“Dedicated to my mom and I swear my word is bond \ Everything will be OK and it won’t even take that long” The Calm x Drake
Then: “I’m sorry I missed your birthday again, son.”
The treetops are waving like wacky wailing arm flailing tube men you see when driving past car dealerships. A Virgin Mobile flip phone rests down by my knee and restless shaking leg as I stare out my second floor bedroom window. This old house used to be a monastery and sits across from a small parish. While we painted every inch of wall, our home remains unassuming. The air is still and the space can be unnervingly quiet when no one else is here and your CD mix-tape has ended.
At some point, silver clouds meet my misty-eyed gaze.
Rain might follow, but who can tell on a day like this, in a lush green state with a sky that hangs lower than anywhere else?
I’ve been doing a year of service for Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest in Gresham, Oregon for some time now, and have begun a reconciliation process with my parents after having an emotional spiritual advising session with a pastor at East Hill Church, because those are the type of ways you challenge yourself in this particular program in addition to training for half-marathons, living on $100 of disposable income per month, being what my grandfather called “a speck of pepper in a bowl of milk”, and living with four other people you’d never chose to live with otherwise but who will eventually become life-long friends.
It’s a reality show with no script, an experiment in solidarity, community, spirituality, and faith.
The economy is a disaster. Obama is months into his first term. Teach for America received a record high of applications. Honduras is surviving earthquakes and coups. Many of the 20-somethings with whom I graduated from Saint Peter’s University are drowning in doubt and debt, and I’m here trying to mend things with my mother while living in voluntary poverty and dressed like I’m headed to Woodstock.
“Hello…you there?” my mom asks. Her southern accent familiar as she curls her “r”.
“I’m here,” I whisper back with a mix of frustration and sorrow. “It’s okay, mom. Don’t worry about it.”
“I really am sorry.”
Vulnerability wasn’t always in my friend group. Rather, I was quick to lead with humor or anger. But leading with the heart, my mother’s a master at that.
For all the times I’ve been disappointed with my parents, I can think of a myriad of positive traits they’ve unknowingly passed along to me. My mom gave me her wide smile, her curiosity, her creative spirit, her love of dance, her propensity to try new things, her lack of patience with unethical leadership, and her thirst for life. She’s been praying for me in ways I’m recently learning to speak with God, and been working to actualize her dreams similar to how I’ve been hungry to craft a life for myself as a writer and a speaker.
If I were writing this 11 years ago when we were facing a different set of crises I’d have nothing but terrible things to say about my mother. I was a Black boy lost at sea, swimming in the infancy of budding grief. I wouldn’t tell you about countless soup kitchen counters she’s served behind, or about how much she’s ministered to complete strangers – often giving them a shoulder to cry on, or how she can easily see color and light in the most dire circumstances. I wouldn’t tell you about how bright she is, about her humility, about how seriously she takes her relationship with the Lord.
Younger me couldn’t see past the pain. And when he could, at times he chose not to. I was reluctant to carry a shred of grace because grace could put a cap on my anger. I didn’t want a salve for my resentment. If we’re being honest, I’d really only share about the places my mother fell short. “Way way way short,” I’d say with a punch of judgment in my tone.
But healing can takes us places, especially when we work it (and I’m finally working it with God). I’m in a different, better place where nuance and gray areas live, where breathing is easier and less strenuous like when you finally take your mask off after leaving Target.
Where I can’t shout: “WHY weren’t you there all those years!” without considering: my mother’s struggles; the places where she still slips; the sad little girl within her needing restoration. I can’t complain without considering how a lot of parents are far from feeling (or being) prepared to care for a new life. How scary and complicated that can be whether your child was rescued from a dangerous living situation, or born with a compromised immune system, or was initially raised by your sibling but can no longer live there. And now, you’re their mother, a giant in their eyes.
I can’t preach to my mom about the long term consequences of abandonment or divorce on a child without thinking about how much my father put her through. Without considering that no matter how distant she might have been in the past, I have her in my life now, in a time where so many have lost their mothers to cancer, stress, dementia, addiction, environmental racism, domestic violence, overdose, mental illness, or the hard thing of being a woman (especially a Black woman) in this world.
While my hurts and wounds are very much present and valid, so is the truth that God heals, God can, and God will. He’s brought me to a place where I can talk with my mother about her new multi-level marketing venture without becoming incensed or condescending. I can be happy for her while disagreeing with her decisions. I can look at her through my own brokenness the same way she viewed me during the year after my mind malfunctioned.
My Verizon phone bill reflects daily calls to her and from her. 2019 calls filled with prayer, new perspectives, stories from her present life as a private taxi driver, laughter, and reminders that I still had a shot at life. That she still loved her son even though he felt so unlovable. That she was continually praying for his marriage, her daughter-in-law, and her granddaughter.
I smile at the memories of my mom showing up to every graduation. At how proud she looked during the entire Mother’s Day brunch following my grad school commencement. At how lovely she looked walking me down the aisle at my wedding on the most gorgeous July day you’ve ever seen. At how loving and playful she is when talking to my 16-month-old on speakerphone.
Yes, I still hold resentment. I’ve woken up crying, reaching for someone who wasn’t there when I faced 5th grade bullies or had 7th grade basketball games. For someone who lived several states away. Who forgot birthdays and milestones. Who had enough of a challenge raising her other, younger, four children.
There are cracks in this Black man who’s still learning what it means to love a Black woman when he didn’t see it done in healthy ways as a child. Still, I’m inspired by Maya Angelou’s words: “Do the best you can until you know better, then when you know better do better.”
I hold appreciation for all the moms that have “adopted” me along the way. For the aunties, grandmas, cousins, teachers, youth group leaders, tv moms (I see you season one Aunt Viv), friend’s moms who took me in, church mothers, all of them.
I salute the moms in your life – no matter what side of life or joy they are on.
Much love to the soccer moms, the accidental moms, the single moms, the step-moms, the baby-mamas, the moms grieving their baby, the moms who say, “Just call me, Tracey. I’ll always be here for you and your brother and I know I’m new in your life and I have to earn your trust,” the moms who feel like they’re in a constant fumbling motion and are messing everything up when their kids are just glad to be loved, to the moms in active duty overseas, to the moms in rehab, to the moms trying to get their children back, to the moms working nights and weekends and all day as well.
I hold an ever present awareness that days like yesterday can be complicated. That they’re happy for some and dreadful for some and just another Sunday for others. That tear soaked flowers were left on cold tombstones, and some bouquets weren’t even purchased. I’m aware that being a new mother while not having your own mother can be a hollow chamber of devastation all it’s own.
I invite you to join me this week as I take time thinking about the ones who took care of me. Who did the best they could. Who – whether there in person or spirit or otherwise – sought to protect us, teach us, raise us, and/or encourage us. And if this is too painful for you to do, well as with anything, take care of yourself. This might not be the time, and that’s alright
I’m off to call my mom.
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