50 Stories, Week 7: In brief, my Mom

Short, raw, off the cuff…

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This is my Mom. She was a babe back in 1950, right? She’s 88 years old now and has no big health issues (except a bad cancer diagnosis last year, which she miraculously continues to keep at bay.) She’s been a mother to five, a grandmother to ten, and a great-grandmother to six. She’s had boyfriend the last eight years who treats her very well. She’s got incredible skin – thanks to no sunbathing, smoking, or drinking booze. She was a favorite mother of all my friends in high school, allowing for late nights, sleepovers, and making us fried dough on Sunday mornings. 

She showed me the importance of friendship and community. She and my Dad were always socializing and entertaining with friends and neighbors. And watching her lose the last of these relationships as she ages has been heartbreaking. But she keeps smiling. She is fiercely independent, to the point that she’ll snap at you if you try to help her. I’ve had to remind myself that isn’t about me but fearing the loss of being able to take care of oneself. I understand now the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

When my mother spoke of getting pregnant with me, after losing my brother a few months before and already having three more at home, she would say ‘babies are a blessing.’ We didn’t have a close relationship growing up. I spent most days trying to get her attention and she spent most days, well, trying to get through the day. I know that she did the best she could but I also know that her grief didn’t allow her to be present with me – how could it have? It wasn’t until I had a son of my own that I could fully comprehend what she might have experienced. 

My biggest lessons in mothering came from watching both my sister and sister-in-law raise their babies with love and boundaries. But what I learned from my own mother is that sometimes we have to mother ourselves, heal our own wounds privately, build our own resilience – before we can be present enough to do that for others. Sometimes that takes years, or a lifetime. I’m happy to report that I found a place of forgiveness – to myself – for all the crazy attention-seeking things I did trying to get her to love me. I found compassion for us both, knowing we’re doing the best we can and then doing better when we know better. It took fifty years but I really like my Mom now, for the person that she is, not the person I wanted her to be. And I think (hope?!) she likes me too. I like hanging out with her, I like listening to her tell me what she’s been up to, and occasionally she drops a random tidbit about her childhood that I can’t wait to tell in a story one day.

So, happy mother’s day, Mom. You are loved.

50 Stories, Week 5: SFPD’s Finest

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I was frightened. Ten seconds earlier, I couldn’t have predicted that I’d be standing in my towel, hair dripping wet on the floor, defending myself to a couple of officers. There’s nothing quite like having San Francisco Police Department’s finest on your doorstep.

Jackson had been having a tough time falling asleep and was up late that night. We hadn’t lived in that apartment long, maybe a couple of months, so he was about three years old. He was generally a great sleeper and I would put him down without incident, but that night he resisted and wouldn’t stop wailing. I was exhausted and desperately in need of a shower, so I told him he could sleep in my bed which seemed to calm him down. I tucked him in and told him I was going to take a shower, and that he needed to close his eyes and go to sleep, pronto. Normally, I would shower after he fell asleep but it was a damp November night, I’d had another crappy day at work, and I couldn’t wait any longer. I gave him a kiss on his tangled head of curly blond hair and said goodnight. 

I had just turned off the water when the doorbell rang. I popped my head out the bathroom door and said “Just a minute!” while I put a towel around me. I was about to pull on some sweatpants when the doorbell rang again, along with an urgent knocking. I hurried down the hall to peer through the peephole and saw two policemen, immediately sending a palpable wave of fear through me. How quickly my brain worked, thinking of all the terrible news they could be delivering. My stomach started churning before a word was spoken.

“We’re here to check on a disturbance that was reported. Anonymously,” the first officer stated. I don’t remember them saying their names but I told them I had no idea what they were talking about, that I’d clearly just gotten out of the shower. 

“Do you have any children in the house?” officer number two asked.

“Yes, my son. But he’s sleeping.” My bedroom was right off the front entrance. The door was open and there was Jackson, sitting up in bed, staring at the men with guns holstered to their hips. One of the policemen turned on his flashlight and shone it into the dark room, onto Jackson’s red, tear stained face.

