I remember being all smiles as I managed to achieve all of my goals for the day, so I was going to bring a bottle of the best champagne home to my family to show them how much I loved them and to show them that I’d finally advanced to the next level. But when I’d arrived home, it wasn’t quite the welcome I’d expected. Faces that usually uplifted me were cast downward. Every eye was red and puffy and when these eyes clocked me, they became daggers. My family -comprised of a sobbing, heavily pregnant sister, a boiling brother, and many disappointed cousins (their children in tow)- gave me a look so disapproving that it pierced my spirit to its deepest depths. I caught my breath.
The reason for their anger at me: my mother’s death. And it was my absence that killed her. I’d avoided every call from my family members when I should’ve taken time out to address the real issue. But no, I was so selfish and so absorbed in trying to succeed, that I only managed failure. I dropped the champagne onto the driveway, and as I parted my lips to speak –knowing that no words would form- I felt tremendous guilt. I felt so much guilt that when the bottle smashed onto the ground, I felt that I should’ve reached into my chest cavity and thrown my heart down there to shatter alongside it. Instead of ripping myself to shreds in front of my grieving family, I did something else. I woke up…
…and I glanced at the clock. The time read 4:blurry a.m. I turned over in my double bed and faced the person who’d run over at the first sign of distress; a friend. A true friend who’d literally dropped everything to come over and just be present. I turned back over and tried to replay the events of my life that brought on that awful dream. It didn’t take me long to recall what had kicked off my nightmare.
Only 6 hours prior, I’d received a call from home. I’d been at the cinema but the voicemail I’ve received told me that my mother had been admitted into the hospital. Hospital news always worries me, so I called my mother asap to figure out what the hell was going on. I ended up on a 3-way call between my mother and my sister.
“Hey Ma,” I said. Then sprinting to the point. “Why in the world are you in the hospital?”
“Go ahead and tell him,” My mom told my sister. She sighed. Her tone of voice was of someone’s who’s jig was up. Like she was throwing her hands up and saying “I’ve been caught.”
“Mommy had a heart attack,” my sister sniffled. At sixteen years old and with a baby on the way, my sister still managed to make me see the seven year old version of herself. Of course a myriad of questions bubbled onto the forefront of my mind, but all I could think of was how to remain practical and level headed.
“Well…(Say something that show’s you’re in control) Do we have a history of heart problems in the family?” I figured that was an adult enough question to ask. It made me sound official instead of panicky.
“Tom, I don’t know.” My mother was clearly exasperated with me. Maybe that wasn’t the most productive question to ask, but I damn for sure didn’t want to ask ‘Are you feeling ok?’
But then, as my mother tried her best to explain to me what was going on, she cried out. I could hear how sharp her pains were in her voice.
“Oh. Oh.” I envisioned her wincing and clutching her chest. Her following sentences were rushed. “My heart rate is dropping again. (To her husband, I assume) Ring the nurse. Tom, I gotta go.” The monitors crescendoed to a dramatic level as the phone went dead. I heard sobbing and remembered that my sister was still on the line. She’d done her best to informed me of what had happened, yet it seemed all she could produce now was tears. I attributed her emotionalism to her pregnancy, all while wondering why I wasn’t freaking out a bit more. I guess because I wanted my sister to remain calm. So I did my best to reassure her that everything would be alright (clearly unsure of that fact myself), and then when I hung up the phone, I stood in my kitchen stunned.
At that moment, my mind was a cluttered attic of thought. Practically, I thought ‘Tommy, you are in a different continent. You can’t do anything but hope and pray that she’ll be fine. Go pack your bags.’ Another part of my brain was concerned about how I would managed to pack up my entire room in one night and move to a new flat the next day (as I was coming to the end of my lease). Another part of me wanted someone to talk to so I did what any sane person does: I hurriedly logged onto Facebook and posted a status asking all of my close friends for help, or a phone call, or anything. I needed to round up the troops and my crappy, cracked-screen Nokia wasn’t the quickest way to do so. However, I only received three responses from the 1,400 something friends on my list (proof that Facebook is a load of crap). And one phone call came immediately.
“What’s happened?” I told my mate the details as I knew them. “I’m coming over.” It was a declarative sentence, which mean I couldn’t dispute it. So I didn’t. I just needed to wait for him to arrive so that I could talk to someone about it.
Until then, I spent time thinking (which is really bad for me if you know me personally), and I came to the conclusion that the universe was sending me a message to love my mother more than I already do. Goodness, I thought I loved her enough. I definitely appreciate her to the fullest extent of appreciation. But I knew for a fact that I didn’t want to lose her.
