Any time I need to feel reminded that I am one of the lucky ones, I simply need to look at this picture. That pose is not unique; virtually every child has at least one “money shot” of the post-birth adoring gaze. Or, every child that is fortunate enough to be born in a hospital (or home) in safe conditions, to a mother who welcomes the moment and most importantly, is prepared for the moments (and days and years) that will follow. I don’t need to resort to religion or spirituality or even new age-esque invocations of the universal bond; I can just consider the infinitesimal likelihood of even making it from my father to my mother, if you know what I mean (as my father has always been fond of saying, “You owe me your life”), is rather statistically remarkable in and of itself. To know I was brought into this wicked, wonderful world by two parents who put my safety, well-being and evolution at the forefront of their collective energies is to be humbled, and grateful.
And there’s John Cusack, playing me on my 19th birthday. Some of his finest work; he managed to look just like me (extra props for the authentic paisley tie, which was featured at many seminal occasions of my life at that time). It only took one year at college to appreciate just how spoiled rotten I had been the previous eighteen years: Moms ran a tight ship and I was never once without toilet paper, toothpaste, breakfast cereal or any of the other million things a typical bratty American from that generation (any generation?) so easily takes for granted. And that is a point unto itself: it’s because you take those things for granted that you were well tended by your caretakers. I had also come to a better understanding that my parents weren’t nearly as clueless as I often suspected whilst a snot-nosed teenaged shithead. Or, as Mark Twain observed with his inimitable elan: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” In other words, you grasp that your father was the quarterback, after all. But you also become cognizant that your mother was the coach, cheerleader and locker partner; she covered all the proverbial bases, enabling you to run around them even as you thought you were just floating on air.
Everyone remembers when, as a kid, on Mother’s Day they would inquire “How come there isn’t a Kid’s Day?” And the response would be, “Every day is kid’s day.” Most people who have lived a single day in the real world come quickly to understand how true that old cliche actually is (those extremely well-raised didn’t need to wait that long for this epiphany to come, and I remain grateful to count myself among these). A year or two punching the clock, paying bills, cleaning up one’s messes (the literal and especially the figurative ones) and generally attaining the independent status that one strove so single-mindedly to attain is sufficient impetus for reflection. Not just an appraisal of how impossible it will be to repay the investment made, counted in money, time, affection and concern, but a recognition of what was really at stake: how astonishing and selfless it is for these same people who put in all those hours and all that effort to effectively enable you to become your own person. The best gift a parent can give you is to love you enough to allow you to not be just like them; to encourage you to be whoever you are destined to be.
I had the opportunity to deliver the eulogy at my mother’s funeral (which, incredibly, occurred only a few months after this photo was taken, at my cousin’s wedding in June 2002). I remembered her as fondly as I could which was easy to do; I tried to convey what she meant to me, which was difficult. Everything that is good about me is because of my mother. That was the line I used to open and close my remarks, and looking back, I still reckon it’s the most succinct way of illustrating the role she played–and continues to play–in my life. I tried to steer away from sentiment that was self-absorbed (this was an occasion to remember and celebrate my mother’s life, not how it affected me) or to unintentionally overlook the loved ones gathered whose lives she touched in so many indelible ways (or to give my old man, my boy, inadvertent short-shrift by ostensibly giving his wife all the credit for the heavy lifting he had also done), but as the chosen speaker, her only son, it was my opportunity, and obligation, to pay her the ultimate compliment. It was the most honest and appropriate thing I could do. And so I made mention of Pops (at whose surprise 60th birthday I had given a toast less than a year earlier), and I observed the many individuals; the family, friends and yes, strangers to whom she mattered and whose lives were enriched by her compassion and indefatigable empathy. And I remembered that she was the one who nurtured, and encouraged, my early love of music. That she seldom said no if I wanted to buy a new book, even if it was going to sit on top of the big stack of books I’d already accumulated (she knew I’d get around to it, and I always did). How she told me B’s were as good as A’s so long as I was learning (and even the sporadic C+ wasn’t the end of the world, particularly for those maddening Math classes), how she (and Pops) never missed a single soccer game, swim meet or miscellaneous rite of passage. The way she illustrated, with words but especially with actions, that being a Christian was a fine thing, but acting like one was even better. Or that no matter who I met or eventually married, she was always going to be the first woman in my life. And that by raising me the way she did, she was instinctively preparing me for when she was no longer around, even if that ended up happening a hell of a lot sooner than any of us could stand.
And despite her absence, which remains an inconsolable loss in my life, I am sincere when I tell people I genuinely feel fortunate for the cards I was dealt. How could I not be? And I cry every time I hear “our song” (the great Bob Marley tune originally left off of Catch A Fire, called “High Tide or Low Tide”), but I smile every time I hear “Rocky Raccoon”, which we sang along with a hundred times in the car. And each time I scribble a thought with artistic intent I am inspired by the encouragement she offered, going back to when I was a kid with crayons, coloring outside the lines while listening to The Nutcracker Suite. And I have a special place in my heart for all my friends (and extended family members) who have become wonderful mothers themselves, and I see my mother alive in the looks they give the children they love with all their being. And I nod my head in affirmation knowing her loss made our family stronger and helped ensure that we would have one another’s back the rest of the way.
“How do you get over the loss?” That was the question I asked an old girlfriend who lost her father when she was a teenager. “You don’t,” she said. And hearing that you can understand, and appreciate the sentiment; that you could never heal from that type of heartbreak. But one has to experience it to comprehend the inexplicable ways this truth is an inviolable aspect of our existence: it’s worse than you can conceive, but if you’ve been one of the lucky ones, it’s also more redemptory and beautiful than you might have imagined. Mostly, you accept that a day will never go by when you don’t think of the one you loved and lost. And, of course, that you wouldn’t have it any other way.
Every day is kid’s day, and who could hope to change that?
Every day, for me, is now Mother’s Day. And on my birthday I don’t celebrate myself so much as acknowledge, and appreciate, the one who got me here.