One mother’s bravery

(This article also appeared at The Express)

“If you ever decide to start smoking weed, let me know,” my mom beamed.

I was sitting on a barstool on one side of the kitchen counter while my mom sat across from me. She lit the bowl of a short, ceramic pipe and took a long drag. Fighting a small cough, she held it in for several moments before billowing a plume of smoke out the side of her mouth, a courtesy to avoid my face.

“I’ll light up with you!” she said.

I was 13, and I’ve still never smoked weed.

——

My mom was always a bit unconventional. My younger brother and I were lucky in that way; our peers had strict expectations for grades, harsh curfews, and a slew of punishments for any unexpected deviations. Our mom, however, was always more like a friend than a parent—she decided to play the good guy while the role of the villain was assigned to our mostly-absent father. She worked long, strange hours waiting tables at a truck stop in Big Cabin, Oklahoma, ranked as the second best restaurant in a town with only two restaurants. She would call from the landline behind the register in the mornings to make sure we were up for school, and we could usually count on her starting an early dinner for us by the time we got home, knowing full well that she would be fast asleep before nightfall. She would try to stay up late every Wednesday to watch episodes of “South Park” with us, her raucous laugh filling the room with every crude joke. And every other Monday, if she’d made enough tips, she would spoil us by taking us to McDonald’s. She likes to say that we were “poorer than dirt,” but, with what little time she had with us each day and what little money she was able to tuck away, she wanted to spend each carefully.

Today, at a very lively 60 years old, she looks back on the last 34 years of my life with a mix of pride and regret. When I call and she happens to be a couple of beers into her evening, she will reminisce about our childhood in rural Oklahoma, filled with pride at our accomplishments while simultaneously spiting herself for the shortcomings of her parenting abilities. She hates that she didn’t challenge us more or that we were alone so often—which is undeniable.

But, as my wife and I look to adopt a child in the next year, I keep finding myself looking at how her mistakes shaped me into the unvarnished man that I am today, hoping that I can somehow replicate a modicum of her successes and her mistakes to become a perfectly imperfect parent.

She trusted my younger brother and me wholly and completely. When I asked why she put so much faith in her boys, my mom modestly said that we were so poor that we “didn’t get out and about in the world,” as though our poverty was a shackle that kept us from terrorizing our township. The honest truth—and something that she will likely never admit to—is that we made it easy for her to trust us because she made it easy for us to trust her. She was always quick with a funny quip and even faster with an objection, but her haste made her an open book; she shared her hardships with us in ways she wished she didn’t. “Just be a kid!” she would say on one hand when we prodded her about finances, but on the other she would admit her worries about having to hold off on paying the electric bill. This sort of unadorned vulnerability, the raw humanness of worry, despite the contradictions, made me want to reciprocate every kindness she showed me—it made me want to unburden her in any way that I could. This desire made it easy to play it safe in life, avoid risk and take the well-traveled routes—at least until I turned 14 and met a girl who lived 400 miles away.

I stumbled upon the wonders of the internet in 1998, when I discovered that I could forego whatever hindrances that my social status, or lack thereof, had afforded me. In the halcyon years of the digital age, when “social media” was still in its infancy, hiding behind an avatar and conversing with strangers was confined to forums and chat rooms. The inherent trust built into these exchanges was tinged with speculation. The full and complete anonymity afforded to internet users in this pre-MySpace era gave people the opportunity to reconstruct themselves into their most idealized personas, and I took complete advantage of this. I was able to dismiss the shy vulnerabilities that made gaining and maintaining friendships difficult, and I found that there were far more people out there in the world willing to accept me for the personality that I kept hidden under my timid façade. One such person was a girl who also found the internet as a safe haven to express a truer version of herself to the world without fear of retaliation.

She and I started talking on a now-defunct chat room website called Talk City. Our identities were concealed behind clever screen names, but we quickly progressed to a first-name basis and, starting in 2000, began spending what little money we had on calling cards so we could talk every day before school and long after we were supposed to be asleep. Her name was Trina, and she lived in Mississippi. As we got to know each other more deeply—like our hopes, fears, and what little histories we had acquired at age 15—we became more intertwined. While words like “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” entered our vocabulary, everyone around us was hesitant to follow suit; her family was adamant that I was just a “friend,” which irritated Trina to no end. With the internet in its infancy, there was an element of taboo to what we were doing that made it hard for everyone to take us seriously. Well, everyone except my mom.