Earlier that evening, I’d gone to see the critically slammed film “I Don’t Know How She Does It” (judge me at your own will), and I found it very ironic that after seeing a film about a woman who managed to do it all, that I would be in danger of losing my very own ‘woman-who-does-it-all” and has been doing so since I was born. I remember watching the film and thinking, ‘yeah, my mother isn’t some high end business woman, but I tell you one thing, she gets stuff done, and manages to make it look simple.’ And she didn’t need to have Sarah Jessica Parker’s wit and bewilderedness to do it.
Then my mind flashed back to the previous week, when my mother called me to say that she’d sent me a card, just because she was thinking about me. When I got the card, I cried because it was so perfect. It was such a perfect expression of love that it couldn’t be topped. The text of the card is as follows:
“I love you my son…
Forever, for Always and No Matter What
From the moment I first held you in my arms,
I knew you were special.
As I cuddled you, I was overwhelmed with love…
But suddenly anxiety swept over me.
With all the potential I felt
Radiating from your little body,
How in the world was I going to raise you to be the man I knew you could be?
Now, so many years later, I stand in awe before
The extraordinary man you have become.
Your compassion and generosity
Are a testament to your greatness.
I wonder what I ever did to deserve you.
You are my son…and I will forever love you”
My mother did not pen those words (someone at Blue Mountain Arts did) but she somehow found the appropriate text to display her feelings, and she was so proud of the card she’d sent me. I heard pride illuminate her voice when she told me it was on its way. All I could hear now was the doubts accumulating in my cerebral attic as well as the beating of my own, healthy heart. ‘Why was I blessed with such a healthy heart? Maybe we’d had heart issues in my family that I knew nothing about? My grandmother kept going into cardiac arrest before she’s passed away and we all knew it was a heart attack that took her out of the world. Or maybe my mother’s heart was too big. She was always doing for others instead of herself. Was it possible that having such a huge heart could cause a heart attack? No, of course not…Stress from caring too much about others can cause a heart attack.’ I was thinking too much. I had to do something…so I started boxing up the items I’d accumulated whilst living in Scotland and London.
I was in the middle of packing when my friend called me to let him into the flat that I would soon be leaving; the flat I’d spent the last year turning into my home, the only place I could ever call home besides Virginia.
My mate came upstairs and I immediately became aware of the kind of person I am when I’m in trouble: a domestic OCD nutcase. I started washing dishes, offering drinks and a bite to eat, trying my best to stay active as I was incredibly fearful of what would occur if I stopped and just allowed myself to feel what I was feeling: dread, fear, and most of all, panic.
While my friend kept saying what I already knew (that I couldn’t do anything from London, all I could do was live my life, I was probably imagining things worse than what they actually were, etc) I just kept thanking him for being kind enough to drop whatever he was doing to come over and listen to me talk, of which I did a great deal.
As I spewed forth details of my life, he became aware that this wasn’t the first incident where I’d almost lost my mother. I told him that she’s almost died when I was about nine or ten years old. She went in to outpatient surgery to have a bowel obstruction procedure and ended up in a coma for weeks. The procedure left me with a mother I could only visit in the hospital, while I lived with my grandparents.
I can remember praying to God every single night asking him to keep my mother alive because I needed her. I asked him to watch over my entire family, and I promised to always be good if only he’d keep her alive. I needed her to get well so that my cousin , who lived with my grandparents as well could stop bullying me (at one point, after chasing me around the house with a butcher knife, he’d locked me in the basement and when he finally let me out, I sprayed air freshener in his eyes. Clean Linen Glade was my revenge). People at church kept saying that prayer worked and I wanted to make sure it did. I was relentless in my praying. I didn’t want to live with my grandparents forever, not because I didn’t love them, but because they weren’t my mom. And my everyday routine was supposed to include the woman who birthed me. I remembered going to school every day and loving it because school was where I was the happiest. School was an emotional necessity, not just a mental one. Learning distracted me from what was soon to become my evening routine; sitting in a hospital from about 6pm until 9pm reading library books, old copies of Reader’s Digest and basically learning how to make the perfect cup of Folgers instant coffee (despite rumors that it would stunt my growth).
Of course, my mother, the fighter she is, pulled through. She emerged from her coma after 2 weeks and was eventually sent home. However, the wound she had from her surgery left her with a hole in her stomach that the family had to watch heal gradually on its own. It healed nastily and was a constant reminder that she was on the threshold of death at one point in her life.
My friend listened intently and kept the head nods and the reassuring smiles coming. Then I told him something that I’d only just realized:
“If I lost my mother, then I’d lose what love is.” She’s the only woman, my goodness, the only person in the world who loves me unconditionally, and if she left this earth, I would never know what that feels like again. Because she’s truly loved me, flaws and all, and she and I have truly grown together. There were times when I was growing up where we had nothing. I didn’t realize it until I got older because my mother didn’t allow me to live knowing that we weren’t privileged. But that’s what a mother does right? She always kept hope alive in me.
