It would be safe to say that the years between my high school graduation and the pregnancy of my first child were the most care free. I remember leaning back in the seat of my green Toyota Corolla and rummaging through my cassette tapes with my free hand while driving with the other. It wasn’t long before the same two white-knuckled hands were tightly gripping the minivan steering wheel as I nervously began guiding two little people through their childhood.
I’ve always said that there should be a support group for mothers of teenagers. I am certain that an entire group of teenagers could emotionally crush even the most hardened criminals. Against all odds however, my children completed the single mom journey and moved out into the world.
“I love it!” I said to my now 29 year old son, Addison, when he presented me with artwork on my 55th birthday. The portrait he’d recently painted of a mother and her child was called “Fearless Mother and Her Son.” I mentally removed the animal skin head dresses and the painting still beared no resemblance to us at all. I still wondered if something had inspired the painting. “Crazy Mother and Nervous Son” could have also been a fitting title based on their facial expressions.
I’d blown through my first forty years like a Texas tumbleweed and admittedly it was hard to distinguish between fearlessness and recklessness at times. I’d learned at a young age that drastic measures had to be taken when fear began to wash over you. During my first pregnancy, the fear-stomping was as simple as throwing a 350 page book of condition-related illnesses behind the sofa. As life moved through those first forty years, the remedies grew in complexity as did life in general. The lines between crazy and fearless began to blur.
When I got home, I took a long look at Addison’s painting and recognized the look in the son’s eyes. I had seen it many times, a combination of fear while searching for guidance. I first saw it on the day that a group of us were hiking at Enchanted Rock and I was leading a group of children down what I thought to be a park path. Addison was close behind me and also saw the steep and sudden drop off only two feet ahead. We looked at each other in horror. Without alarming the others, we quietly turned around to guide everyone back to safety.
Just as we turned, a rattlesnake ran in front of Addison. He froze in fear for a moment and his eyes locked onto mine. He was always a smart kid. He knew that making drastic moves while two feet from a cliff edge was not in anyone’s best interest but I had never seen him so scared. My ten year old son handled it like a champ and the snake quietly slid away before we continued to safety.
Over the years, the mother and son experiences continued. I would go as far as to say that life began to beat on us pretty badly in 2000, beginning with the loss of several close family members. Addison’s cousin and my long term boyfriend both died during the same year. Shortly before those cancer related losses, my father was brutally murdered in our family home. Needless to say, as a single mom, I had to forge on and therefore became even more skilled at stomping out the fear.
We experienced a few years without life’s harsh blows before a knockout punch was delivered via the news of Addison’s dad’s suicide. I continued to wear my warrior face, but it was hard to watch my son go through so much pain. The war paint did come off quite frequently and I was always in search of truly water proof mascara. My son developed a warrior face of his own, a blank and vacant one that was fashioned to disguise an overwhelming amount of grief.
I have always believed that a child should never be put in the position to worry about a parent or assume the role of the emotional care giver. I continued to wear the mask of “Fearless Mother” even as my son grew into an adult. In later years I realized that there were those who mistook my demeanor for a lack of caring. I cared a great deal and with that came a lot of pain that was pushed down on a daily basis. The years continued to pass and before long our war paint began to fade and laughter returned to our family.
I would like to say that our story ends with stability and sanity but I would then be writing fiction. In July of 2017, I purchased a 100 year old house on cedar stumps and began to renovate it. Joanna Gaines may receive a very nasty letter from me at some point for glamorizing such a treacherous undertaking. Any average woman my age would have run from such a project but the unsettledness that had always lived inside me just begged me to take it on. I had never been able to break the habit of burying myself in unspeakable amounts of projects, a tactic that gave me no time to reflect. Three months into the project I mistook a very bad appendix for a virus and barely made it to the hospital before it ruptured.
I stared up at the ceiling from a hospital bed for three days while I waited for my fate to be delivered in the form of a lab culture. There was a brief moment where I began to cry, knowing that I would be financially ruined because I was between insurance plans. I looked across the hospital bed at my friend’s reaction to my tears. His expressionless face stopped me. This wasn’t my role, this weakling who was starting to crumble. I pulled the fearless mother face back out of my hip pocket. I chose not to tell my son about the sepsis. Underneath the war paint I was very afraid.
Like a boy with a stick, my idleness tapped relentlessly at a bees nest full of imprisoned “reflections”. No matter how I tried to dispel them, they continued to swarm until despair set in and I was ready to give up. For three days, I thought deeply about my life - the successes and the failures. There was one common thread - I was always struggling. Now I felt so tired and I couldn’t imagine rising from the bed to continue. My boxing gloves felt so heavy. I was ready to retire them.
He showed up shortly after my daughter, Melanie, was born. In fact, he’s an uninvited guest in so many parents’ lives, making himself at home on our shoulders. When ole Jiminy Cricket speaks up, he speaks very loudly and with great compassion. Even at the time when my body could not find strength to make it three feet to the bathroom, my Jiminy Cricket OS was running at max capacity in the background. He reminded me of how Addison would feel without any parents in his life. He mortified me with the mess that I was leaving Addison with, a house under demolition that could not be sold in its current state. Jiminy shook his head at the packrat I’d become and speculated that Addison would surely curse me as he rummaged through plastic tubs of childhood artwork, baby clothes, and other items that only I had found sentimental. But most importantly, Jiminy reminded me of how hard Addison’s dad’s suicide had been on him and how it robbed him of so much - the pride on a father’s face as he looks upon the great young man that his son has become. His father’s Jiminy Cricket had indeed been knocked off at some point. It was that very thought that made me realize that even as beat down as I was, Jiminy was right. I had to get up and put the gloves back on.
“Fearless Mother and Her Son”. It’s an appropriately named painting even if its true meaning resides only in my imagination. I look at that painting and I see exactly what is behind that stern and serious look that she is wearing and I can indeed tell many of her stories. To others she might look harsh and possibly dangerously crazy but I know what lies beneath that façade. “Fearless Mother and Her Son” is a painting about love, the driving force that makes mothers forge on no matter what life hits us with. My painting will make me smile and remind me to continue to wear my imaginary and somewhat creepy animal head dress for as long as I hold the title of Mother.
© 2018 Simone Sander