In December 2001, at the age of 16, Trina and I decided it was time to make the next leap, so I asked my mom if I could make my way out to Mississippi for a visit. My mom and I were driving down Thompson Street in our little Oklahoma town, and I was so nervous that I couldn’t look at her, but my voice was steady. Trina and I both had two weeks off school for Christmas break, and, having been together online and over the phone for about 18 months, we felt as though we were ready. I didn’t want to fly so soon after 9/11, so I had saved up enough money for a bus ticket, and I promised to call my mom every day.

Instead of saying no, as I had feared, my mom told me that she’d think about it. I didn’t know it at the time, but she had major qualms with such a proposal even though she held them close to her chest.

“I didn’t want to tell you ‘It’s never going to last,’ because that would have broken your heart,” she later said. “You were so young, so innocent.”

During my final exams for the semester, I thought of nothing else than what my mom’s answer may have been. I agonized over it so much that the reality of her final result—which was ultimately a hesitant “yes”—didn’t set in until I was standing with her on Wilson Street on the frigid morning of December 20, looking south, trying to catch a glimpse of the Greyhound bus that would be the first leg of my 10-hour journey.

I shifted from one foot to another to keep warm, to manage my anticipation and in an attempt to find comfort with the wad of money my mom had me stuff into one of my shoes. She told me to keep my bills in there to thwart any potential mugging and to only take it out small bits of cash in a bathroom stall.

As we waited, she gave other me other bits of advice, most of which was useful.

Whenever I had to get a message to her, I would make a collect call to the landline and say my message very fast when prompted for my name, so she would pick up the phone, she would be greeted with, “You have a collect call from ‘Chris Is-in-Mississippi-and-is- okay-love-you-mom,’ would you like to accept?” that she could quickly decline.

At 7 a.m., my scheduled departure time, there was no Greyhound to be seen. After about an hour of waiting without a bus sighting, we finally sought refuge from the cold in one of the nearby shops. It became pretty likely I would miss my connecting bus in Springfield, Missouri, and, I tried telling my mom that there were probably other busses going from Springfield to Mississippi. By that time, I think I was saying that more for my benefit than for hers.

One hour turned into several before, in the distance, we saw the Greyhound bus approach. Moments later, after our goodbyes, and after my duffel bag was thrown underneath the bus, I found a window seat somewhere in the back. I was late, but I was headed to Springfield.

Less than 15 minutes after departing, I witnessed a man punch himself in the face repeatedly. It seemed like I was the only one who was surprised as this man tinkered with a computer board and repeatedly took a closed fist to his head. I moved to the back to distance myself from the potential masochist, but I then found myself in earshot of military personnel describing in great detail how much they couldn’t wait to go overseas and, in vulgar and sinister terms I dare not repeat, shoot several insurgents in Afghanistan. I put on my headphones and turned the volume on my CD player as high as it would go, but every break between songs was filled with a sharp thud of bone hitting bone or a racial epithet.

When I arrived in Springfield several hours late, I found out that I missed my connecting bus. I had two options: go over 200 miles out of my way to St. Louis, Missouri, to catch a bus arriving in Memphis, Tennessee, at 1 a.m. the next morning, or wait a solid 20 hours in the Springfield bus station for the next bus to Mississippi. I called my mom collect under the name “Chris Missed-my-bus-in-Springfield-I’ll-be-in-Memphis-in-the-morning” before boarding the bus to St. Louis.

The next two busses were a lot more hospitable than my first experience. I met a preacher who found delight and wonder in everything. I talked with a lady who had a band called “The Broken G-Strings,” because that string always broke on her guitar. No one mugged me and no one hit themselves in the face. Finally, at 3 a.m., I drearily exited the bus in Memphis.

I stepped into the crowded Greyhound station and scanned the expanse for a familiar sight among the throng. As I turned to go outside, I caught a glimpse of her face—of Trina’s face—in the reflection of the windows. Our eyes locked in the ghostly mirror, time slowed, the drone of the crowd quieted, and it suddenly felt like we were the only two people in the world.

It’s been 18 years since Trina and I first met, and we’ve shared 10 wedding anniversaries since. We have been with each other for more than half of my life, and that would not have been possible without my mother—she had the courage to allow me to make my own mistakes, and showed her love for me in ways that I hope I can do for my own child someday.

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