Love You Mom

Yesterday morning, as I dressed my mother and rubbed lotion on her chapped legs, my forearm tattoo caught my eye. "Love You Mom," written in my mother's bold and distinct handwriting, gave me pause for a deep breath and minute to reflect. Mom has been in and out of the hospital for the past two months dealing with complications from what should've been a routine surgery. At minimal it has been emotional, frustrating, and exhausting. But at that moment, that's not what I felt. Instead I smiled, thinking about the woman behind the big swooping letters that branded my skin. Mom.

"If that's the worst thing that happens in your life, well hell, that's a pretty good life."  -- Mom

The first time I remember hearing that quote was the first time I got my heart broken: high school. I went to Mom for comfort, and I got that instead. Damn. Later, I would accept that Mom was right. I would hear this same "advice" again the first time I got fired. And the second…and the third time. I heard it again after my divorce. And each time the message initially stung, but would prove to be true. As long as I have freedom to move and air in my lungs, I'll be alright. So even on my worst days, I'm living a pretty good life.

"Can't never could." -- Mom

I've spoken, written, and tweeted about Mom a lot. None of which she has ever heard or read. It's not that she doesn't care, it's just that she doesnt care. And I mean that in the most loving of ways. Mom has been too busy to read my blogs, watch all my games, listen to my speeches, or even know what a tweet is. She's been too busy raising eight kids alone, only three of whom she gave birth to. Too busy working 30 plus years on an auto-assembly line to support those eight kids. Too busy working overtime so she could pay for my basketball camps or buy my track spikes. Too busy being in everyone else's business. Too busy being a living, breathing, hard-working example for me and the other seven. Before Inky Johnson, there was Bonnie Miller and "can’t" was never an option for her, therefore it wasn't for me.

"Math is hard. I can't pass it."
"Well you better sign up for free tutoring or get some nerdy friends to help you."
"I can't make it here. Coach hates me."
"If you can't make it in Ann Arbor, you sure as hell can't make it in Flint so I suggest you work harder. You're out of places to go."

She didn't have to tell me she was proud of me the day I graduated from the University of Michigan -- the smile on her face said it all. I could. I did.

"What do you want? A pickle?”  -- Mom

Praise didn't come cheap in the Miller home. It was earned. You didn't get pats on the back for meeting basic expectations. And the most basic of expectations was to do your best. If your best was an A, and you got an A, well then insert fake applause. If your best was an A, and you got a C, you're on punishment alert. Simple. I never knew how she knew what my best was on each occasion, but she did. And If I underachieved on the court, track, classroom, or in life, she let me know. In her own special way. If I did my best, that validated mom. My accomplishments made her feel as if her own life wasn't in vain. My Mom didn’t plan on getting pregnant at a young age and dropping out of high school. That wasn't the life she intended for herself, but it was her life. She didn't run from it. She embraced it. And as bleak as it probably was at times, in those moments I excelled, the sacrifices she made for me became meaningful.

"More than a handful is wasted."  -- Mom
"Ain’t nobody ever gonna ask you for your feet."  -- Mom

This, I'm convinced, was my Mom's way of saying, "Hey kid -- love yourself. ALL of yourself. From your big feet to your small breasts."

My Mom knew that before I could even begin to expect anyone else to love me -- I had to learn to love myself. This was hard. I struggled accepting this lesson from my Mom, a woman, whom I witnessed being emotionally and physically abused by her husbands.

Years later, as an adult living in St. Louis, I passionately threw myself into volunteer work at a center that provided support for women in domestic violent relationships. Mom's experience drove me. I get it now, as an adult, what I was incapable of comprehending as a young girl. As I became immersed in my volunteer work, supporting women in need, I was able to truly grasp just how tough and strong mom really was to endure what she did. I developed a sense of compassion and empathy. "Accept yourself. Love yourself. Your big feet and small breasts. Your height and your awkwardness. You don't need any more than you already have. And people are going to love you for you. Be strong enough to walk away, when it's time to walk away. Because there will come a time when you'll have to. And during that time, you will remember what I said and what I could not do, and that will help you."

And once again, she was right.

"One thing I can't stand and that's a liar and a thief."  -- Mom

Well actually that's two things. But she was angry at the time and I certainly wasn't going to correct her. Be a good person. Be an honest person. Don't take stuff that doesn't belong to you. Pretty simple.

"Love You Mom"  -- Mom's signature (on 99% of the graduation, birthday, Christmas, and other occasion cards she's ever sent me)

Grammatically incorrect. Simple. Succinct. Mom.

In 2014, Mom was diagnosed with ataxia cerebellum, a neurological disorder that will eventually take away her motor skills. Upon diagnosis I had this "Love You Mom"  signature tattooed on my forearm. To me, it represents presence, gratitude, and acceptance.

So as I helped my mother get dressed yesterday in that hospital room and brought comfort to her dry skin, I felt contemplative and at peace. I am not used to being the caregiver, nor the tough one in this relationship. But as I took care of Mom in that moment, a moment of absolute exposure and vulnerability, I realized she had prepared me for this … and so much more.

"Love You Mom" is not just a signature on my forearm, but it is a full sleeve of 45-years worth of idioms, antidotes, unsolicited advice, and life lessons.

I have tried so hard to avoid becoming my mother. I think many of us do. What I've come to realize, and gratefully accept, is that I AM my mother. I control the controllables. I take care of my people. I feel deeply, and believe that life is learned as you go. I know there is no substitute for hard work, and when you experience loss, allow yourself to grieve and then after, keep it moving. I even sign 99% of the cards and emails with a simple and succinct catch phrase of my own. "Win the Day."

Mom will be OK this time around. She's too stubborn and nosey to leave us just yet. But I have been reminded in the last two months, that life is unpredictable. Don't wait until a funeral to give flowers. Dead people can't smell. (I told you I am my mother!)

Take a moment to pause and reflect on someone who has left an indelible impression on your life…. and tell them.

Love YOU, Mom.
– Shimmy


2017 Shimmy Gray. All Rights Reserved.