Friday, February 13, 2009

Mummy and the gas station attendant

When I was younger, I called my mother “Ma.” When I got older and felt it made us sound like hillbillies, I switched to “Mummy.” For some reason, the very word “Mom,” sounds tired to me and makes me think of people rolling their eyes as they say it. Nobody rolls their eyes when they talk to my mother.

Among hundreds of other good things, my Mummy is the queen of unconditional love. When we were very young, there was someone in our neighborhood who had just gotten out of jail for killing a gas station attendant. My mother marveled at his mother’s willingness to take him in and give him a room without blinking because she was “his ma.” Some liken their fierce, boundless love for their children to the mother-bear thing, the grizzly-mama thing. My mother likens unconditional love to that woman who took her son back even though he once killed a gas station attendant.

But on Tuesday night, at age 73, she was admitted to the hospital with excruciating abdominal pain. They were after the gall bladder, given the symptoms, but when the cat scan showed “an obstruction with an unknown cause,” which "could be anything," they came back dressed in scrubs. Before I had a chance to notify my siblings, she was being wheeled to surgical suite #2 and I, holding my cell phone which now rang with frantic return calls, was being asked to say goodbye.

“You have to do it now.”
I hugged her around the tubes.
“Goodbye, Mummy. I love you. Thank you.”
“And I love you, Darling.”

Is there a bigger word than Goodbye?

I wandered around for a while until I felt the breakdown coming and then I called my friend Maureen. Fifteen minutes later, the elevator doors opened and there she was. I said, “I’m not ready.”

For two hours, I alternated between overreacting and knowing I wasn’t overreacting. For two hours I thought about the daughter I’ve been, the mother she’s been, and the very poor job I’ve done with my side of that equation. I wondered what I gave her. It was hard to see around the glare of all she’d given me, and hard to think straight, wondering who would love me still, even if I killed a gas station attendant.

My husband, friends, and the siblings who could make it were there. But as the night wore on, I moved away until I was around the corner and it was there, on the phone to my out-of-town brother and trusted confidante Tom (raised with me by my mother after the divorce), that I realized I gave my mother more than stuff. I gave her back to my own children.

I believe with my entire heart, that each of my children knows they can call me at any age, at any hour of the morning, drunk or sick or laughing or crying and I’ll sit on the floor in my bathrobe and talk to them until they can go back to bed. I think each knows I will hop a plane, I will drop a plan, I will get into the nearest vehicle and will be at their side before they’ve had time to reconsider, if they say the words, “Can you come here?”

I’ve given my mother gifts of time and love. I’ve complimented her perms and shoes and invited her out for glasses of wine and Broadway shows. But more than that, I’ve been her in my own children’s lives. When they’re sick, when they’re sad, or worried, or happy, or quiet, or when they’re any of these things and alone, I believe my children know someone in the world will know everything they’ve said or done, and will still give them a room. There is no better report card when you’re a parent. My mother is high honors in this regard, and I’ve tested her more than once.

She came out of the surgery like a champ and will have a happier, healthier life as a result. And I have been given a chance to shore up my side of the equation.

But her reach is far and long. Her great-grandchildren will know her, even if they never meet, if I do this right. This week, I learned a lot about doing it right, in two of the longest hours we’ve both lived through.

I love you, Mummy.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Sheer hose and jungle animals

I print a lot of things I don’t send out like drafts of things that need actual page editing. Then I turn it over and recycle. It’s frugal and right now like most people, I’m doing Everything to be Frugal.

I’m also doing Everything to know the software I might need in my job search and I was in the middle of a self-teaching Access course (“Buy my product!”) when my mind went for a walk. In a terrible sudden flash I lost all the sensation in my brain and I knew – I knew – I’d sent my resume out to an Important Employer on the other side of a short story. And not some tidy O Henry tale full of deserving, virtuous people but two pages about a guy who wears red contact lenses and hires himself out as an “eliminator” of extortionists.

Until recently, I thought pre-interview anxiety was the worst thing you can feel after grief, guilt, remorse, and embarrassment. But nothing is worse than that freefall into the panic abyss while you figure out if you did or didn’t just ruin your life. Right away, I called my mind back into the house and quickly it recalled for me that I actually emptied the paper tray before I started printing out the story of me and not the guy with red eyes. But I was left thinking about the power of that moment when I wasn’t sure. More than feeling stupid in those seconds I felt exposed, like I’d just walked through town wearing only my imagination underthings, which are unique but not appropriate for the occasion.

In a job market that is standing room only these days, experts are everywhere with rules about what NOT to say, how NOT to come across, and yet be yourself as if you are even still in there under all that prepping. I guess it’s good to be told that dark stockings with white pumps look unsophisticated, but if we’re all going to read the same rules and wind up behaving the same way, well, that’s a lot of sheer hose. It requires balance to remain unique too, and express things you are that others aren’t.

In the 80’s, I was a HR recruiter working for an organization with over 70% turnover. I was in the infancy of my executive-ness, so all I did was interview and hire, sometimes twenty or more employees in one week. Everyone who walked into my office was nervous and afraid of saying the wrong thing, or coming across the wrong way, and some seemed to need a little more oxygen than we had in the room. If I had an applicant who was a total wreck, I’d look them in the eye, and say: “All right, listen. If you’re like everyone else, you’re not comfortable right now, but don’t worry. I won’t ask you anything hard. Just tell me this. If you could be any kind of animal in the jungle, what would it be?” They’d freeze and I’d say “I’m just kidding,” and that was that. The ice was broken and the applicant got to show their uniqueness in how they reacted. Unless I got a poet type who took the question seriously, it worked like a charm.

Tomorrow, I’ll interview for something I want very much. I’ll be busy today reflecting on my accomplishments, doing final research on the organization, and deciding what kind of jungle animal I’d be in case I’m asked.