The long arm of the mom

by Mick Rhodes |

I am an only child. Mom had me in November 1963, then decided she was good. Dad left when I was out of nappies, but that’s a story for another day.

I applaud Mom’s chutzpah, though it was more likely blind luck, gambling, I wouldn’t disappoint her so badly that I needed another child.

I have four children of my own, maximizing my chances of having one or more who will support me and push me to eat tacos when I can’t anymore (and, if I’m really lucky, help me when things get really risky in the end, as they often do).

Mom must have had almost no extra money when she was raising me. We didn’t have a nice car. We rented a series of houses and apartments throughout my childhood. Still, I felt spoiled. His love was not secret. It was neither withheld nor conditional. She was a full-time hugger, sharer and unwavering supporter.

I learned from an early age that you let the people you love know, everyday and often, both in word and in deed.

Mom’s love never wavered, even when I was an asshole teenager and kept her up until dawn waiting for me to return from my latest punk rock mishap.

I became an adult apprentice around 22 years old. I was a “late” to give it a pink touch. Even so, Mom still took care of me.

My best friend taunts me again one day when we were visiting mom at her home in Pomona. As we got up to leave, mom asked me, “Do you need the money, sweetie?” My friend was amazed that a mother in her twenties offered such kindness. She also thought it was a bit ridiculous. She was right, of course, on both counts.

I got married at 23 and mom was all-in. Divorced a few years later, she was still there. Remarried in 1999, she supported me like never before. When the babies started arriving a few years later, it was grandma time. She took them to spend the night and visited our home in Venice for regular visits. I always knew I was going to hit Mom’s mega super jackpot, but it wasn’t until my own kids were born that it really hit home.

I was diagnosed with cancer in 2007. It was serious, but treatable. I was irradiated, my surgeon cut out the tumor, then I was hit with some more radiation. Mom was there for all that too.

But soon after, things started to change; mum began to feel ill herself and was diagnosed with breast cancer. She, too, underwent radiation therapy and surgery. This time I was there for her. She bounced back, mostly, but her effervescence was clearly on the decline.

In the summer of 2008, we moved to Claremont, ostensibly for the big schools, but also to help Mom.

It turned out to be a welcome change.

In 2010, my grandfather – with whom my mother had lived since my grandmother died in 1988 – died at age 96. He had lived a long life, but those last years were very difficult and painful.
Then, in 2012, mom’s beloved best friend and only surviving sister, Judy, died of pancreatic cancer.

She was never the same after that. The depression, which had been nibbling at her for years, had now firmly set in. She sat up when we managed to get her out of her house, but it was more and more difficult. Her grandchildren would visit her and spend the night, but she lost her enthusiasm for almost everything.

Then my own family fractured in 2013. My wife and I separated.

With Mom’s deteriorating physical and mental health, she always asked me how I was and if I needed anything. I swung between being practically useless to her and cherishing her, engrossed in parenting three young children through a tumultuous and protracted divorce.

Mom’s breast cancer came back in 2016. Much to my disappointment, she refused treatment, telling her oncologist that she had no other battle in her. They gave him three to six months.
I spent all the time I could with her and for a while allowed myself to forget what was about to happen. So did she, for as long as she could.

I moved in after Christmas 2016 when it became apparent she needed 24-hour help. She survived her prognosis, dying at home on January 7, 2017 after going through one last holiday season with her grandchildren.

It turned out that what I thought was temporary became permanent. Mom left me her house and my children joined me there.

One of the many things Mom collected was photos. Her house was full: great-great-great-great-great-uncles, aunts and cousins ​​old, delicate and sepia; bright 1940s snapshots of her and her sisters, part of her mom and stepdad, fuzzy 1970s family picnics, lots of me, her grandkids and everything in between.

It took a long time to make mom’s house ours. This process was still well underway in March 2020.

The first pandemic project I undertook, during the bad old quarantine days of late March and early April 2020, was to create a “wall of love” for family and friends in the hallway.

One by one, I removed everything Mom had hung there. For two days, I replaced them with photos of my own life, of my own children and of my loved ones. I also hung up several of Mom’s cherished pictures.

Nearly two years later, the “wall of love” has grown and Mom’s house looks even more like ours. Soon I will be remarrying, and my fiancée Lisa and two of her children will be joining me and my two school-age children in our tiny 1954 home.

Going from three to six required an expansion, and with the help of my fiancée, we are emptying a lifetime of old boxes from the garage in preparation for its conversion into living space. Most of the stuff is mine, but about 1/3 was mom’s, including a huge trove of, yes, photos.

As Lisa and I waded through the mountain of things once deemed important enough to put away, we began pulling the photos out of their frames and placing them in a flat file for storage.

One such memorabilia – an old black-and-white snapshot from a department store of a very young me in a very casual sailor suit – had been on display at Mom’s since I can remember. Embarrassed by this as a child, as I grew older and had children of my own, I had come to appreciate his innocent 1960s kindness.

It was wrong to separate it from its frame, but archiving hundreds (thousands?) of family photos was a necessary task.

As I opened the old frame, I was instantly transported to that day in the 90s where mom asked me at age 20 if I needed the money; something caught my eye that was a visceral reminder of her life of loving, selfless care: it was a clean $100 bill.

The tears then came. Of course, she left me $100 behind a photo that she knew I would probably take down. Of course she did. I felt her walk through the last five years, into our lives without her, and give me a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“Do you need money, honey?”

No mom, I’m fine. But it’s really nice to hear from you again.

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