May is particularly poignant for me because my sister Sheri's birthday falls within a few days of Mother's Day. This will be my third holiday without a mother of my own. It is Sheri's 69th birthday and I have to pull her death certificate from my office file to confirm that she has been gone now for nearly 13 years. She was spared the death of both of her parents, and missed the bar mitzvahs of her two nephews and the wedding of her granddaughter.
My mother and Sheri were estranged for several years. When it became clear that Sheri was losing her battle with multiple sclerosis I took my mother to Las Vegas for a visit. The nurse was making Sheri presentable when we arrived. My sister's ex-husband had pawned all the furniture and there was only a mobility scooter that Sheri was never strong enough to operate. We sat on folding chairs at a card table and through a crack in the bedroom door we caught a glimpse of Sheri's leg. My sister had always been an ample girl and my mother had not seen her in several years. The leg was fleshless and withered, evoking grizzly holocaust photos. My mom's face at the first glance of Sheri's leg is probably the most palpable grief I have ever witnessed.
It is children's theater season and I am in put upon/control freak mode. Other parents work hard and are good sports for the sake of the kids but after twelve years, I just get more and more cranky. We use a gorgeous theater which it is impossible to reach without passing through Skid Row. I am proven wrong in suggesting that the dicey location would have an averse effect on ticket sales as the shows are sold out. My own objection to the areas is not that I feel particularly at risk but that it is difficult to juxtapose the degraded hordes just a few blocks away with our own board trodding privileged children.
I am not good with pain and suffering and although it's been dissed, I think Jeffrey Eugenides' chapter in his novel “The Marriage Plot,” about working at a Mother Teresa mission in Calcutta is a cunning depiction of our ineptitude at facing the human condition head-on. My niece, the daughter of my sister, is enduring chemotherapy for the treatment breast cancer and I shout out to her from here once in a while and “like” (will Facebook trademark the word “like”?) the pictures of her in wig du jour. But I haven't called or sent a lot of e-mails, shamefully ineffectual and unable to take that extra step to confront her suffering.
We used to hold a Mom's Night Out on the Saturday before Mother's Day. The hostess of the last soiree passed away about six months ago, after suffering miserably for a long time. Since the memorial I see her husband at a few social events. He is honest about his grief at the loss of a wife who was an extraordinary human being and one of the smartest and funniest people I have ever met. I drop food on his doorstep but I hold his sorrow at bay. I do not invite him over until a week ago. I might have postponed this even further but I left some drink bins I need for theater at his house after the memorial. I ask him when he'll come to dinner and how he is. I am optimistic that he might indulge wistfully that it's getting a little easier but he practically explodes, “I'm great and I'm bringing somebody.” I am curious about who is being brought.
I accept the challenge of another forced march from Silver Lake to Santa Monica before I realize it is a theater weekend. I can't bear to wuss out so I meet up with my fellow walking moms at 6 a.m. The number of participants has swollen from our original three to sixteen and the pace is way brisker. There are a few women I've only seen at parties and I am introduced by name for the first time to a familiar face. I am advised later in happy whispers that this is the lady who's responsible for the “I'm great!” response and she who is going to be brought.
Drivers arrive intermittently to fetch the five moms who set out with no intention of walking the entire insane route. A familiar looking man with silver hair pulls up and I do a double take. It is my widower friend come to retrieve his new gal pal. I did not recognize him. He looks decades younger than he did several months ago. There is a collective pitty pat of hearts as he whisks her away. Someone reports that he says he still cries when he thinks about his wife and we marvel at the heart's infinite capacity for both sorrow and joy.
We compare notes about the first year of college. I share my wistfulness about Spud's imminent departure and how I wake up in the middle of the night and wonder what will be left of me after twenty years of full throttle residential mothering. Nine out of sixteen make the finish line but there is some grumbling about bait and switch, as our destination is Santa Monica but the restaurant chosen by our leader, that we finally descend on--like friggin' wolves--is actually spitting distance from Venice. I enjoy a convivial salmon lunch and am transported back crosstown. I have a three minute public service shower and rush off to theater where I help set up and sell concessions for five hours in order to raise money for the theater group that's been the center of my kids' lives for over a decade.
The phone rings at three in the morning, although this is sentence almost as hackneyed in its foreboding as Bulwar-Lytton's “It was as a dark and stormy night.” Joe college says he's broken his arm and is uncertain how to use his insurance card in the event that he is able to locate someone sober enough to drive him to the emergency room. I am pretty sure that if I'd hadn't worked concessions and walked twenty-one miles I would have been on the road to Redlands instantly but I can barely reach over to pick up the phone. Fortunately, the boy is able to locate and awaken a teetotaler with a driver's license.
An X-ray confirms that number one son's wrist is indeed broken. I explain how to make a doctor's appointment to have the arm set in a cast and how to pick up a prescription and that no, it isn't a good idea to double-up on the Vicodin. I do not chew him out for riding a skateboard, or even being awake at, 3:00 a.m. I do ask him to come for Mother's Day and he, in the middle of a big school project, says he'll try. I picture him in a cast. Will people sign it or is he too old for that? I have never had a broken bone except a finger that was slammed in the bathroom door due to an errant overall strap. I imagine a broken wrist as I mince an onion or type on the keyboard. I see the boy, in pain, waiting in a hospital emergency room. The guilt at having been too tired to drive down and attend to him still stings a bit but I am proud of myself for being a bit less helicopter and accepting that my son has to hone some independent coping strategies.
I forgave my mother long ago and have accepted that I will never understand what formed her. I still have to stay vigilant about not letting Mom's imperfections weigh on me. Nevertheless, when I am overwhelmed, my first impulse is always to call her. Then, I realize I can't and I recite her phone number to myself like a mantra. Shortly after her last visit with her older daughter my mother succumbed to dementia and I presume the snapshot of her emaciated child faded away with so many other sorrows and joys.
For those of us whose brains have not yet quite so atrophied, wounds stay fresh. I would like to be stronger and brave enough to take on the suffering of others without feeling obligated to end it. It is important not to sweep grief and sadness under the rug but also to let the heart's infinite capacity to savor sweetness act as buffer. Sorrow heaped on sorrow. Wasting illness. Inevitable death. Bones mend. People fall in love again. I hope my boys forgive me and accept that there are things that formed me that they will never understand because I don't understand them myself. I hope my children aren't at sea when I am no longer there for them to call but I hope they remember my phone number.
Shabbat Shalom. Happy Mother's Day.