When my mother gave birth to her first child, they knocked her out cold–bam–for the whole thing. When very pregnant with me a few years later, they wheeled her down the hall on one of those gurneys while she screamed, I HAVE TO GO TO THE BATHROOM at the top of her lungs and then they knocked her out. By the time she had her third and last child, 11 years later, she was determined to take back the night; she wouldn’t let them give her a thing.
She was Awake and Aware, just like the book she had studied during her pregnancy. Dad was her coach, but in those days, he was only allowed to help her pant and blow until she was ready to push. Then they scooted her into delivery in front of a mirror for her to watch the miraculous event only they didn’t know she was blind as a bat without her glasses and the only contact lenses they made at the time were little saucers made out of glass or concrete or something astoundingly hard that she wasn’t allowed to wear.
Dad was on the other side of the door calling to them, Her glasses! Get her glasses! She needs her glasses! When I think of that, I feel so tenderly toward them, Mom for reclaiming this passage, Dad for scrambling to help as he nervously chewed toothpicks to splinters, barred from watching the arrival of his own son.
My sister and I were at home under the charge of our basement tenant who was called up to babysit but was more accurately sleeping one off as we watched from the doorway and giggled each time his legs went straight up in the air and then crashed down, flipping him like a human pancake while he mumbled incoherently. We thought it was a riot. Look at the funny drunk!
I think of my mom back when she was in her twenties with two small children, a husband, and a household to manage. She was a college graduate with a flare for design and liberal politics. One wall of our dining room was taken up entirely by a huge McGovern banner, and she would often host parties with my father’s architecture students and sit cross legged on the floor and sway to Dylan and Baez.
She would start a round of Kumbaya in earnest, in her long hair and Merimeko pantsuits and once, about a decade ago when Peter Paul and Mary came on the radio singing, We Shall Overcome, she grew still, looked out the window and softly cried. We really thought we could change things, she said. We really thought we could make it a different world.
You gotta love a mom like that.
Of course, she also yelled at us a bunch and chased my 13 year-old sister around a field with a wooden spoon after being called a bitch. She never made contact. I mean, she was a pacifist really, just trying a bit of the hard line like the time she threatened to wash our mouths out with soap but ended up lightly tapping the Ivory bar on a washcloth and swiping it halfheartedly on our tongues.
It wasn’t that she couldn’t be tough, she just wasn’t strict–tucking me into bed with my high school boyfriend doesn’t really qualify as strict–but we cleaned and cooked and worked odd jobs and learned to process our feelings and get in touch with what our headache was trying to tell us.
If it’s true what they say, that life is the school and love is the lesson, then she’s on board for the whole curriculum, signing up for nearly every class and even extra credit projects, stumbling into class breathless with some exciting discovery or fresh outrage, coming in just a little late, making every kind of noise imaginable on her way to her seat, dropping things, laughing, sneezing, coughing, clearing her throat, blowing her nose into a grungy old Kleenex, grunting as she lowers into her chair and then, just when you think she’s all settled in, out comes the Tupperware and she methodically puts together a little snack, silverware clangs to the floor, she licks her fingers, bites, chews, and swallows so audibly you swear she’s been miked. She’s a noise machine. A noise machine wrapped in batik and natural fibers, infused with a stunning amount of energy and a longing for fun, for being a part of things, for being let in.
She’ll about die for a good time. In fact, one night during dinner she almost did; my husband Dave made her laugh so hard she fell off her chair and to the floor. Dave carried on with his funny story because sometimes Mom can be theatrical but thankfully we caught on in time, picked her up and gave her a good slap on the back.
She’s one of the people who hasn’t figured it all out yet.
She’s out there, in the big messy world, giving it her best shot, trudging along, despite her preoccupation with getting the right fabric for the new pillows and planting herself on the couch with stacks of Home Goods catalogues and occasionally going blank when I’m telling her something because she’s sifting through her To Do list in her mind, despite her absolute compulsion to correct everyone around her and an ever so slight allergy to being wrong, she is still, at 83, trying new things, calling her representatives, marching with her handwrritten signs, wanting to connect, wanting her glasses on until the very end.
I’m with her. As painful and confounding as this life can often be, I say, Don’t knock me out and make sure to always help me find my glasses.
It might be scary to be Awake and Aware sometimes, but that’s what I want, too. Right up until the very end.
What about you? If life is a school and love is the lesson, what it is love asking of you right now? Where is it asking you to stay awake and aware, to stretch and open, to let something in or let something go?