In which our Lady thinks of someone besides Herself
In the house where I grew up, there was a telephone that hung in the kitchen just next to the door leading to the basement steps. It was at the nexus of many paths in our house and it had a ridiculously long, curly cord that could reach almost anywhere except the bedrooms. A person could continue cooking breakfast on the stove, open a nearby window to call out to the yard, or lounge on the couch in the living room. She could seek privacy down the stairs, the back bathroom, or the laundry room.
As a result of this, when I was a teenager, I spent many an hour eavesdropping on my mother’s telephone conversations. One of the reasons I did this was because it was an effective way to find out who was coming to visit, and whether or not I would come out of my bedroom in the basement when they came. Many a home-teacher or a friendly Christmas-time visitor failed to route me from my hide-out. Then there were the times when I had answered the phone, could tell something big was going on, but was asked to just go get my parents. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I am blessedly still alive today.
Youngest children often get a bad rap for being spoiled more than the other, older children. My snide comment in response is that it is not my fault they were stupid enough not to be born last. Honestly—like I had any control over the matter either! Well, besides possibly being spoiled more, younger children are also blessed with the chance to see and learn from those who have gone before. During those long-ago eavesdropping sessions, one thing I learned was how a mother lives and dies right along with her children. When good things happened to my brothers, I heard my mother’s happy laugh. I felt, saw, and heard her spirit soar when she learned of their successes: of falling in love, or a future childbirth, a new job, or an opportunity to travel. On a mental tablet somewhere in my head I inevitably marked these things down as good, and things I too would try someday.
Then there were the silent times, and even the teary ones. The phone would ring, and I would pick it up, respond to the inevitable greeting, or perhaps even chat for a few minutes. Sometimes I could tell what the conversation would be about in just those moments, even though the call was never really for me. My brothers called to talk to Mom. I would pass the phone off and head down the stairs. If I had a hunch that it was going to be a big deal, then I would stealthily slip back up and perch near the thin door. My mother, seeking immediate privacy so she could focus completely on one of these most-hoped-for phone calls, would go for the laundry room and sit on top of the dryer. The thing is, there was no sound-dampening carpet in that area of the house, so I could pretty much hear everything my Mom did.
Again, the happy times were filled with laughter, further questions, and a sort of cheerful electricity that sizzled toward me along the linoleum underneath the door. Very simply, any conversation that didn’t have this electricity was more serious and usually well worth the duplicity on my part. Meaning, I always got some kind of interesting information out of it. Silence usually meant something sad or difficult had happened to my loved ones. Silence meant my mother was really trying to absorb a new fact about her child—something she hadn’t supposed was possible before. Silence meant it wasn’t what she was expecting. Silence meant she didn’t know what to say. Silence meant me straining harder and harder to hear something—anything, because it usually isn’t good to hear nothing during a phone call.
But silence was better than some of the other alternatives. Sometimes I had to tortuously listen to both silence and then crying. Sometimes I could hear my mother trying to smother the tears and knew she was fruitlessly hoping that the brother couldn’t hear her. But I could, so I knew he could too. In that stairwell, there were times when I felt fear, sadness, or even pain. Once I silently cried right along with my mother. It was awful. When the phone call was over I wanted so badly to go comfort her, and receive comfort from her, but because of my supposed self-exile to my bedroom, had to stay away and quiet until she approached the matter.
Because of my over-sized ears, I tried hard not to ever consciously do anything that would create tears in my mother’s eyes. As a high-schooler and a college student I would sometimes weigh even my minor decisions with these phone conversations in mind. I learned to be careful. What kills me is that no matter how careful I was, I still made so many mistakes and made so many thoughtless omissions that I know I still made her cry.
Lest you forget that I have cancer, I will endeavor now to apply these memories to my disease. I honestly don’t remember when we told my Mom that I had brain cancer. Things were kind of overwhelming at that point. But I do remember imagining her in our old laundry room taking it all in silence, which is ridiculous because that house is sold, and the old phone is probably lying in a junk heap somewhere. I know it was hard for her—life-shattering even. No matter how hard I tried to be good and do what was right—to never make my mother cry—I now believe I may be the child that made the worse phone call yet.
So now, what should my uplifting conclusion be today? Perhaps a resolution to never make her cry like that again? I can’t. I wish I could. I learn more and more that sometimes the tears just come with being alive. It is part of the happiness package to have little sorrow thrown in. Also, I learn more and more that any control I assume that I have over my life—my body, my actions, my desires, my plans—is false, at least to a point, anyway. Maybe the most I can say is that I hope to never make my mother cry again, and then hope that is enough.