In the spirit of Mother's Day, here is an excerpt about the fateful May 28, 1985 phone calls to my mom and mother-in-law:
I decided to call my mother first, because, well, she was mom. I also suspected the call to my mother was going to be fairly short, and mom would not ask me many questions. Mom Esther was fairly unflappable; the times I had observed her deal with a stressful, difficult, or disturbing situation, she either resorted to minimizing it, or, just “checking out.” I was counting on her checking out and that was fine with me because I was not in the mood to do much talking; and, frankly I would not be able to answer many questions anyway, because all I had to go on was the brief phone conversation with the Dr... At this point I was not entirely convinced that there was anything wrong with me.
As I surmised it would be, the call to my mother was short. Mom Esther has never done well with dealing with anything negative regarding one of her six boys, and especially her oldest son, be it health, behavior, relationships, finances, whatever. Mom's tendency was to defend, rationalize, deny, question the veracity of others, or flee, depending on the situation.
I remember accompanying my mother to a conference with one of my brother Calvin's elementary school teachers. Calvin, easily the most rebellious of the six brothers had refused to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Even back then as a junior high school student, it was amusing to watch my mother verbally tie herself into knots trying to somehow justify Calvin's recalcitrance at a time when it was virtually unheard of for anyone to boycott the Pledge of Allegiance, particularly an eight-year-old.
Mom was only sixteen when I was born. Given what I observed and experienced as I grew up in a tumultuous household where I watch my mom’s marriage—marked by verbal, emotional, and physical abuse—descend into irreparability, I was not only her oldest son, but had a bond with her much like a close friend. I also was her pride and joy, having been the first of her sons to achieve a modicum of success, although mom had an exaggerated view of what I had achieved and what I was destined to achieve. I was the first in her extended family to go to college; the first to wear a tie to work every day. Although I lived with Dorey and the girls in a fairly modest three bedroom, two bath home, mom liked to refer to my house as “the small hotel.”
She often told a story about holding me in her arms as an infant while riding the New York City subway and a wino came up to her and told her “that baby will be president some day.” Even at this point in my life—while I had experienced some minor professional and educational success, I certainly was not on track to become any kind of national leader—mom still believed the wino had predicted the future.
Mom listened raptly at first, acknowledging my comments as I started my conversation by recounting my visit to the dentist. However, as I segued to the sequence of events that ensued afterwards, I could sense that she could tell this story was not going to have a happy ending, and soon it began to feel like there was no one on the other end of the phone. She asked no questions. If my father were still living at home, I could easily imagine her cutting the conversation off by saying, "talk to your father", like she used to do.
Absent that option, mom simply broke her silence by asking softly, "Did you call your father yet?" I'm sure she knew the answer to that question; that, in all likelihood I was calling her first. It was just a convenient way for her to signal that she was ready to end an unpleasant conversation.
Mom Helen (my mother-in-law). This was yet another call I did not look forward to. It was not so much that Mom Helen was difficult to talk to. Just the opposite. We often had extended conversations over the years. Besides the fact that she genuinely loved me, and like my mom, was very proud of me, Mom Helen was an entrepreneur, running a successful children's day care center out of her
house, so she often tapped my insight on business and tax matters. Mom Helen could be verbose, and on this night I wasn't in much of a mood to talk.
There was another reason I wasn't anxious to talk to Mom Helen on this night. Mom Helen was very religious, a devout Christian. So much so, that whenever there was any reason for her to inject Christ and the church into one of our conversations—which she did at every
opportunity—I felt very self-conscious, not only about my own lack of righteousness, but the facade behind which I hid...
...I suspect Mom Helen knew I was somewhat of a poseur when it came to the church. I recall an instance when Dorey and I were at Mom Helen’s house for a Sunday dinner. My father-in-law always blessed the food with a lengthy, eloquent flourish. On this Sunday, however, as I
bowed my head in anticipation of Pop’s benediction, Mom Helen interjected. “Why don’t you say grace, son.”
I was petrified. After a pause that felt like several minutes, I uttered a few words lasting several seconds. I think I used some words I had learned in kindergarten, something like: “God is good, God is great, thank you for the food.” I must have sounded like I was 5 years old!
So, as I dialed Mom Helen, I knew that on hearing the sobering news, Mom Helen was going to infuse our conversation with an even greater dose of religiosity than she normally sprinkled her conversation with. I was right...