Hi Mom

Mom and me at St. Robert’s

Hours after we buried my mother, I fell ill with an unparalleled monster flu. Looking back, I know it wasn’t just a virulent strain of bacteria. Propelled by grief, my emotions joined the fight against my body, allowing the bugs to infiltrate my cells with a super-charged force, one that rendered me mostly unconscious for three days before the rest of the symptoms kicked in and made me merely miserable.

Swept over by a rocketing fever, I don’t remember anything that happened during those three days, and very little for the weeks afterward—weeks in which I missed traveling with my high school marching band to perform in the Rose Bowl Parade. What I do remember was thinking in an almost rational way, an even-tempered observation filtered by shock, that it was too bad my mother wasn’t there to care for me.

No one else was as good at it, even my grandmother whose bedside manner was kind, but chilly and no-nonsense. Decades later, my mom still holds the title for most comforting caregiver.

I thought of her this morning as I resumed my Sunday routine after weeks of being sick, watching families emerge from brunch unusually dressed up, eschewing comfy black fleece for pink frills and an occasional cheerful hat. Bursting bouquets and bottles of rosé and champagne trumpeted from grocery store shelves, punctuated by feminine signs to remind/guilt shoppers into lavishing their mothers with a sweet shower of color and bubbly.

Over the past 20 years, Mother’s Day has become a foreign concept for me. While I’ve collected a few special mother figures whom I love dearly—my “Mommy Outlaw,” Sue; my “Bonnie-Mom,” my Aunt Ellen, who I pretended was my mother growing up (she still calls me “Little Bean” even today)—there are others who legitimately lay claim to these women as their true children.

Though we all need close friends of a certain age who make us feel safe, loved, and cared for (admittedly, some of us more than others) there’s still a difference between a mother figure and one’s biological mother. We tap into this nuance as children when we delight in being snuggled and “scented” by our mother’s embrace; we find something similarly powerful when we fall in love as adults and our lover’s scent comes to define a sense of home.

There’s something uniquely intimate about being physically inside another human being, part of their DNA, whether it’s through sex or being born.

Arguably, there are few people who are privy to that part of ourselves—an exclusive club who are not only allowed to see us nude, we let them see us as truly naked human beings, helpless and in thrall as we open up our tender insides to them.

Our lovers and our mothers are sacred ground: they are the rare individuals for whom we never worry about it being too late when we call, no matter the reason. And for their part, they’re happy to take our calls, whether we’re phoning with good news or tragedy, because we truly belong to each other.

It’s more than feelings—it’s animal instinct.

Though I feel sad to have lost my mother, I also feel lucky; having her for 16 years was long enough for me to understand what it is to be loved unselfishly. Circumstance doesn’t afford the luxury of exploring that physical bond to everyone; for some, having a mother doesn’t guarantee a bond, and for others, there’s simply no mother.

Without that pattern language, which is highly unique and can never be fully mimicked, some live an entire lifetime never knowing a part of themselves—or what it is to truly belong to someone on a cellular level. Knowing this closeness as a child lays the foundation for adult iterations, the vocabulary of physical and emotional intimacy with a mate.

It should have been no surprise when I came down with an insidious cold virus the night of my uncle’s funeral two weeks ago; I’ve been asking for it. Starting a new job, preparing for my NIAUSI presentation, grieving the death of my beloved uncle, supporting my aunt, working on my CityLab7 grant project—any doctor would say that’s enough stress to make a person vulnerable.

Being locked in a flying tin can with recirculated pathogens dancing like sugarplums simply upped the odds.

Hacking away, limp as a noodle in bed last week, I noted the symmetry of this illness with the one that leveled me as a child. In witnessing the passing of my loved ones, a part of me (or, millions of tiny ones) has died, too. Now, I’m one of the last few members of my mother’s family.

Unlike my illness as a teenager, I could only stay home from work a few days, rather than a couple of weeks. Yet, forced to function under its weight, which is still present if tapering, my biggest lesson is that progress in life doesn’t come from determination alone—it is borne of patience.

If she were still around, my mother would heartily agree that an abundance of patience has never been one of my innate virtues. I began to learn it for the first time last year in Civita, where my fellowship project and general surroundings inspired me to go against type.

Though I tried to hold on to that aura of controlled peace since my return to Seattle, I can see how my old ways have crept back since October, leading to an unusual cold in February. It knocked me down a peg, but obviously not enough. To really drive home the lesson, Mother Nature had to unleash a biological weapon.

Laying back under a heavy film of phlegm, I found an exhausted resignation that permitted me only enough energy for the most important thoughts and actions. It was eerily clear what was imperative and what wasn’t; time took on a languid quality that seemed quite familiar. Without the will for interpretation and debate, it was suddenly easy to step outside of situations and see them calmly for the facts and nothing more.

I realized that my other mother, Civita, had set the groundwork with a pattern language for finding balance and success. Or, as Sandro Tractor Man reminded me once, Piano, piano, tutto a posto—go slowly, everything has its right time. Encountering this lesson again as a side-effect of illness reminded me that I still have work to do.

I have no illusions that patience will happen overnight or stick with me at every moment, but if there were one trait that I could cultivate in commemoration of my loved ones, a more patient me would be a just honor to their legacy.

And if I can pull that off, I know my mother would be very proud.

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3 thoughts on “Hi Mom

  1. Dear Gabriela ~
    This is a wonderful story of human architecture. You took your loss and made it into a foundation strong enough to build upon, and varied enough to keep you building room after room after room.

    I was a little older than you when my mom died. I was 29 and had the ‘gift’ of 6 weeks to prepare. In those last days, in spite of great pain, she rose to a plane of wisdom that still hovers far beyond me. One of the things she said is that death is a part of life. And coming from a time when caskets were placed in parlors so that neighbors and relatives could come round and pay their respects, she had lived the reality of that lesson.

    For me, losing my mom was the most difficult experience I’ve ever been through. I know now how some people die from grief. I felt like I could have too, like a spool of thread unwinding wildly as soon as bedtime came, but I also remembered her saying that I had so much left to see. So I made it through by cauterizing myself from any thought or feeling about her. Like a tourniquet. For about a year. To stop the spinning. Now, she’s part of my daily life again, in memory, in little chats that I have with her, or imagine walking across the street with her to a favorite lunch spot.

    Like you, there’s one thing that I know my mom would surely like to have seen my progress on. And I’m still working on it. As for you and the row of patience that may be yours to hoe, it’s looking really good Gabri. You mom could never want for more.

    Thanks for bringing this moment to me,
    NJ

  2. I love the picture, it’s one I’ve never seen, made me cry. I had sort-of forgotten that Phyllis was so pretty & sweet on the outside, I just always remember her as such a beautiful person, so good and so sweet on the inside and so so nice. You were her treasure and I know she’s watching you little bean!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! love you

  3. Gab-
    I finally got up the nerve to read this one…for a couple reasons. My mother and I never had a warm relationship, but maybe that is unfair to say. We may have when I was quite young, but my only memories of her don’t feel warm. When she died last year, it was sad but also a relief. She led a very hard life from being a very young mom, divorced in her early 20’s, becoming an alcoholic soon after that and a string of bad marriages, bad luck and bad choices along the way.

    As an adult and mother myself, I have the perspective of seeing the possible reasons she made the choices she did…as a child I couldn’t do that.

    You certainly have made your mom proud and happy that in those short 16 years you were able to learn so much from her. Thank you for sharing this…she sounds like a beautiful person, just like you!

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