My mother passed away almost two years ago at the age of 94. In the days since her passing I’ve realized that she has been a greater influence on me than I thought. Today I realized we have even more in common.
My mother was a strong woman from solid Bohemian stock. She married my father, a hard-working, hard-fighting man from an Irish-German family whose patriarch swore he’d never let his son “marry a dirty bohunk.” After he did my grandpa and him never did see eye to eye for the rest of their lives. My mother wasn’t highly educated although she did finish high school, but she cared more about family than anyone I’ve ever known.
In her roughly 45 years of parenting (her first was at age 20: I came along at age 45 and lived with her until I was 20) many things kept her awake at night. My father overseas fighting the Japanese in the Philippines with two toddlers sharing her bed. Then my brother came and she had 3 kids and a husband fighting in a war that took hundreds of thousands of American lives. Gold star families were everywhere in her neighborhood, and I heard the stories about her walking the streets of St. Louis’s South Side trying to soothe a crying baby as she passed window after window with a gold star hung. Would her husband come back? How would she care for the babies on her own, especially with an aging mother she had begun to care for as well?
But my father returned, and so did the worries that hit in the middle of the night, keeping her awake. If he was employed she worried whether he would keep it. If he was unemployed, she worried about paying the bills until he found another one. And if he wasn’t home, she worried about him in the bars.
Kids kept on coming. My sister almost killed her during childbirth but that didn’t stop her from having two more. Around the same time she learned that my brother, aged 5 at the time wasn’t growing the way he should. In a story that was told to all of us over and over until we all had it memorized, his pediatrician sent him to a heart specialist who told my mother, “Take him home. there’s nothing we can do. He’s going to die.” She cried all way home on the streetcar, three kids in tow but she didn’t give up. She went to other doctors where she learned that my brother had been born with a hole in his heart, a defect that left him prone to illness throughout his childhood and that would eventually kill him. Some of them told them to institutionalize the boy so that she could focus on raising the rest of her family, but she stubbornly refused. Instead she sat in bed cradling my sick brother with my sisters laid out asleep on either side of her. She cried alone, but she never quit. Eventually she found a doctor, Dr. Danis, who appreciated her persistent and worked with my family to keep my brother alive until 1967 when he was one of the first to receive open heart surgery to patch the hole in his heart. Dr. Danis became a sainted figure in our house. And my brother celebrates his 73rd birthday next month.
She worried about her children, about her daughter whose fiery spirit got her into trouble and my father’s temper that when it struck was a force of nature that would roar until exhaustion set in. And there was money. Always worries about money. When times were good she worried that bad times were soon around the corner. When times were bad she worried about the next meal. According to my siblings they remember my parents being “not hungry” at many dinner times, feeding the kids while they went without until the “Happy Days era” of the mid 1950s. Then there was my brother’s operation in 1967 but one worry fell away and another took its place. Now her kids were having kids and there was a whole new crop of youngsters to worry about.
In 1975 my sister had a child with Down’s. I was 9 years old and while I always played with my sisters kids, this girl was special to me. She was born with a heart defect similar to my brother’s but much, much worse. The “heart worry” was back and this time there was no happy ending. In 1980 her worries came to fruition and my special niece died on the operating table. It came during a string of family deaths that started with my father’s and wouldn’t end until another sister’s son was stillborn. Then there was me. I wish I had been a better son, but there were so many worries with my drinking, and my living and traveling abroad.
Although I don’t know my mother as well as I would have liked, there’s one thing I know for a fact my mother never worried about. Global warming.
I’m 50 years old now, and like my mother I wake up around 4am. My heart starts pounding and my mind starts whirring around like a hamster on wheel. I worry about my job. I worry about my wife’s job. I worry about bills and money. I worry about the dogs and the cats leaping on and off the bed disturbing my sleep.
But most of all I worry about my 20 year old son about to enter the military. Will he be safe? Will he be happy there? But most importantly will he come home?
Yes that is what I worry about the most: will my loved one come home? It’s a simple, easy to understand worry because we all know someone whose loved one never did come home.
Like my mother I worry about many things, too many really. But one of the things neither of us worry about is global warming.
So sorry Bette Midler. Sorry Barack Obama. Sorry Leonardo DeCaprio. Your lives may be so idyllic that you have nothing to worry about except an unproven theory. When my eyes open in the darkness in the middle of the night I have other, more immediate worries.