by Rica Keenum

When my youngest son was 15, we battled over his excessive video gameplay, his rage that shook the walls — my internal walls and the walls in our little home too. A single mom, I struggled to enforce the rules. His physicality frightened me. Some nights I pleaded gently, “Five more minutes and then I need you to shut it off.”  Other nights I screamed, “Shut it off!” But when my fed-up self met his feral self, I was at a loss.

At school, he had been reading 13 Reasons Why, a story about a depressed high school student who took her own life. He romanticized the notion of suicide and self-harm, of a poison that could offer a path elsewhere, anywhere. In the heat of a fight one evening, I found him convulsing, foaming at the mouth in the bathroom. Bleach fumes hung sharp in the air, stinging my eyes as I watched him choke out a confession. He did it, he drank the bleach. What was I going to do now?

After calling 911, I reached my mother and she rushed over. I didn’t ask if she would. She just did, and later I thought of the way she sat beside me in the car, wordless with her hands in her lap. A presence. But our history had taught me that a mother could show up and be absent, could hear without listening, see without seeing, sleep soundly while her husband stood naked at her daughter’s bedside. I still carry the pain of her neglect, although my wound has crusted to a hard scab, the armor of acceptance. I try to understand the way Mom coped, how she constructed a fantasy world, a place where she could pretend. How many people live in such worlds? Denial is a densely populated place. Still, I wonder whether regret swims beneath her facade, a shark in her crystal blue waters. Mothers love and fail, love and fail. My mother certainly had. And now with my youngest son, I was failing too. On that night, I sat in the emergency room watching the glow of outside ambulance lights bounce on the windows and doors. My mother sat beside me, not offering platitudes: Everything will work out. It’s going to be just fine, dear. She was never that kind of woman. But she was there. Couldn’t that be enough this time?

My son was diagnosed with a behavioral disorder. He suffered minor damage, including some esophageal scars. He spent several days in the hospital before being transferred to a psychiatric center. In the weeks when I visited, a woman led me down stretches of polished linoleum, into the adolescent ward. As I walked, my feet squeaked out the word “guilty” in two painful syllables. Guil-ty. Guil-ty. Guil-ty. Everything was my fault somehow. Wasn’t the mother always the culprit? He sat in a plastic chair wearing clothes I had never seen. Standard-issue shorts and a T-shirt. Gone were the days when I could dress him, my child. His elbows resting on his knees, he looked up as I approached and he suddenly roared, “Get out. I hate you. Get out.” I stood there, paralyzed and singed by the heat of him. But when the staff rushed over to remove me, his eyes filled with tears and his three-year-old face emerged like a pearl in the oyster shell of his features. “Let her stay,” he begged. I sat in the chair beside him — not offering platitudes. Like my mother, I’m not that kind of woman. But I was there, desperately hoping just being there was enough, hoping I was enough.

Worry was a muscle that throbbed in my chest. Did my love for my sons override my failures? Was I leaving them with wounds and scars instead of songs and familial memories? How I tried to learn from my mother’s failures, to give my boys a happier childhood. When they were small, I kissed their cheeks and read them stories. But working full-time and the stress of divorce was often too much. Many days, their endless bickering made me want to rip off my ears. I yelled during morning commutes, envisioned myself tossing a grenade in the backseat, silencing the endless chaos. Then I’d watch them scurry into school, little boys lost in the herd. My heart would ache for a redo, for another shot at conflict resolution, at mothering without madness. I’d cope better next time, I swore. But too often I didn’t. Then in the silent hours when cogent thoughts crept in, I’d watch them sleep, whispering my regrets. My yearning for them so big, my body couldn’t contain it. I’d stand there gasping, tears falling like salty love notes. But when the day arrived, I’d become that other mom, cursed with chores, chores, chores, and living my life like a Groundhog Day film. Failing, loving, failing — a cycle that kept me spinning.

I would never be Supermom. But somehow, I managed to be super enough. It’s something I recently learned. My once-troubled son, now 20, hands me a Hallmark card that says: To a mom who’s a saint. From a kid who ain’t. Inside, he has written my world back to right. You’re more than a mom. You’re a great person and I love you. I never doubted you.

And there they were, the four words that had the power to wipe out my mom-shame: I never doubted you. Never? He never doubted me? How is that possible?

I ponder what Abraham Lincoln said. “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.”

Mothers are roses with thorns.

Did I think I could give my whole self to my child without giving him the thorny parts too?

As for my relationship with my mother, I continue to oscillate from hurt to compassion for the woman she is, the best she has to offer. Trauma can teach us to be better or bitter. When I feel the prick of a crappy childhood memory, I try to conjure the scent of the rose. I will my mind to replay the good memories with Mom: of her reaching out, arranging stacks of quarters on the counter. “Don’t forget your lunch money.” Of her remembering every birthday and gifting all the best things: a sparkly sweater, a pair of shoes or diamond stud earrings. Of her on the phone leaving messages. “I haven’t heard from you in a week. What’s going on? I’m worried.” So many sides to a story, angles to consider. Angles of a mother.

Photo: Rose by Tam Tam via Flickr