How do you encapsulate a remembrance of one of the most significant relationships in your life? In short you can’t. After fifteen drafts, I realized that putting one’s heart into words is as fruitless as trying to describe the scent of childhood memory. I need say some things about the woman who chose to come into my life when I was 7 years old, because it’s not often that someone earns the right to be called “mom.”
My father was a single man with a young son. We lived with my grandparents in rural Western North Carolina. And while my grandmother took on every role from grade-mother to caregiver, I always looked at the other kids mom’s with envy. I wanted, no I needed this missing component in my life. I ached for someone to step into that role and call me her own.
It was on a cool March evening, that dad was bringing someone by to meet me. My dad’s a good guy, but some of the candidates he’d brought by… well, you can probably fill in the rest. Regardless, I was always an addendum to their equation-the kid of the man they were dating. I was the after thought that would be dealt with at a future date.
I remember it clearly, dad opened the door and this beautiful woman walked in the door. She was wearing a green, gray and cream plaid skirt with a cream sweater and a long, dark London Fog trench coat. The smell of cigarettes and the night air clung to both her and my father. Her eyes grew wide from the smile on her face. She said two words with a joy that hooked me from the first: “Hello Marty.”
See, this is where the story diverges from the norm. Very few people remember the first time they saw either of their parents. They are like the trees in the forest-they are just “there”-part of an unchanging panorama in the journey of life. But, my story is wonderfully different. I remember the moment I met my mother with crystalline clarity.
From that initial meeting forward, we were linked. Love is not dependent on genetic material. Family is something knitted together over time and with commitment and endurance.
Let me say, that there is no disrespect intended when I call my mother by her name, Rita. My birth mother’s name is Barbara, and my mother’s name is Rita-I use the names to distinguish the two for my wife and extended family. Rita is who most knew, mom is who she was.
Rita, put in the time and commitment. She spent as much one-on-one time with me as she did with my father. We laughed, played and we became a mother and son. She was a grade mother, chauffer and caregiver without compare. Over the years, she made band uniforms, helped me write papers and became an ally in petitions to my father. I don’t know how, but she convinced him that it was okay that his son wanted to play the flute. She made it okay for me to be in band rather than football. In short, she encouraged me. Not just to do things, but to dream big dreams. Nothing was unreasonable. Okay, dad drew the line at dance lessons, but that was the only time he ever said an out right “no.”
In a conversation mom had with me when one of my outrageous quests failed, she said “Marty, you always reach for the stars. But for some reason, when you miss the stars you manage to capture the moon. Most people would be thrilled-but you always see the failure. Be happy with the moon, son.” She was right.
I won’t bore you with details that are normal in most people’s lives. Holidays, joys, frustration-the threads that are common in everyone’s lives. The fabric of the human existence. As I said, it’s taken me 15 drafts to get here because there is so much to sum up the memory of mom.
Over the past few years, life has taken me further and further from home. During these years, the marriage of my parents fell apart. The woman who I knew as my mother was becoming foreign to me. What I, and no one understood was that the person we were seeing wasn’t my mother anymore. Rita was becoming someone else. A combination of MS and medicinal therapies was creating a fog on the sense of reason that had guided her so many years. As time went on, I called less and less until I stopped calling.
Over the last couple of years, my life became a tangle of complicated of comings and goings of people moving in and out of our lives. I was being held captive by circumstances no one could easily understand. Let me say, the romantic one-bedroom apartment in downtown Saratoga Springs, NY that my wife and I had chosen to move into for “just the two of us”, was suddenly filled with as many as 7 people and 2 dogs.
In the past few months, I was feeling torn about calling. Holidays came and went. The guilt of not calling coupled with anxiety led to me taking the cowards path. I didn’t call.
What I have only recently found out that during this time period, my sister had stepped in. While I was stepping over dogs and new house residents, my sister was quietly handling doctor’ visits, hospital stays-she had taken care of everything. Never a complaint, never a call. She had handled crisis after crisis for several years. I don’t know the reasoning that she never felt compelled to call. At least to yell or cry. Maybe it was her quite humility, or her hidden rage. Regardless, I am forever in her debt.
During the last few months, I’ve recently found out, mom was hospitalized several times with pneumonia and heart congestion. At first, doctors suspected COPD. An MRI revealed something more sinister: Stage 4 metastatic lung cancer. Within an hour of her diagnosis, my bother-in-law, David gave me the call. At the time, the doctor’s had given her about six months. The cigarettes I had smelled on her London Fog trench coat so many years ago had finally taken their toll.
Six months. It was the opportunity I was seeking. Through the understanding and generosity of my employers, I had laid out a plan to make journeys South. This coming weekend was going to be the first. I had planned on using the coming months to reconnect with mom, to my sister and her family. My intent was to get things in order. Unfortunately, I never had the chance. I received another phone call from David. “Rita just passed away.”
It’s hard to describe that call from out of left field. For me, my sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear. As David’s words rang through my head, blood left my arms and I felt a cold chill fill my entire body. The wind in my lungs left my body, and I could not breath.
The past week has been surreal. Sleep will not come and peace is absent. I have been trying to reconcile guilt and self-loathing with grief and loss. Unlike traditional funerary cycles of loss, wake and funeral, our mother chose to donate her body to scientific research. My sister had placed our mother in assisted living a couple of months ago when mom had became incapacitated, so the process of cleaning out the house was already in motion. Legal details had been handled. There was nothing to deal with except an inventory of the wrong moves I had made.
This weekend, I will be making the trip down South I had planned, not to a hospital or Hospice, but to a small church that sits on a hill overlooking a valley. Mom’s family is buried there. A marker will be placed beside her mother’s, father’s and grandparent’s graves. Her memory will reside with the family that she loved before she loved her own. Hymns she loved will echo across the valley from the voices of people who loved and knew her.
Mom had a tendency to push for the dramatic. It used to frustrate me to no end. At more than one point, she said that when she died, she wanted my sister and I to stand over her casket and say that she had been “the wind beneath our wings.” I can’t tell you how many times she said that to me with over wrought drama, and how many times I winced when she said those words. Funny thing is, as I think back over the impact she had on my life, I’m beginning to see she was right.
So, let me take this moment to say thank you mom. Because of the encouragement you gave me, my life has taken me to remarkable places that as a child in a small Western North Carolina town, I could have only dreamed of. From sitting on stage in an orchestra, to sitting in a darkened theatre as my film work screened before an audience. For comforting me as my first marriage crashed and burned, to understanding that I could not move home because I had met Kathy. From directing photoshoots in studios in Manhattan to standing behind the camera on the high mountain plains of Zimbabwe, you taught me to dream big and that nothing should stand in my way. To reach for the stars, but to appreciate what I got for the effort. And, yes, although you know how much I hated to say “you were the wind beneath my wings,” you really were. I love you, and I’m going to miss you. I’m so sorry that I wasn’t there when you needed me.