A few days ago I accepted a call from my mother. She had already called my office line and left a message, which I didn’t get around to before leaving for the day. I still haven’t listened to it. She reached me in my car on the cell later that night, en route to hang out with some new friends. It was unusual for her to try to reach me twice on the same day; it meant something. I took a deep breath, checked my judgment at the door, and accepted the call.
A little history. I didn’t live with my mother past age 14. My earliest childhood memories are heavy with sadness and frustration, sprinkled with bits of joy and hilarity. It seemed to emanate from my mother. There was a vague hurt and resentment we had for each other, as if neither of us had met the other’s expectations. I clearly remember seeing a photo of a very small me, not more than a toddler, with some scraggly old doll and a small toy suitcase, sleeping on a neighbor’s plastic lounge chair.
As I grew older I ran away less, instead creeping out at night to meet boys in the park, wearing my juvenile depression like a crutch and skipping most of the 8th grade. With the divorce I was given a choice, and I didn’t hesitate to go live with my Pops. That brought on a world of hurt directed solely at me. But that divorce – that escape – probably saved my life.
She had called to tell me she had had a mild stroke the morning of my birthday, a couple of weeks ago, and wanted to know if her birthday message to me “sounded funny.” I thought for a second about that. Every year she calls me and sings Happy Birthday. I remembered this year she had called me in the evening instead of in the early morning, as a poke at my 5:34 a.m. arrival. I remembered I had saved her singing voice message this year, but I didn’t remember her sounding “funny.” I told her as much. I continued to listen.
“Oh,” she said. I imagined her face saying that “oh.” Her hair almost all white in a bowl-cut and her Dutch skin still smooth. “I’m a bit droopy on the right now. I have to walk with a cane.” I can see this clearly. It’s not a stretch to add this to her other physical troubles: broken back, broken hand. She has a lot of chronic pain.
I settle in because she’s in the mood to talk. This isn’t unusual; she misses me and repeats that often in our conversation. What’s rare about this moment is that I’m in the mood to listen, even though I know what’s coming: many little, teeny-tiny fractures and swells in my heart as she confesses her realities and her fantasies to me. I don’t let her do this very often, but today, for whatever reason, I let her prattle on.
I should mention that my mother is exceptionally bright. She’s a Science and English teacher by trade, but is often fired for not putting up with people’s shit. She is unemployable. She’s a life-long, voracious student, a writer of historical short fiction, and a devoted Mormon. She dumpster-dives for furniture with good wood and then reupholsters them with supplies she gets for free or nearly free. She lives on practically nothing. When she wants something she either makes it, or collects bottles and cans for money and then waits until she can get it on the cheap. She uses a calling card for long-distance calls. She is musically inclined. She reads Women’s World magazine and Tolkien, and carries around this incredible load of guilt for the way her brain makes her behave.
She just goes on.
It’s only been in the last year or so that she was finally diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and depression. With all the information available about mental health illnesses it was almost anti-climatic to finally know for sure. But something changed in me when I heard the news. I was not exactly more forgiving, but maybe more accepting and curious about who she was under the influence of anti-psychotics.
She fills me in on her therapy. She’s on a good combination of meds and she’s seeing a head doctor who she “gets a kick out of.” She’s very happy that she is on her third appeal for Social Security Supplemental Income. (“Third time’s the charm! I just know it!”) She tells me that, of her three qualifying disabilities, she and her doctors went ahead with the broken back claim because it was the most obvious. They were encouraged when it went straight to the judge’s desk for a decision, where it has been for a while. Waiting.
She tells me about what she’ll do with that money, the couple of years of back supplemental income money. Her dreams for the extra cash. She muses on how she will finally be free of very old student loans and able to buy the tiny log cabin-style house that she used to rent in her farming town. She has already planned the additions she’ll build onto it. I didn’t suggest to her that it would be easier to buy something that was already what she wanted.
I haven’t lived with her for years, but I know her very well. It’s the dreaming that keeps her eyes alive.
In that moment I remember the time she came home from seeing the just-out movie E.T. with a small bag of Reese’s Pieces, breathlessly dragging me and my little sister into the closet with her and using a flashlight to recreate the story of a sweet abandoned alien for us.
I remember that I like to dream, too.
She tells me about her friends, good ones that take care of her and drive her around and keep an eye on her unbalanced gait. Her friends were the first to notice it, when she showed up for band practice. Yes, my mother, with the broken back and hand and the mental illnesses that make her unable to earn a living, plays percussion in the community symphony. She plays them very well, in fact. It was the friends, and the musical “whacking” as she calls it, that brought her into focus enough to realize she could get help with her mood disorder. The collaborated rhythm and banging became her call to keep on going. Broken and hurting on the inside and out, she does it with style with her pink-and-yellow-polka-dotted drum sticks. “They make me so happy! They’re the color of the way I feel inside when I play.” Her true colors, if you’re feeling poetic.
Soon, she becomes quieter and respectful of my time. She lets me know she’ll be featured in this year’s county fair symphony performance. Honored with a solo. She asks if I can come hear her play. I say I can’t, honestly. For many reasons. “That’s okay!” she says. You’ll see me play with my band someday. And it’ll be great.”
We exchange I love you’s and disconnect.
And we go on.