost child in a clown museum.

For the most part I had it under control. The part of me who is an expert at plugging her ears and chanting “Blah Blah Blah” was behind the wheel most of the time. But then, there were the inevitable moments of weakness. I certainly wasn’t going to share my runaway fears with my daughters, as the last thing on earth I wanted to do was cause them any unnecessary worry. (Even though I will selfishly admit I thought about it, if only to see if they would cling to me like children again…and maybe…just maybe…consider the loving source of their clean laundry.)

And I wasn’t going share these fears with my husband either. I know he cares, but after two decades of marriage I know he also prefers to channel Spock at times like this. “Let’s not worry until we have all the facts.” Unfortunately, it’s the waiting and not knowing part that cause all the angst in the first place.

The lyrics from Crazy grant me the confidence to admit what I did next. And, as opposed to any potential life advice contained in Rio, I urge you, in moments of tortuous motherlessness, to heed them:

“But we’re never gonna survive, unless, we are a little crazy.”

One morning, I waited till the house was empty. I collected my two favorite framed photos of my mother, who passed when I was 39, and my father, who passed when I was 19. I set the photos side by side on a table and ceremoniously lighted a candle. I talked to their smiling faces, and wished, like in the Harry Potter films, the photos could move and wave and weep and blow kisses.

I confided to my mom and dad, out loud, how frightened I was. I told them how much I missed them. I told them how much I wished they could hug me right now and reassure me. I told them how I wish I had appreciated them more when they were alive. After so many thoughts and confessions came tumbling out,  I just basically sat there and cried. But oddly, it wasn’t a desperate, all-alone, woe-is-me kind of crying, if that makes any sense. Instead, it bolstered me.

I mean, I’m no expert. I have no facts about The Afterlife. I would like to believe they are with me still, but who, in the end, really knows?

I will say this. Going forward, I felt different. I felt strong. I stopped feeling panic. At times, like during my first radiation treatment, I still felt sad that they weren’t physically with me in the waiting room. But sad and scared are two different emotions. My parents had my back, from where ever they are.

I’m cancer free and my prognosis is excellent. Those were the only tears I shed during the ordeal.

I honestly don’t believe love dies.

Crazy can be a gift sometimes. Don’t be afraid to use it.

 

 

 

A “Motherless Shelter” a/k/a Exercise Endorphins and the Crazy Thoughts They Produce

My mother has been gone now for eleven years, five months and nineteen days. Before you assume I’m completely neurotic, allow me to explain that this is the first time I’ve ever tallied it to the day. But I was curious. And also a bit nervous about my first blog post.

Eleven years is a long time. Long enough to transform photographs of ourselves once deemed “hideous” into, “wow, why did I ever hate that photo?” Long enough, really, to assume I’d have all of my motherless issues behind me. And most days I have accomplished exactly that. Most days. But I can honestly admit, even after all of this time, time that has flown by at warp speed, time spent raising three vivacious, life-loving, Payback Time teenage daughters, there remain days when my bullet train jumps the track and my heart aches with longing to have my Mom back.

I’m fifty years old, born in 1964, the tail-end of the Baby Boomers. Like many in my generation, I have never been in any great hurry to grow up. So from time to time, I can honestly admit, I would love to be mothered every once in a while. And I got to thinking, during one of my daily runs with my two dogs, when I tend to do all of my best thinking — wild, uninhibited ideas that always start off with me as a lead singer in a band that plays B-52’s cover tunes to a wildly appreciative audience— outrageous scenarios that completely entertain me during the run, but are usually all but forgotten by the time I return home—

I had this one big thought and it stuck with me:  What if there was such a thing as a Motherless Shelter? You know, like a Homeless Shelter, only more like your childhood family room. A place we could visit when we were droopy, in need of comfort and mothering. A place whose very scent emanated tender concern mingled with a perfume older women wear but younger women deem too matronly. A place clean enough to eat off of the floor. A place we could complain and feel sympathy and understanding. A place where someone asked us a hundred annoying questions about our health and well-being. A place where someone held our face in their hands and gave us a deep, soul penetrating looking-over. A place where there was a refreshing freedom in releasing caged up secrets. A place so relaxing you would swear Ambien was piped in through the air vents. A place where you could viscerally sense that, without saying a word, you mean the entire freaking world to someone and they to you.

I never really thought I was lucky enough (or pushed myself hard enough) to enjoy the enviable and much-touted “runner’s high.” Instead, I am always acutely aware of how much farther I need to go before I can stop, how my feet hurt and how I would likely be so much more fit if I could just give up my evening Chardonnay. But despite all that, this mystical Motherless Shelter I’d created was sounding pretty dreamy and idyllic, no doubt thanks to the contributions of the few endorphins I managed to produce.

I pondered how many visits an eleven-year motherless veteran would actually need, while at the same time fell in love with the concept of offering it up to others who are nowhere near settled in their new unpleasant reality. Initially, after first losing my mother, I would have been living there. Over the years I gradually adjusted. I realized it was foolish of me to save her purse. She wouldn’t be coming back. It took me a long time to find the inner strength to do this, but eventually I forced myself to start carving out my new normal. Shelter visits would become less and less frequent, but still necessary on occasion.

So, I thought, why not create a virtual Motherless Shelter, by way of a blog?

My eleven year quest to define the new normal has been both tumultuous and tranquil. Traffic snarls and Friday Light, just as one might expect. Mother’s Day remains traditionally off-putting, like an ill-fitting pair of slacks, but at this writing it had probably been a few years since I had shed actual, drippy tears over missing my mother. But this year brought forth the breast cancer diagnosis. And let me tell you, any motherless soul who can face that news without instantly wishing they felt the firm and soothing grip of their mother’s familiar age-spotted hand in their own, should probably consider a career in the military, or a ghost hunter, or the lightbulb changer on top of a skyscraper, or any other profession that requires superhuman bravery.

My Motherless Shelter would be crammed with plush, comfy sofas, with plenty of mismatched throw pillows to hug on, and crocheted blankets that assure you if they can transcend the humiliation of being resourcefully crafted from the remnants of every ugly color remaining in the yarn box, then your problems are surmountable as well. One thing that can be found all over my virtual Motherless Shelter:  boxes of Kleenex. Because often, we go on about our busy lives and assume the tears have all dried up. But then something catches us by surprise — perhaps it’s a heated argument with our spouse or our teenager; perhaps it’s an uncontrollable urge to crow about an award you or said teenager won; perhaps it’s the desire to confide that the latest news from a doctor has you scared to death — and we realize, with a pang of startling sadness, that we’ve never stopped missing our Moms, we’ve merely been distracted.

It’s kind of weird for me to think I can still cry over my mother at age 50. By 50 we should have it all together, right? But also by 50, shit starts happening to our bodies that we never thought would happen, or never thought would happen yet. And it all feels like, right when bona fide adulthood should be coming together, instead it is all falling apart. And Mom, Mom could make sense of all this. But our shepherdess is gone, so we are forced to navigate on our own. And we will eventually  succeed. But it’s not pleasant. It builds that enigmatic something known as character, but so do wrinkles, and screw character. We’d rather just have our moms back.

And that, my friends, is but one example of why you will never be the same person, or live the same life, after you lose a mother. We never get over it, but somehow, we get on with it.

Note:  This post was actually written May 11, 2015. It has taken me 11 months and 12 days to muster the courage to hit the “Publish” button. Just in time for Mother’s Day 2016.