Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mom's Visit–A Personal Essay

I was going through personal papers recently and discovered something I'd long forgotten.   

Nearly twenty years ago, I wrote a personal essay, with the specific intention of submitting it to The Vancouver Sun for publication.  To my complete surprise, I received a phone call from the editor of "Mix," a then-weekend section of the paper, who told me I'd written a "nice piece," and he wanted to publish it.  Several weeks later, I received $175, the first payment ever for something I'd written.    

Today, I'm taking a break from all things gay and sharing my personal essay with you.  For the most part, I think it still holds up–with a few minor edits.  I hope you enjoy it.


"I sure missed you when you left," she said.  That was two months ago.  I stoop over Mom now, my arms around around.  She has amazing strength for a small woman in her 50s.  She feels good.  I missed her too.

The bus was a half hour late.  Long enough for the anticipation of her visit, and my hope for our time together, to build.

I recall the girl who sold me chicken pieces at the market that morning.  I told her Mom's coming to stay for a few days.  "It's always nice to see them," she said, "but it's sure nice when they go back home."

We both laughed.  Do all moms turns into people we don't know after a certain age?  I was confident things would be different this time.

Walking toward the depot, bus exhaust fumes rising in the heat, Mom tells me she had reserved seating on the way down.  She sat right behind the driver.  But I noticed she was the last to get off the bus. Why does she always do that?  Why doesn't she put herself first for a change?

On the Skytrain downtown, I tell Mom:  "We'll be getting off at the next station."

"It's not Granville, is it?" she asks.

How could I have forgotten?  She jokingly asks if I'm trying to trick her.  No, Mom, I'm not trying to trick you.  I really had forgotten the steep escalator makes you sick to your stomach and gives you funny sensations in your head.  But if I had remembered…

It's dinner time when we get to the apartment, and I begin to prepare Oprah's favorite un-fried chicken.  It's not every day Mom comes over for dinner.  I want everything to be special.

Following the usual small talk about family back home, conversation turns to Mom's latest money-making scheme.  It was home jewelry parties last autumn.  What is it this time?

"I have a real opportunity to make good money," Mom says, familiar defensiveness in her voice.  "There are lots of people willing to invest in gold coins.  Aren't they pretty?"  The brochure is open in front of my partner and me.  She tells us these days a lot of people are worried about losing their money, but gold doesn't depreciate.

"Aren't they pretty?" are her words; the rest are someone else's.  Her vulnerability has been preyed on again.  Someone knows she's having financial difficulties, and they've done a sell job on her.  Doesn't she see this?  Doesn't she realize that if it were that easy, millions of people would have gotten rich selling gold coins already?  Why must I always be put in the position of discouraging her?

"There are lots of people doing damn good in this business," she assures us.  All she has to do is make an initial investment of $350 and get two people selling under her.  Then she'll be on her way.  She looks at us.  I know she doesn't have $350, and it's obvious where this conversation is headed.

"This is not your dream," I say finally.  "This is someone else's dream.  You're too worried about money all the time.  Why don't you do something that's important to you?"

When she wanted to do something important to her, she says, Dad never wanted her to work.  Here comes the past again.  A child raising children.  Alcohol abuse.  An absent husband and father.  Still the victim she's always been, relating to us in the only way she knows how.

"You blame us, don't you?" I ask her, referring to my sister and me.  "We're the reason why you were stuck at home.  Is that why you treated us the way you did sometimes?"

The question is thoughtless, selfish.  Hasn't she been through enough?  Can't I give her credit for doing the best she could?  What else did a young mother in the '60s do?  Why do I feel like I'm always hurting her?

The next morning, I see her on the sofa where she insisted on sleeping.  She looks weak, vulnerable, reduced.  I still feel guilty for my question the night before and, now, for not convincing her to use my bed.

There's more small talk during breakfast.  Then, sitting in front of my computer, I read her some stories I've written.  About our family and our pain.  She knows how important writing is to me and offers words of encouragement.  I want to do the same for her, but I can't.  She doesn't dream anymore.

By mid-afternoon, we're looking for a place to eat in Yaletown.  In Subway, she tells me she can't swallow the buns.  They're not toasted; the doughy bread will get caught in her throat.

My patience is worn.  I feel like I've been through a lot already.  It's not about me or being inconvenienced.  It's about her always seeing life in terms of limitations.  It's about a life she hasn't yet begun to live.  She doesn't understand I want so much more for her.  All she knows are my rolling eyes and insensitive comments.

"You'll be happy when the old woman goes back home."

I hate when she says that.  She's absolutely right, and couldn't be more wrong.

My sister comes to get her that evening.  I'm off the hook.

The following day, I phone over there to confirm when they'll arrive for dinner.  

"Has she gotten on your nerves yet?" I ask.  I mean it as a joke.  It doesn't come out that way.   

Debbie tells me about looking at her blankly sometimes and saying nothing.  Debbie's always been able to control herself better around Mom.  Maybe she doesn't see anything wrong with the life our mother lives or the way she is.  Or maybe she accepts that the secret to patience is letting Mom take responsibility for her own life.

Sunday evening, Mom's back with us for her final night in Vancouver.  It's easier for me to take her to the bus in the morning.  

Already, I worry about saying good-bye to her, because I don't want to cry.  It's important not to cry.  If I start, I'm not convinced I'll stop.

Everything about her takes on different meaning.  Her open suitcase, spilling its contents in the living room, makes me ache inside.  I know she has so little, and now, it all seems to fit in a suitcase.  

Her toiletries, neatly spread on the counter in my bathroom and partly covered with a small towel she brought from home, make me envious.  They are a part of her life in a way I can't be.  Her jar of face cream, the same kind she used when I was growing up, touches me to the core.

The morning of the day she's to leave, we're different around each other.  Kinder.  Gentler.  We're not sure when we'll see each other again.  Or even if we will.  Things happen.

While I was busy trying to be heard more than I was prepared to listen, her three days with us passed in a blink.  I can't watch as her things are returned to the suitcase.  I am sorely aware of how I failed during her visit.  All the things that didn't need to be said or shouldn't have been; all those that should have been but weren't.  I didn't try.

We're back at the Greyhound station well in advance of her scheduled departure.  Plenty of time remaining to tell her what I need to say.

She needs to hear what the warm but searching expression on her face tells me.  Still, the unfamiliar emotions and words are lost somewhere in the past.  We embrace, as though an expressioin of regret over this visit and, perhaps, hope for the next.  Maybe then…

"You don't need to wait," she says.  "I know you have things to do."

None nearly as important as the one thing I can't, Mom.

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