Sunday, May 8, 2016

When You're Happy

When I think about my mom, there are so many things that come to mind.  But if you asked about how she loves me, there are two particular days that stand out first and foremost in my memory.

The first was when I was nine, almost ten.  It was that same summer when we were traveling around India with my cousins, and on this particular day, we had hired two taxis to drive us from Chandagar to Mussorie.  Mom taught us well; besides the toilet paper she kept in her purse, she made sure we all used the bathroom before we left.  But on this unfortunate day, shall we say, my liquid input exceeded the opportunity for output.  In other words, a couple hours down the road, I really, really, REALLY had to pee.

I whispered my growing desperation to Mom, and lucky for me, the taxi driver soon came to a town and announced he was stopping for gas.  Mom and I seized the moment and jumped out of the taxi, ran into the building and asked where the bathroom was.  Around the back, came the reply.  We nodded our thanks and raced around the building, where we found a small rectangle of grass, surrounded by a ten-foot brick wall.  All around the wall were three- and four-story buildings, each with plenty of windows that offered perfect views of the grass and anyone on it.

"Um, where's the bathroom?" I asked, even though I was afraid I already knew the answer.

"Sweetheart," Mom answered with a slight grimace, "I think... this is it."

I thought hard for a moment and looked again at all those windows.  Nope, I decided, not gonna happen. I didn't need to go that bad yet.  I would wait for a good bush or tree or rock.

Would you believe that the next hour or so was the straightest road with the greatest lack of bushes, trees, and rocks I ever saw (until we drove through the Sahara a few years later)?  There were rice paddies on either side of the road, and tallish grass, but I wasn't small enough to be hidden by grass any more.  Besides, this was India.  There was always the possibility of snakes.

I was in agony.  I thought I was going to die from an exploding bladder.  The situation had no end in sight and tears were welling up in my eyes when Mom leaned over and whispered to me, "Okay, when the car stops, just jump out and do what you've got to do.  Trust me.  No one will be looking at you."  Since I was almost past the point of even caring any more, I nodded miserably.

"STOP THE CAR!" Mom suddenly yelled so loud that the driver slammed on the brakes and screeched to a halt.  "I'm going to be sick!"  She patted my leg -- the signal -- and I ducked out.  She came right behind me as I scurried down the embankment and got to business.  Meanwhile, Mom went for the Academy Award for Best Enactment of Throwing Up.  She was retching and yelling so loud that I started laughing and almost fell over.  Yes, she was right; no one was paying attention to me. I scurried back into the car and Mom let out one more dramatic yell-heave as the driver stared with wide eyes.  She limped toward the car and got back in.

"Madam. You okay?" The driver asked, his voice deeply concerned.  She gave a miserable nod and wiped her mouth.  The rest of the drive was happy and uneventful, though I'm sure that for years, that taxi driver wondered what had gotten into that crazy woman.

The other time I remember was the day after homecoming my sophomore year of high school.  Mom was standing at the stove making pancakes because it was Saturday morning, and I was sitting on a bar stool talking nonstop about the events of the night before.  Our relationship for the previous couple years hadn't been the best.  Something about turning thirteen... But now at fifteen, I was sitting there telling her all about the football game and the dance and who I had danced with and who I wished I'd danced with.  It suddenly occurred to me, though, that maybe this wasn't the riveting information I thought it was.  Mom was working full-time then in a job that was very far from her dream job, but it was paying the bills we desperately needed to pay.  I felt a little guilty, and my voice trailed off and after a pause I said, "Anyway, it was fun.  I was happy."  

Mom smiled down at the pancakes she was about to flip and said eight simple words I will never forget. "That's good.  I like it when you're happy."

If there were a movie version of my life, I'm sure at that moment, she'd have put the spatula down and stared me deep in the eyes.  There would have been a close-up of her face as she said that, and then stirring music would have swelled.  But in real life, it was such an ordinary moment.  I don't think my mom gave it a second thought.  I, however, suddenly heard -- really, truly heard -- the words she had been saying or acting for the fifteen previous years.  And it was like a thunderbolt.  

From that moment on, I think, my relationship with my mother changed so dramatically.  I understood why she happily agreed to play the villain in the plotless "mystery" plays I wrote, why she let me crawl in bed next to her when I was afraid, why she she was room mom the year I had no friends at school, why she came to rescue me from the bad situation I was in at boarding school my freshman year in spite of the tremendous cost, why she cheered even when I was beating her at a game of cards, why she was doing that miserable job, why... Oh so much more.  

And when I became a mother, I understood it on a whole new level.  The middle of the night feedings and diaper changes, the silly faces and sounds and other ridiculous lengths I go to in attempts to illicit smiles from my little babies even in public, the painful drives through rush hour traffic taking them to various activities, the sleepovers I let them have with sweet friends even though I know they won't sleep much and will be cranky the next day...  It's because I hope and hope and hope they know, at least someday, what I mean when I say, "I like it when you're happy."


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