Do you see that lady holding my son? Don’t let that sweet smile fool you. She could be tough.
Long before she became a proud, doting grandmother, I knew Sandy Bey as a loving mom who took amazing care of me. I also knew her as someone who would let me know with a glare, a raised voice, a pop on the backside, or a tap across the mouth the minute my behavior had ventured into unacceptable territory. Think of Smokey staring down the barrel of Walter Sobchak’s gun in “The Big Lebowski.” I was entering a world of pain because my toe had slipped over the line, even as I protested that it hadn’t.
Mom was barely 5 feet tall and weighed somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 pounds, but she commanded your respect. I swear she could have made Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Mike Tyson all want to stay in their corner and not come out for another round. There was an instance in the early 1980s when she confronted a guy in our neighborhood whose nephew had disconnected the hose from our sprinkler. She later told me the dude, who I’m pretty sure had a rap sheet, was shirtless and was holding a pair of nunchucks when she went to his house. It didn’t matter. She told the guy she didn’t like what had happened and made it known she didn’t want it to happen again. To the best of my knowledge, it didn’t.
Even now, almost 12 years after her passing, it’s still difficult for me to believe endometrial cancer was the foe that finally defeated mom. Oh, she battled the son of a bitch hard. I sat with her as she underwent multiple chemotherapy sessions in 2007. I remember how happy she was as she told me the oncologist told her she was cancer-free. I remember how she cried when she called me at work April Fools’ Day 2008 – the day after Nolan’s pediatrician had told us he suspected our son had Autism, which indeed was the case – to tell me the cancer had returned and spread to her bone marrow, which was all but a death sentence. But she still kept going, trying to do as much as she could for herself until it became impossible for her to do so.
And then she was gone that June, just a few months shy of her 62nd birthday and barely 18 months into being a first-time grandmother – a role she had waited so long for and was thoroughly enjoying.
Mother’s Day typically is one of the more difficult days of the year for me, but something struck a nerve inside me Sunday as I watched Cindy, two of her sisters and her nieces decorate their vehicles before driving by her mother’s place in lieu of a visit. I felt anger and sadness. It probably was due to too little sleep, the stress involved with being Nolan’s father, caregiver, and also teacher for what seems like the last 100 weeks instead of eight, and just longing for even a small slice of normalcy again. But some dark thoughts that have been bubbling just under the surface for awhile grabbed hold of me. I still ask, why mom?
I’ll never understand why people who abuse their bodies for decades – be it with alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, or whatever other vice you can think of – live to be a ripe old age while someone like my mother, who often put other’s needs ahead of her own and tried to take pretty good care of herself, have their lives cut way too short. Don’t get me wrong – mom had her moments where frustration, sadness and anger won. But I think overall she believed there is no obstacle someone can’t overcome.
After the last few days, where I’ve cleaned up Nolan’s urine and feces multiple times, worn a path to the laundry room in the basement, and wanted to buy stock in any company that sells ibuprofen to combat the headaches brought on by Nolan’s constant yelling and the sore muscles brought on by fatigued muscles and Nolan’s occasional angry outbursts, I feel as though I’m staring up at Mount Everest with no climbing equipment or warm clothes. I’ve freely admitted in the past that I have moments of severe weakness, and that’s where I’m at now. It’s the exact opposite of who my mother was.
You want to know strong? Mom grew up in a household with an alcoholic father who could leave a mark both physically and verbally. I heard stories of nasty fights between my grandparents, including one that involved my grandmother throwing grease at my grandfather. Some of those altercations ended with a visit from police officers. Mom, the oldest child in the family, helped take care of my two uncles, and she held multiple part-time jobs, including one when she still was in junior high.
She thought she was en route to living a better, much more stable life when she married my father in 1969 – a life that would include a nice house in a nice neighborhood, multiple children who would leave the nest when they turned 18, and then traveling around the country when dad eventually retired. She got a husband who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis less than two years into their marriage. She was thrust into the role of being the family’s lone breadwinner in 1982 when my father lost his job. She worked 40 hours a week, then would come home, cook dinner, and take care of dad. When dad’s MS progressed to the point where mom and I no longer could give him the care he needed and he had to go into a nursing home in 1990, she would visit him after work almost every night. If she thought dad wasn’t getting the care he deserved, she would get in the face of anyone – be it a new part-time employee, a seasoned registered nurse, or an administrator – and let them know about it.
The things I saw mom deal with helped prepare me for the challenges Cindy and I face every day with Nolan. But I really wish she was here to help us.
Mom took the news of Nolan’s preliminary Autism diagnosis pretty hard, but I really believe she would have accepted it and been his strongest advocate if she still were alive. She would have had a seat at the table during his arena testing and given her input. She would have given us a pep talk before our IEP meetings at school, and I wouldn’t have put it past her to give his teachers a call and tell them not to underestimate her grandson. I’d like to think she’d be giving our state’s “Safer at Home” order the bird and coming over to our house to help take care of Nolan – even if she had to wear a hazmat suit.
It just would be nice if I could pick up the phone and call mom when I was struggling with Nolan, which seems like it’s been every 15 minutes as of late. One of the things she frequently told me whenever I was stressed or frustrated for whatever reason was to “go with the flow.” I never used to like to hear that advice, but I’m trying really hard to heed it now. I know some of Nolan’s behaviors are his reaction to having his world turned upside down. I know that I have to help him cope the best that I can.
But there’s nothing like a mother’s tough love that can help someone get through the most difficult situations. And I sure could use it now.