“Are you alright in there little guy?” asked officer number one.

Jackson just stared at them like a literal deer in headlights. I told them he was fine, that he’d just had a hard time going to sleep. They informed me that a neighbor was concerned for his safety, as he’d been “screaming and crying for 20 minutes.” Twenty minutes? I hadn’t taken a twenty minute shower in years. Although maybe I’d lost track of time in there… dreaming.

“Has there been any hitting going on tonight?” Officer number two asked this in a conversational, almost friendly tone. As if to appear like someone I’d be at ease with, and admit to hitting my son. I knew I hadn’t, but was suddenly terrified at the notion they thought I had. Once he laid out the allegations, the pit in my stomach grew to encompass my intestines and I immediately needed to use the bathroom. They were looking at me as if I’d abused my child. That look of disdain. And Jackson was too little to say anything convincing without also crying because at that point, I believe he was more afraid of the two big uniformed men at our door. 

I realized that my breath had quickened and I could feel my heart pounding in my throat. I held the knot of my towel tighter to appear that I had my composure about me, while inside my tightening stomach and twisting bowels were doing battle. I’d watched too many crime shows on television and knew that real panic in this moment wouldn’t serve me. I calmly and quietly asked, “Is there anything else?” They said something about being “better safe than sorry” and began walking to their car. 

I closed the door and ran for the bathroom, barely making it in time. Two seconds later, Jackson began to cry, and so did I.

Be the adult.

I joined a meet-up for Stepparents. I’m not a joiner, so this was difficult for me. I like to try new things, see what sticks, but once I decide to do something with regularity (re: yoga for the last 25 years,) I end up hating the joiner culture that surrounds it. Most would call this community, I do recognize that.

So, last night, I went back and forth in my mind of all the reasons why I wasn’t going to go – I would have to drag my ass at night to Manhattan, it was in a crap part of town, I didn’t know anyone, they would surely be lame, or god forbid, they would think I was lame (I wasn’t, FYI, I was hilarious.) And then, like magic, Jason called from his business trip to ask my what my plans were. I had a choice to lie, which in these circumstances I just call not-sharing-every-detail, but decided to tell him I was conflicted about going. He reminded me, as always, that it is good to push ourselves out of our comfort zone yada yada. He wasn’t the one going into a room full of strangers. But he is my mirror and he was right, so I went.

They weren’t lame. I mean, they were a little weird, some of them, but not lame. I did my brutally honest, self-deprecating schtick and they laughed out loud at points. Over the course of the two hours, though, I realized that despite all of our stories and backgrounds being very different, we did actually have a connection. A feeling of not being at home in our homes. A feeling of selfishness and helplessness. And a desire to learn skills and hear advice to make it work.

One thing that resonated with me was the moderator relaying a story about the conflict between her and her step-daughter. She was feeling frustrated and petulant (the stepmom,) and things were deteriorating, and she had to keep reminding herself of the golden rule – Always be the adult. Be. The. Adult.  I heard those words and immediately got grumpy and defensive. But I don’t waaaaaaant to always be the adult. I am, always, the adult! I had to be an adult before I was an adult, before I had a child of my own to parent. I am independent and responsible (despite what my ex always feared,) and now, at 45, when I’m constantly having my buttons pushed by a 12 year old who mostly hates me (and herself,) I don’t want to be the adult!

And yet. I have to. I will continue to fuck up. My relationship with the girls may or may not get better or worse, but I still have to remember that until they are adults, I have to be the adult. Their mom and dad don’t actually have to be the adults all the time, because they are forgiven for their indiscretions and foibles and even their resentment or antagonism. Its built in, this forgiveness as children. Not me, though, not the stepmother. Even when I apologize, I am not forgiven. It is remembered, and it is shaping our relationship. So, do I continue to start each week with them walking on eggshells? Deciding to see how long I can not engage with them, for fear of saying the wrong thing? Forgetting how to be myself because I know the person I am isn’t the person they choose to be with?

I don’t know. I do know better, though.