You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I was a truly terrible child. Appalling. Abominable. A real nightmare. I was mouthy and whiney and pissy and needy: basically, I was insatiable, and I could not have cared less what my rotten behavior cost me in terms of either dignity or basic privileges.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s not like I stole or lit things on fire or supported Nixon. I just wanted to get my way, immediately and for all time, which more often than not involved having the constant, undivided attention of my mother. My mother, who had a full-time job in addition to four considerably less rotten (but still a little rotten) kids, and me, the crown prince of rotten. This was not a woman with a lot of what you might call free time on her hands. And in the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you she paid a great deal of attention to all of us, which is why we’re all brilliant and funny and, each in our way, a little bit charming.
But, again, I was insatiable, so I pushed the envelope with impunity. One afternoon when I was probably about four, she got out of work early, and I was so delighted to have her home I decided to join her in the living room for, you know, a little debrief on my day. At some point she noticed I wasn’t wearing socks (because, yeah, I was that kind of asshole – I’m sure the socks I’d been assigned that morning were somewhere that made no sense for a reason that made even less), and so she instructed me to climb the stairs to my room and put on a pair of socks. When I opened my sock drawer and saw the array of options, I immediately realized there was only one person who could help me choose: my mom. So I wrapped my stupid, puny arms around the entire pile and carried them to the top of the stairs to go seek her guidance. But, being an asshole, I immediately dropped a pair on the stairs and proceeded to slip, banana-peel style, and then tumble ass over tea kettle all the way to the bottom. Surprise twist: I broke my collar bone, which necessitated a trip to the emergency room. Gary: 1, Mom: 0.
Of course, that was actually a fairly benign event: inconvenient, definitely, and almost certainly costly, but that was just me as a doofus, not me as a dick. Me as a dick generally resulted in an entirely predictable and not unreasonable banishment to my room, where I would then proceed to yell, at the absolute top of my lungs, about how unfair this was (because I was smart, so I opened with full-throated negotiation), then I’d shift into desperate supplication, and when that failed, my finishing move involved a particularly virulent attempt to shame her: I would tell her she was the worst mother I’d ever had. In spite of the fact that this happened some forty-five years ago, I still distinctly remember the thought that followed the moment I first came up with that line: Oh, man, that’s gold. She let me be impressed with myself for a few punishment sessions over the course of, say, a week or two, before she finally pointed out the flaw in my judgment of her: “Gary,” she said, “exactly how many other mothers have you had?” Hoisted on my own petard. Mom: infinity, Gary: shut up.
I could literally tell you a hundred stories like that from my childhood: stories in which I was a jerk and my mom was, in retrospect, kind of a saint. I say she was a saint in retrospect because, in spite of all the grief I caused her, over and over again unabashedly, it turns out my mom liked me. She liked most everyone, and she certainly liked all her kids, and I’m not saying she liked me more than the others (because I know she liked us all equally), I’m just saying she liked me in spite of how much I didn’t deserve to be liked. And she didn’t just like me because I was her kid (although, let’s be honest, it didn’t hurt). No, she liked me because she thought I was pretty smart and pretty funny and pretty interesting. She thought I was pretty cool, despite all the ways in which I wasn’t nearly cool enough to her. I’m no expert on super powers, but I feel confident that was hers: an uncanny ability to see through the nonsense so forcefully presented and appreciate the underlying intangibles. If not for that, there’s no way this woman doesn’t drown me in the bathtub when I’m two. And I’m grateful for that, for many reasons, but right now mostly because her patience and benevolence gave me the opportunity to know her for a little more than forty-nine years.
My mom went into the hospital with pneumonia the day after Valentine’s Day. She’d been dealing with a handful of chronic health issues the last few years, one compounding the other on a rollercoaster ride that lasted three weeks. She took her last excruciating breath right around midnight Wednesday, her most rotten son stroking her hair and smiling down at her. There are words you hear and words you use, but I can tell you it wasn’t until the nurse walked into the room and said, “She’s gone. She passed,” that I truly understood the meaning of the word forlorn.
I’m not telling you this for sympathy or so you’ll send me hugs, I’m sharing this in part to honor my mom, Cheryl Socquet, who was not only not the worst mother I ever had – she was the best mother I could have hoped for. And I’m sharing this to offer you some very basic but useful advice, advice I wish I’d taken much, much more often. That advice is this:
Call your mom.