My mother was an endurance athlete. Not in the gym or on the road….but of life. She did not want to say goodbye to it. She comes by that honestly; in our culture the long-suffering, tenacious, enduring woman is someone to be admired—a figure of virtue, of honor. This attitude was interwoven in her DNA; thick like blood, deep like marrow.
She lived up to this image, and down to it as well. For the same woman who was used to putting others first, often put herself last. She bought a set of fine china when she was in nursing school that to my knowledge, has never been dined upon. She had some beautiful clothes that were seldom (or never) worn. Same with jewelry. She was all about taking care of business, and not much on pomp and ceremony. Frankly, she was hard to buy gifts for. But…she had a lifelong love for action movies—even westerns—anything that had suspense, thrills, speed, gunplay, strategy, and most of all—where the heroes won at the end, and the villains got what was coming to them.
And it was with that thought, that several years ago, I got her some films for Mother’s Day; among them, The Long Kiss Goodnight. It’s an action-packed spy movie featuring Geena Davis, who plays an amnesiac kindergarten teacher with a very interesting past as a top CIA assassin, and Samuel L. Jackson, a disgraced former-cop-become-private-eye who helps her research her past and rediscover herself—much to the shock of her former colleagues, the architects of a false-flag operation designed to create a faux-”terrorist” threat (with real explosives) in order to secure greater funding for their department.
It had everything my mother loved in a movie: politics, intrigue, fast-paced action, killer fight scenes, revenge, redemption, the requisite good guys winning and bad guys dying, and a badass female hero….who wasn’t just a hero, but also Somebody’s Mother.
She watched this movie all the time. More often than The Godfather, another of her favorites. Every time she played it, she lived vicariously through “Charli Baltimore”, the fierce, never-say-die heroine of the film. Charli, who cheated certain death several times throughout the story. Who above all, fought for her little girl. Charli didn’t just save the day; she was the path through which Samuel L. Jackson’s “Mitch” redeemed himself as one of the good guys. Charli was tough, resourceful, and a tough taskmaster; one of the more salient lines in the film comes from her stern lecture to her daughter while teaching her to ice-skate: “Life is pain. Get used to it!!” Charli taught her daughter well, and realized this when she handed her the exact tool Charli needed to make yet another of her great escapes; hidden in her daughter’s arm cast—the cast she wore from the fracture she received ice-skating, from the fall that prompted the lecture.
Poet Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” My mother didn’t tell many of her stories; omertá was her modus operandi. I think on some level The Long Kiss Goodnight wasn’t just entertainment for her; it presented an authoritative statement on motherhood, and the intensity of a mother’s love. The lengths to which we must go for its defense.
I started attending a UU congregation last October. A couple of folks were asked to speak as a mother on motherhood; I was one of ‘em. I resisted at first, trying to explain that my experience was so far outside the norm that people wouldn’t be able to relate……but, I’m known for my Big Mouth and interesting stories. And since it’s been awhile since I posted anything on this blog…..well, here’s my Mother’s Day. I’m having a good one. Hope you are too.
My path into motherhood was, like many other facets of my life, decidedly non-traditional.
My daughter came three months early; at one pound, ten ounces. She was an alphabet soup of medical complications; an impressive case history of three-letter acronyms providing a neat shorthand of her various conditions.
While other mothers were adapting to their new status with feeding and sleeping schedules, my life moved to the unfamiliar cadence of nursing shifts and doctors’ rounds. I learned about PICC lines and blood oxygen levels. I wrapped my tongue around new lingo: “intravascular hemorrhage”, “periventricular leukomalacia”, “necrotizing enterocolitis” and “disseminated intravascular coagulation”. Demonstrating that I could handle words greater than three syllables meant the doctors would tell me more, and wouldn’t soft-pedal it.
I wasn’t able to hold her for the first two months. It was hard to feel like a mother during that time. I pumped my breasts with an almost religious fervor, because it was all I could do to be a mother, stockpiling breast milk for the precious time when she would be able to drink it.
