My mom is a babe. I tell everyone I meet: my mom is a total and complete dreamboat. She’s always been ahead of her time. She knew how to take apart, fix, and reassemble a computer before Zuckerberg’s voice had ever cracked. She had us on a gluten-free diet way before the celiac fad hit NorCal, was repping holistic medicine and sustainable farming when hipsters still wore bow-ties and San Francisco was still cheap. I remember my friends teasing me about drinking “mushroom pee,” i.e. kombucha, which my mom made herself, moonshine-style, by ordering a mother (yes, that’s what it’s called) on what I can only assume was some early 2000’s version of Silk Road. When the authorities finally admit that the oceans are radiated and all seafood toxic, she’ll be able to yodel I told you so! She’s a super sleuth, proto fag hag, total badass and I love her.
Why isn’t that enough?
The problem is that parents expect to be hurt by their children. We are snotty little wounders whose realness is our best and worst quality: our parents signed away their rationality when we were in the oven–even if they suck, or wear Crocs, or vote Repub, I’ll still love them. For the most part, this hurt can’t be avoided, as our parents, a.k.a THE FLESH FROM WHENCE WE CAME, see the very bodies they brought into existence gradually warp and gain agency. We grow up, we get weird. We pierce ourselves in shameful places and wear way too much/not enough Axe on the reg. We’ll use words, from “thizz” to “intersectionality,” that our parents must take to the interwebs (another foreign entity) to decipher. This gradual slide towards incomprehensibility can’t help but feel personal. But that’s the name of the game: your little bean becomes a lanky and fragrant and sometimes hives-inducing tree, and in the process of springing forth, sucks up all the sun.
But I’m not sure that this altruistic acceptance of hurt, while necessary in the face of so many I WISH I’D NEVER BEEN BORN!!!s, prepares the parent for a return. They aren’t ready for love zinged desperately back at them. My mom never believes me when I try to get real, which is to say sappy, in large part because I never sound convincing. After all, I’m the parasite. Of course I’d tell my mother goddess that, gosh, her house is paradise. Platitudes clog the white-hot conviction of my love–I’m supposed to summarize my diluvial debt in a handmade valentine.
For there is guilt in my love too, the knowledge of an unpaid tab that is made all the more painful by her refusal to accept any payment—because after all, her love is unconditional. The injustice of this unconditional love is that the recipient, i.e. the tyrannical tot, doesn’t just take a mother’s love for granted, but also assumes reciprocity is obvious. We take liberties because the love is so deep, so ingrained, that the possibility of one’s own brattiness, or drug habit, or crimes both trivial and terrible, undoing this prenatal pact seems absurd. That is, until we go too far. Once, in a fit of emotion, I sent my mom a novella-length text spelling out the orbit-shifting force of our eternal bond. The next time I saw her, she gave me a look. “Were you on drugs when you sent that?” End of story.
The issue is problematized by the complacency of families—families basically being a testing ground just outside the social code, where anything goes, and thus nothing is truly surprising. Violence, tenderness, sacrifice, the lowest of blows—interrupting a grave conversation about, say, global warming to ask if the blackhead, right there, no not that one, is infected—; the no man’s land of the family unit accommodates for and, in due time, normalizes every breach. As far as nuclear families go, mine has often felt like Fukushima—a comparison that would, however perversely, tickle my mom, who keeps tabs on all things radiation-related. She recently emailed me a photo of a gnarled ten-pound lemon with the caption “SEE?!!” It amazes me that as a family, we can do so many horrible things to one another, have so much to discuss and explain and atone for, yet when finally congregated in a room, unanimously settle for a TV dinner where the chicken strips do the most emotional work. Breaded just for you, babe.
A large part of my relationship with my mom has been based on driving to and fro in her SUV. She drives and talks, I sit in the passenger seat and (95%) listen. The radio is on, or one of her scratched up Janis Joplin CDs, and she’s on a roll about tuna being served in school lunches—how could I possibly interrupt her now, and beg her to forgive me for being, fundamentally, a brat, a dish-dirtier, a sweater-stealer, an impossible crank in the morning? Worse yet, one of the many things I cherish about our relationship is this silence, the ability to coexist with a frankly traumatic history laid out on the lawn. Our small talk has an alchemic quality, explaining away demons as recent as yesterday, sneaking in significance with every sentence that ends in “honey.” Faced with the enormity of what she’s lost and what I’ve taken and how she once, so they say, was my age and existed pre-me, a conversation about the Kardashians can seem suddenly critical, a bastion of firm ground.
So the question still stands: how can I possibly repay her for all that she’s given me, and continues to give? My own unconditional love doesn’t seem like enough, since she’s already vowed to accept me without it or any other compensation. This knowledge of her selflessness makes me love her all the more. Do you see the paradox? I want to bellow. “Shush,” she says sagely, completely unbothered by my emotional turmoil. “The Voice is on.” Then there is the even worse knowledge of the ways in which she’s suffered because of people besides me. Can my love and thanks repair their wrongs? How can I possibly atone for the injustice of their cruelty? “Make your fucking dentist appointment,” she might placidly suggest.
She doesn’t believe it, but I think about her all the time. I’ve tacked a high school yearbook photo of her to the wall above my bed. My day is not complete without at least three slightly rambly texts from her–favored mom emoji of the moment being the little salsa dancer. My friends often describe something as “Marla-esque.” She has completely determined the way I think about relationships, IKEA, 9/11, and food. To put it simply, my life is constructed on the rash and childish assumption of her constancy. I would say I want to be like her, but even I am not that arrogant, that crazy. So I settle for the less ambitious dream of making her proud, by being my own slovenly cavity-riddled self. Not the wind beneath my wings, she’s the voice in my head, not my rock, but my Pangea, in how eternally she’s with me, whose abstraction into catchphrases or hand-me-downs (I used to fit into that?) or snips of advice (low-fat milk kills!) only lends to her saint-like quality. Not only do I think she is one of the kindest, most giving, rarest people in the world, but also, an a deeper, perhaps nocturnal level, she is, for me, the world itself. I would prostrate myself at her feet if I could, if I didn’t know that her response would be a sheepish laugh, a slippered nudge in the ribs, and a nonsequitur about dead fish. It’s Mother’s Day, and a card won’t do, though we all give cards anyway. I’ve already written about my gay angels, so I figured it’s about time I wrote about my maker, my truly inimitable mom.
I’m sorry that I’m short with you before 11 am. I’m sorry that I have to call to ask my social security number at least once a month. I DID MAKE THAT DENTIST APPOINTMENT, I SWEAR. I’m sorry that for whatever reason you can’t escape the crazies, and that their mental illness has made you suffer. No one deserves it less than you. I’m sorry that our family-life has been the way it’s been, and gone the way its gone, while at the same time I am eternally grateful for this, because it’s what has made us more than mother and daughter: we are allies and conspirators too, seasoned sailors in a sea of shit. We are rats, whiskers linked in the darkness.
Maybe she’ll take pity on my semi public spluttering and pat me on the arm. “Nice work, Ratty,” is what I hope she will say. “I like the Fukushima shout-out. No one should be eating fish.” I’ve heard her say this 1,000 times before. I will gladly hear her say it 1,000 times more. Perhaps the sheer act of listening, of sitting beside her and nodding my head and waiting for a lull in the rampage to ask for more coffee, will convey more of my love than words ever could.