Some weeks prior to the card she sent, I’d showed her my previous blog entry. And we’d had a very candid conversation about its content and what it would mean if I published it and the truths that emerged from that session between us was immense. She and I had crossed yet another bridge which pushed our relationship as son and mother even closer. We ended that conversation filled with new information and filled with understanding of one another. So when news of the heart attack interrupted my life, I was feeling that we’d only scraped the surface of what’s yet to come of learning from each other.
During my talk with my friend, I suddenly found it harder to breathe as another epiphany hit me.
“Before my grandmother passed away,” I told him. I could feel my throat tightening up and the involuntary tears begin. I tried to swallow it all away. “…Before my grandmother passed away, she said to my mother ‘I can go now because you are in good hands. You have everything you need. You have a husband who loves you, wonderful children, and a home to call your own. You don’t need me anymore.’” And then tears gushed forth as I said the following:
“I can’t lose my mother because she needs to say those same words to me. I need to be in good hands before she goes and I’m not.” I cried into my shirtsleeves and turned away. Then I caught enough breath to say what was at the root of losing my mother. “If I lost my mother, I will never find anyone else who will love me as unconditionally as she does. And that fucking sucks. Because this kind of love will never exist for me again” I let the tears warp my vision as I was wrapped in a bear-hug.
During the embrace, the following came to me: if the doors on my mother’s mortality closed before my heart opened itself to actual, true love…then I’d know for sure that I’d never find someone to love me with the same fervor; someone who’d never give up on me even when I gave up on myself, someone who’d understand and excuse all of my idiosyncracies.3
Never in all my life has a truth hit me so hard about myself. I can’t fall in love unless it’s with my mother’s blessing. And I don’t want her to die without me being successful to the degree of having found love, whatever that means to me. But I’m hoping that whatever love I find will be as genuine, as diligent, as long-lasting as the love I have for the woman who birthed me. More importantly, despite the struggles, and the fights, and the losses and the gains we’ve made in our lives, she has managed to transform me into a prince. I’ve always known where I stood with her. And I’m lucky to be able to still have her in my life. It was in October that I found out that my mother’s heart episode might have been a one-off. She doesn’t have any signs of heart problems or anything and she is in the best of health. God hears prayers, and God knows that her work isn’t done. She still has lives to impact and she still needs to see her son grow up and thrive in his career and maybe…in love.
If I’m honest with myself, I want to eventually end up with someone who will take me from prince to king status. But now that I’m a lot older and I look back on my life so far; past all of the failed attempts at dating, the constant rejection from those who I hoped were worthy of my heart, and my general confusion about the emotion I thought I knew so well; I find myself wondering big time ‘When does real love begin? How does one spot its origins?’ I see a lot or people who are in it, and I recognize the genuine lovers from the superficial ones, but it seems I’m entering that stage of life where I’m constantly asking “How do people end up with one another? Why is someone willing to take a risk on just one person and hope that they will be their everything, when there are so many people in this world to choose from? More or less, will it take the death of a person for me to find love in another?”
One of my best friends in the world recently called me out on something. His words were as follows:
“Tommy, I know that you hate the idea of falling in love. But I’m just going to say this to you and don’t take offense. You know what I think? I think that underneath all that ‘I’m never getting married, never falling in love’ bravado…you are actually desperate for love. You need it more than anything. I just wish you felt that you deserved it.”
Real friends stab you in the front and my best mate definitely did that with his words. He was the only person I’d told that I didn’t feel I deserved to be loved. Well, that’s not true. I told him I didn’t deserve to be in a relationship with anyone. When I think about it…if I think I deserve to have friends (which is a type of relationship), why do I think I’m not entitled to deserve love? Maybe because I still, somehow, feel that to give your all to one person means eventual disappointment. I’m bound to fuck-up and I can’t stomach the repercussions of fucking-up (as a former perfectionist). I can’t afford to disappoint others because then I feel guilt and I feel like I’m failing myself. And if the faces in my bad dream were any indication of what letdown looks like, I don’t want to be responsible for those faces, ever.
But then I think I look at love in a different way than a lot of people. I love my friends to death. I feel that I’d never fall out of love with them. Even those who aren’t around me all the time or even in the same country as me still find ways to bring a smile to my face! I have loads of memories with people who have touched my life and vice versa that show me that love exists in more than one way. I’m still in love with my friends. With one-on-one love, there is the danger of falling out of it…and if that occurred, I’d see myself as a time waster. Romantic love is a bridge I may have to cross one day, but when I do, it’ll be with the blessing of my mother and the friends who have loved me even before I found “the one” who might potentially love me unconditionally. But right now, romantic love will remain an uncrossed bridge and I will focus on making sure that my new niece has all the love she needs in this world. The last thing she needs is to grow up looking for it elsewhere, when she’ll have it at home all along.
December 19, 2011
I remember when I said that I would never write about love. Then I made history. And I did.