Some Things My Mom Taught Me
My mom is very, very sick right now. It’s really unexpected and pretty dire and as a family, we’re in the middle of the nightmare that so many families have been in these past few years - a space where we feel confused and panicked and powerless and can’t even hold our loved one’s hand to provide them comfort.
When I’m not calling doctors and nurses to beg for numbers that I don’t understand (to then translate to my cousin (who is a nurse) so she can turn them into explanations I do understand) and then translating that explanation to siblings and other family members, I’m taking a kid to and from school, crying, eating cereal, and convincing my sister to let me paint her nails.
I’ve never felt as burdened with important responsibility and yet horrifically powerless as I have these last 48 hours. This is not because I don’t have support. I am so fortunate in such a supportive family who would do absolutely anything they could (and are doing absolutely everything they can) to help. There are discussions to be had and calls to make and as the oldest child and the person who decided to move our mom into a house in my backyard last year - I’m the person to do a lot of those things. Also, I’m pretty sure that if someone were come to me and say “let me take care of those calls and decisions Ijeoma,” I would legit physically fight them in order to prevent that from happening.
I’ve spent a lot of time these last 48 hours focused on the things that I either didn’t do before, or can’t do now. It is not healthy, but when I’m not making phone calls, it feels like all I can do. I can’t go back in time and tell her to call the doctor one day sooner. I couldn’t go with her up into the emergency room. I couldn’t tell her things were going to be okay when she needed to be intubated. I still can’t look at her face and determine for myself if she’s as comfortable as the doctors insist she is.
But I can write. I’m still good at this thing right now. This still works. It always has and hopefully always will. I was a premie, born 2 1/2 months early. My mom was terrified that if she held me the wrong way, I would die. But she still held me. And she read to me, even in the NICU. She read to me constantly. When I was older, yet still too small to write, she would have me tell her stories. She would start a story and ask me to tell her how it ended. When I could write she would read each story of mine eagerly. She took my brother and I to the library constantly and let me check out however many books I wanted, even though she knew that I would always lose one or two and she would have trouble covering the fines. No matter how broke we were, I never went home from a school book fair empty handed. My mom still recommends my books to everyone, no matter if the situation calls for it or not. She admitted to me the other day that when people have trouble pronouncing her last name she’ll sometimes say, “OLUO - you know, like the famous author Ijeoma Oluo.”
Part of why I can write, and have never doubted that I can, is because she never doubted either.
So I’m just going to write in this moment about my mom. My mom is….a lot. She’s frazzled and loud and emotional and so very weird. She’s generous to a fault and has never met anyone she couldn’t love - even if sometimes I really wish she could love some of these fools a little less. My mom and I are very different people. I prefer to handle all practicalities in crisis, before I go cry and gasp desperately for air in private. My mom not only prefers to cry and gasp first - she’d really prefer it if we all joined her in panic, and then somebody else fixed the actual problem. My mom looks at a situation and honestly says to herself, “this could use a little chaos” and laughs through the entire ride. My mom has never, to my knowledge, held a single grudge. My mom has never had any faith in her ability to handle practical matters, and always had far too much faith in her ability to cook without a cookbook. There were many times, growing up, where I’d look at my family and wonder if I was dropped in the middle of it as a baby by aliens.
But as I get older, especially as a mom, I can see so many things that she taught me and have helped shape me into the person that I am today. I did not, as much as I’d sometimes like to believe otherwise, emerge from the womb fully formed. My mom taught me so much, and has much more to teach me. So I thought I’d list a few of those things here, in preparation for how much more I really really hope is to come.
Always have an alternative light source. Our electricity was always getting cut off due to nonpayment and whenever it happened mom would calmly say, “Get the supplies.” We’d grab a cooler from a closet and move our refrigerated items into it and then stack the frozen items on top to keep everything cold. We’d find the wind up alarm clock and get it set before we forgot what time it was. And then we’d grab the kerosene lamps from the mantle and light them and set them around the apartment. Then we’d make a fort in the living room and tell scary stories and huddle together for warmth until mom could figure out a way to get the lights on again in a few days. I don’t recommend having kerosene lamps around your apartment if you have small children. She is lucky we didn’t burn the apartment down (the one time we actually almost did burn the apartment down was from putting crayons in the microwave but that’s another story). But when I think about how often we were without electricity, and how little that impacted me as a child as far as my sense of safety or security, I think about the fact that my mom always made sure that she had those lamps and they were always filled with enough fuel to light the way for us for as long as we needed them too, and that they were always out on display so we always knew that there was always going to be a way through. I’m not at risk these days of my electricity being cut off for nonpayment (although that has happened to me in the past) but I remember the security of those lamps, and I’m regularly thinking about what metaphorical lamps my kids and I need to see every day to remind us that no matter what, we got this.
