By Beth Thompson
My friend emails me late. Her son is in free fall, she says. I go to sleep, but my own son wakes me up. My shoulder is twitching, he tells me. I try to put my hand on his shoulder, but he pulls away. These sons aren’t boys. They are men in their twenties. Can’t they let their mothers rest?
Every afternoon in the Texas heat, my mother would lie down on her pink chenille bedspread and close her eyes. But every afternoon, some drama would seize my sister and me and we would wake her up. One day we snuck her oil paints out from under her bed. The blues and the yellows were right out of Vermeer though we didn’t know Vermeer then, only that we loved the feel of the greasy tubes in our hands. Unfortunately, we smeared the colors on our arms and mixed them together until all we had was army green. When we went to the sink to wash the paint off, the water beaded on the surface and we panicked. We ran into Mother’s bedroom screaming.
When we were older, we let Mother nap on her bed surrounded by her books. We were careful not to wake her then because our dramas concerned boys and sex and we wanted Mother to sleep right through them.
Children want their freedom and they also want their mother when they want her. Leave me alone and come quick. Long ago, the day care teacher called to say she thought one of my sons had lice, but she couldn’t be sure because He won’t let me look at his head. No, only Mother could do that. Turn off the stove so the dinner doesn’t burn, sit down and look closely one hair at a time until your eyes cross.
The saying that a mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child is true. When people ask how you are, you want to say “fine,” but if one of your children is having trouble you can’t say Fine. You can only say Fine, but…
When my sister was seventy-one, her son killed himself. All she wanted was our mother, who had been dead for five years. She wore our mother’s clothes, read her books, studied every underline for a message from beyond until all she could do was call out to her. And Mother came.
She comes to me too. She doesn’t speak, but I feel her right next to me. I can feel her cheek on my cheek as soft as a baby’s. She doesn’t look at me, but she looks at whatever I am looking at until I see it with her eyes.
My sister’s tragedy makes me understand that Mother has been available all along and we hadn’t been calling. When I taught l00 Years of Solitude many years ago, a girl said, The dead are always coming back in this book. We theorized that maybe that was because the Latin Americans took the time to see the dead. A darling boy leaned forward in his seat and said, That sucks for the dead in the United States! They could be all around us, trying to get our attention but we are too busy talking to listen for them. We wrote That sucks for the dead in the United States on my blackboard as a reminder to stay alert for the dead, but before Parents Night we were asked to erase it since parents might get the wrong idea. And so, we moved onto another book and forgot the lesson we’d intended to learn.
I used to love the phrase Rest in Peace. Regardless of your religious beliefs you can say Rest in Peace about the dead and it is sincere and universally appropriate. Who doesn’t want the dead to rest in peace? When Hamlet’s father comes back as a ghost because he can’t rest, Hamlet says Rest perturbed spirit. Who wants to be perturbed? I felt bad for at least 60 years that I used to wake my mother or keep her up worrying about me. Don’t worry, we tell people. But mothers worry. I don’t know if they want to worry but I know that they have to.
Two of my sons are in their forties now and live far away. I imagine one of them has come down with the Coronavirus and I know that I must go to him and take care of him. I worry about this and rehearse what I will do. When people tell me that I am seventy-four and my plan is crazy, I remember when I was seven and had the chicken pox. No cream or salve or calamine lotion could keep me from scratching, so my mother slept with me. When I thought she was asleep, I would raise my hand silently to scratch. Without opening her eyes, she would gently catch my hand and pull it down by my side. It’s like when your newborn baby is asleep and people say, Now you can rest, but you can’t rest because you are afraid if you sleep you won’t hear the baby calling for you. Every pore of your body is an ear.
Even in death mothers worry. When you are struggling, they want to be by your side. They are by your side. Don’t tell them not to worry, don’t tell them to rest in peace. They are mothers. Call on them. They have one ear open always, listening for you.
Beth Thompson retired last year after forty-six years of teaching high school English. Her writing and being depend on the wisdom and example of her students and family, living and dead.
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