One day my mother will die. This is a certainty. For her. For all of us.
What a way to begin my annual Mother’s Day post, right? Every year, I try to tell a story about my childhood or young adulthood that illustrates the impact my mother had on me. I’m not sure I have one this year, at least not one in the traditional sense. Honestly, as I write these words now, I am not sure where this is going to go.
As I have thought about what I would write this year, my mind keeps going back to my trip with Mom to Germany. She took me with her last fall on a fencing trip. It was a great experience. We kind of rediscovered each other in a way. I rediscovered her as an adult. We did not have a lot of time to do that before. I don’t really consider myself to have become an adult until after Kyla was born, and we moved to Tennessee not long after her first birthday. I’ve always admired my mom (and by “always,” I mean to exclude those teenage years when I thought she was completely out of touch; those never count). It was not until I got to hang out with her that I began to get a sense of just how cool she was and just how much I am like her. (I take that as a compliment to myself.)
I remember in the hotel in Germany, Mom had this oversized iPad with bold print in a large font. She had that next to her while she was knitting, and something in her face reminded me of my grandmother—of her mom. That is when it hit me, I mean really hit me: My time with her is running out. The older I get, the faster time seems to go. Years from now, I’m going to think, “It wasn’t enough time.” I felt especially close to my Christian faith in that moment in Berlin, because at the center of my faith is the conviction that death sucks. It is “the last enemy to be overcome” (1 Cor. 15:26). I got choked up for a second and had to turn away. I think she was too much into her Facebooking and knitting to notice. That’s when I realized I am going to be a total basket case at her funeral.
Then there was night that I got my mom a little bit drunk. That was a hoot, mostly because I found the idea that I was being a bad influence on her to be hilarious. (Her Russian friends at the dinner table helped.) It was one of those moments when I felt like Mom was a friend. It was an adult-adult relationship. Ironically, it came when we were being a bit childish, which is I think how it works. (Dammit! I’m getting choked up again.)
We ate breakfast together every day: Frühstück. Occasionally my mom would ask me how to say certain words or what something meant. I took German in high school and managed to be conversational when I was over there. Mom’s deaf. So sometimes English is not pronounced correctly. She just cannot hear how certain words sound, especially vowels. Vowels are hard to hear, and they are hard to read on someone’s lips. For example, she calls “Ninja Turtles” “Ninjee Turtles.” It’s just what it is. The German pronunciation was a bit off sometimes too, but that’s okay because we were Americans, so our pronunciation was allowed to be off a bit, but then again, so was mine. The whole experience, hearing mom say “dankuh,” asking me what a particular sign meant, it all felt supremely normal. That’s weird, isn’t it? Being together in a foreign country felt so ordinary. I think it was just being with her. This must have been what I felt like when I was very little, when mom was my universe.
I tried to blog nearly every day when I was in Germany with mom. I talked a lot about how much I saw myself in her. I also saw a lot of her mother in her. That is what occasionally brought about depressing thoughts about her own mortality. It made me think a lot about family: One generation, after another, after another, being a little bit like the one before it and also a little bit different. I thought about how that difference is something we always strive for. In a way, the difference is what keeps us together. What I mean is, what unites parent to child is the desire of the parent for the child to surpass her. We all call upon our own childhood experiences when making decisions for our own children. We repeat what we think worked, we change direction where we think something different, and more often than not we raise our kids the way we were raised despite whatever other intentions we might have.
This spring, when the Trump administration first instituted the travel ban, Connor, Kyla, and I went to a protest in Nashville. Something my mother said when she saw the photo I posted struck me. She commented that, despite the mistakes she made, seeing my kids there, chanting, “This is what democracy looks like!” helped her to know that she did something right. I had the same feeling that day. In a way, her comment gave me permission to acknowledge that I have made many mistakes as a parent myself. Not that I didn’t already know that! It just made it easier to say to myself in that moment. We all make mistakes as parents. Those who say they don’t raise dysfunctional children. Of course, we are all a bit dysfunctional, aren’t we? The trick is to be aware of it. My point is, we are all doing the best way can for who we are at a given moment. That was true of my mom, and that is true of me.
Before my mom made that comment about the photo, I had the same thought as she did. I have made a lot of mistakes as a dad, but the fact that two of my three kids jumped at the chance to shout down injustice made me feel okay about my parenting. And it made me feel good about my mom’s parenting too. All the best parts of me come from her. All the best parts of her grandkids come from her too.
Note: George gets anxious around large crowds of strangers, so you may never see him at a protest. You are more likely to see him—if you notice him at all—pinning a bully to the ground to defend someone else. I speak from experience.