“Call me when you get home!”
“Put a turtleneck under that. Do you want to get sick?”
“Don’t make eye contact with strangers!”
For as long as I can remember, my mother has been a worrier. It didn’t matter whether I was safely ensconced in my Catholic elementary school (“Don’t drink from the water fountain — germs!”), of age and in college (“Don’t take the subway by yourself! You could get attacked!”), or living on my own and traveling for business (“Make sure you send me your itinerary!”). For my mother, there is always something to worry about.
At times, my mother’s worrying has seemed excessive. (Does every e-mail she sends me really need to end with “BE SAFE” followed by an entire row of exclamation points?) Over the years my reactions have varied from exasperation (“Mo-om! I am not asking my roommate to accompany me on the subway!”) to embarrassment (Thanks, Mom, for frantically calling my hotel in France at 2 a.m. to track me down, despite the fact that I told you I wouldn’t be checking in every day.) to amusement (Shut the shades from prying eyes while I brush my teeth in the bathroom at night? Really??). Then, too, there were the times when Mom’s admonitions seemed somehow linked to Old Testament-style judgment — when the idea of disobeying even an unreasonable command seemed equivalent to tempting all kinds of improbable but terrible fates.
But although my mom’s worries were overdramatic at times, she was hardly alone in being a worrying parent. Even as a child, I well knew that reminders like “Put on that scarf! It’s cold!” and “Don’t talk to strangers!” were part of her job. And after all, my mother wasn’t completely paranoid. Although we always locked our doors, it wasn’t as if we had a row of deadbolts and chains like Mel Gibson in “Conspiracy Theory” (although I remember Mom half-joking that that looked like a good idea).
The truth is, I’ve learned some important things from my mother’s worrying (besides the fact that I don’t want to worry as much as she does when I’m a mom). The most important thing I’ve learned is the importance of mindfulness. In one sense I mean a practical mindfulness — being aware of one’s surroundings and using good judgment to keep safe and healthy. In another sense, though, I mean that my mother’s worrying has helped strengthen in me a mindfulness of the preciousness of life and of those I love.
Why my mother worries so much is a question I answer with the following: a) she’s a mom b) she’s a little paranoid (maybe reading mystery novels and watching spy movies has something to do with it?) c) she loves me a lot and doesn’t want to lose me (see reason a). But although I always knew my mother loved me, it wasn’t until fairly recently that I began to understand why and how much this last factor played into her worries.
Over time, as I came a little closer to understanding loss and separation — as graduations changed forever the relationships with dear friends I had seen daily or weekly for years on end; as I suffered my first breakup; as I met people whose siblings or children or parents had died; as I attended a service for a school acquaintance who had been in a bike accident and was then, just like that, spoken of in the past tense — I found myself becoming more and more understanding of (and patient with) the more rational of my mother’s fears.
I began to understand more fully why she worried that if I was out alone at night, something might happen to me; why she felt comforted when I checked in by e-mail or phone; why whenever I was out at night in high school, she couldn’t fully fall asleep until she heard my key in the door. How I eventually came to understand her fears had partly to do with the passage of time, but it had more to do, I think, with a growing awareness of the reality of loss, and that worrying — although one should be careful not to overindulge in it — can spring from a very full kind of love.
Years ago, when I was still living at home, I slipped while walking down the stairs of our house. Fortunately, I grabbed the handrail and prevented myself from a spill. But my sharp outcry brought my mother running from the kitchen. When she saw that I was OK, she let out a small whimper — the collision of the previous moment’s fear and the present moment’s relief. I came to know that feeling later when, on vacation a few years ago in New Hampshire, my mother began to cough violently, as though fighting for air. I remember, in the brief expanse of time before she recovered her breath, and while I thought she was choking, the fear that filled my heart, and the rising panic I heard in my voice as I called to my father in the next room for help. And now, even when I know my parents are safe at home, there are times when a sudden realization that someday my parents will leave this world and no longer be physically present in my life, coupled with a realization that this separation might, by accident or illness or some other cause, happen quicker than I expect, fills me with such a foretaste of the agony of that loss that I have to momentarily will my thoughts away from my parents just to stop my tears. The fullness of love and loss I feel in these moments is so strong that it is practically unbearable.
It is in these moments that I, who am not a parent, feel I come closest to understanding my mother’s (and my father’s, and every parent’s) worries: how, in such fullness of love, a sudden, sharp fear — whether rational or irrational — can stick like a thorn in the mind; how the thought of losing someone so precious to you can cripple all your composure at an instant; how something as simple as telling someone for the gazillionth time to be safe, or telling a friend you love them even if you don’t know they’ll say it back, can bring some peace of mind in a world that is, though beautiful, sometimes unfriendly and often uncertain:
I don’t have control of the world, but I can use good judgment to try and stay safe.
I can’t protect those I love, but I can urge them to also use good judgment.
I don’t know when I will lose those I love, but I can be more appreciative of the moments I spend with them and tell them often that I love them.
In other words, I’ve begun to find that my own awareness of loss has made me more fully appreciate the things I have — made me even more likely to say “I love you” and “I’m sorry,” more likely to give or take an extra hug from someone, more likely to fervently thank God in joyful wonder for all the incredible blessings in my life — and not out of blind fear of potential catastrophe, but out of the realization that life is fragile and transient and precious. When I am a mother, I don’t expect I will worry about all the same things that my mother does, but I do expect I will understand her worrying even better. And I know one phrase that will probably leave my lips many, many times as a parent: “Call me when you get home!” CD