You don’t have to be good at something in order to love it. My mom is not a good cook. At all. As soon as I was old enough to babysit I started buying my own groceries so that I could escape the bizarre nightly experiments that my mom served up as “dinner.” While my mom has become somewhat accustomed to her own cooking, she is not unaware of how often her meals are flops. But even though decades of attempts have not yielded any improvement in the percentages of her meals that are digestible, she still cooks with absolute joy and gusto. She will burst into my house with a bowl in one hand and a spoon in the other and say, “Take this, I made too much and I don’t like it and I can’t eat it all.” One day, she excitedly delivered a large pan of cheese enchiladas that we (as an entire household of lactose intolerants) did not ask for. Just as I was trying to decide how long to keep said pan in the refrigerator before tossing it in the trash and returning the pan, in order to not hurt her feelings, she called me. “DON’T EAT THE ENCHILADAS.” She commanded, “Something went HORRIBLY wrong.” A few days later she had a whole pan of peach cobbler that she introduced as “too sweet and too salty” to share. She loves to cook. She loves to cook for people. And no matter how many of those dishes go straight into the trash, she’s going to keep cooking. Because she loves it. The act of it just brings her joy and that’s all she needs from it. I think we could all stand to appreciate joy detached from perfection (or even, adequacy).
Let kids win. This is something that my mom learned from her grandma, and she passed on to me. She said when she plays games with kids, she likes to let them win. She can demonstrate what it means to lose gracefully, and she lets kids - who can often feel so powerless and inadequate in the big adult world - feel really good at something for a while. “They have their whole life to learn how to lose,” she says, “We don’t have to start them early.”
Never say things to hurt someone. My mom is a very emotional person. Her feelings get hurt and she will quickly react to that hurt even if that hurt is coming from her own unaddressed issues and not from the person she’s talking to. But my mom never, no matter how hurt, has said something she didn’t mean in order to hurt someone and she raised us to never do that either. We can say honest things that are hurtful when they need to be said. We can call someone an asshole if they are being an asshole. My mom taught me to flip off rude drivers for her when I was 10. But to say something that wasn’t true because you wanted to hurt someone, no matter how hurt you were, was never okay. That was cruel. My mom was always asking us to investigate the kind words we had for others we were upset with to see if we really meant what we were saying. She was always very clear about the impact we would have on someone when we tried to make them believe something about themselves that wasn’t true, just to make ourselves feel more powerful. I’ve never seen a more disappointed look on my mom’s face than when we repeated as kids, the cruelties that others said about our peers in school. I only needed to see that face once or twice to understand that I never wanted to let my mom down like that again. A lot of families have complicated ethical codes that they abide by. But my mom’s was always simple: be kind. To this day I try to not say things that I don’t mean, no matter how hurt or sad or scared I am. It has made me a better writer. It has made me a better mother and partner, and all around a better person.
Always say I love you. If you love someone, you tell them at the end of each phone call and each visit. My mom will deliver mail and say she loves me as she goes back to her little house. She will call me to chastise me about the state of my yard and still find a way to say that she loves me. Whatever flaws my mom had in her parenting, and no matter how strained our relationship could be at times - and even in my awful teen years when I wrote horrible things about my mom in my diary and insisted that she was the worst - did I doubt even for a minute that she loved me. That love was a security that money couldn’t buy and lack of money couldn’t diminish. It was a safety net that I always knew would catch me should I need it. I tell my kids that I love them constantly, “ugh, we know,” they say. And I said it to my mom as the nurse was wheeling her away from me into the ER and she said, “I love you too,” even though it was so hard for her to say much of anything in that moment. It was probably the 5th time I’d told her that I loved her that day. I can guarantee, even without having asked, that “I love you,” was the last thing that my siblings said to her before she went into the hospital. And right now, it’s probably the most important thing I think she’s ever taught me and it’s bringing me the only measure of peace I can find in this moment. It’s reminding me to keep saying it to my son and partner too; not “just in case” but because it’s true, and when it’s true we should say it and celebrate it. Even if I had been too overwhelmed and had forgotten to say it in that moment they wheeled her away, we’ve said it so many times, and we’ve meant it every single time, that I wouldn’t doubt for a moment that she knows how loved she is, and how well she has loved us.
That’s all that I can write in this moment. I needed this - to talk about my momma for a while in a way that wasn’t filled with fear and regret. I want to give her something to read when she’s back home. I want her to call me and tell me all of the things she taught me that I should have included, but didn’t. Trust me when I tell you that the things she will remind me of will only be mentioned because she found them entertaining, and will have little to do with whether or not I learned anything from it at all. Because sometimes things could use a little chaos, and when she’s back home, I’m sure she’ll have some suggestions that would surely add some.