As her condition improved, I learned to change iliostomy bags instead of diapers. When I was able to bathe her, I was mindful of her PICC line and put vaseline on her mucus fistula. I held her hand, sang her songs, described the world to her as best as I could. Told her what the shadows meant as they moved across the ceiling in the NICU, how the light changes during the day as it moves into night. As the planet spins on its axis. Moving us with it.
And how we spin. I was, and am, unmarried. During that time, her father developed a methamphetamine addiction. By the time my daughter came home from the hospital, he was spectacularly busted with a front-page article in the newspaper. He was also an electrician, so going into work the next day—construction sites not exactly being bastions of restraint or compassion—I felt like I was doing the perp walk. Thankfully, no one said anything.
I gave him the ultimatum—-me, or the meth—he picked the meth. We broke up, he spent the next several years in and out of jail. We did not stay in contact. I learned about his death the same way everyone else in the city did…it was on the late-night news. He killed himself by lying down on the downtown railroad tracks.
While he spent his remaining years in and out of jail, I spent mine in and out of employment. The economy was not good for electricians after the heyday of the Clinton years. Mostly, I traveled—-to Alton, Belleville, Granite City. My daughter and I kept up a rigorous schedule of therapies: speech, occupational, physical, developmental. My medical education was extended to include “failure to thrive” and “developmental disabilities”.
I’m a Bad Mother. When people ask me, “how old was she when she learned how to….crawl? walk? speak?” I have no idea. That all happened somewhere in that great sea of activity alternating with exhaustion. Never on time. One of her NICU nurses came to my house and gave me a gift—a “baby book” to write milestones in. I’m ashamed to say that one of the things I have in common with many mothers is that….that book has remained untouched. I can tell you that she learned to read on her own last year, and devours chapter books with a bloodthirsty vengeance.
The acronyms have not yet ended. Now, there’s “LD”, “IEP” and as-yet-undiagnosed “ADD”, but that last one she comes by honestly.
What I have in common with universal motherhood is….from the moment she arrived, my whole world changed. When she was born, when her eyes first lit up with curiosity, when she came home from the hospital, went to daycare, went to school. It’s still changing now, as she grows into young womanhood, coming-of-age.
She gave me a homemade Mother’s Day card of the 101 Dalmatians, with a picture of her. It reads, “For all that you do for me, I Love You.” I don’t know that I could articulate all that she does for me.
That’s my journey into motherhood. For all its struggle, I wouldn’t change it for the world.
(note: in the oral version, I use my daughter’s name after the first four paragraphs, but not before. That was in memory of her physicians not using her name until after the fourth month of her life. Also, that Mother’s Day card? She’s a phenomenal artist. She can draw characters with such incredible physical and facial expressions. She doesn’t draw like a kid.)
Not a day goes by lately that I don’t see some update or another on H1N1, or on the seasonal flu vaccine. It’s that time of year again. The National Partnership for Women and Families has a good site on supporting paid sick days, as both a worker justice issue and a public health concern. If you are a U.S. reader, visit their interactive map and find out about campaigns going on in your area. In Illinois, 46% of Illinois workers do not have paid sick days; that’s 2.3 million workers. Women Employed is leading the Illinois Paid Leave Coalition in support of the Healthy Workplace Act (HB 3665), state legislation that would:
- allow employees to earn up to 7 paid sick days per year, accrued hourly for every 30 hours worked
- provide leave for the employee’s own illness, to care for family members, or for medical appointments
- both full-time and part-time workers qualify
On the federal front, the Healthy Families Act would offer the same thing nationwide—seven paid sick days per year, for the 48% of workers in the U.S. (and 80% of low-wage workers) who do not have them.
Expensive? Not according to a study conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
Let’s face it, we’ve all gone to work sick. That’s where we catch most of our illnesses—at work, because others are doing the same thing. And those of us with kids—well, those classrooms start resembling a sick ward around November (my daughter’s school had a notable number out for a couple of weeks last winter; it’s a Title I school, so most of the parents are low-income with no sick leave). It doesn’t have to be this way.
Lu Lutta Continua