When I was ten, my mother walked me and my sister down to the small playground of the apartment complex we were living in. There, we witnessed two young boys…maybe five or six years old…. fighting, clumsily tugging at each other’s clothing and trying to land punches from the odd angles they were contorted into.
A woman in her late twenties stood nearby, yelling as if at a prize-fight.
“Hit him!” she yelled. “Hurt him!”
Her son, unfortunately, lost the fight, and came running back to his mother, sniffling and snotting into the cold air.
The boy’s mother walked a few yards and picked up a large stick from the ground, maybe a tree branch..perhaps a broomstick or part of a discarded child’s toy. With a snarl on her face, she handed it to her son.
“Hit him,” she yelled. “Hit him or I’ll tell your father that you’re a sissy.”
“I don’t want to,” the boy whined. “I just want to go home!”
“Do it!” the woman yelled into his face. “Hit him!”
The boy reluctantly turned back toward the boy who had bested him, brandishing the stick, tears and snot still covering his face.
“Beat the shit out of him, Danny,” the woman…who somehow managed to look both flabby and scrawny at the same time….yelled.
Danny approached the other boy, stick held over his head, menacingly.
I felt my mother’s hand release mine, and looked up to see her taking off her distinctive cat-eye glasses.
“Hold these honey,” my mother said, handing the delicate eyeglasses to my sister.
My lovely bug-eyed baby sister nodded, closing her hands around them.
And it was on.
My sister and I took several steps back as my twenty-five-year-old mother, her long auburn ponytail bouncing, strode quickly to little Danny and yanked the stick from his grasp.
“Hey,” began Danny’s mother, “What do you think….”
My mother was on her before she could complete her question.
I could graphically describe what happened next, including the wrestling of the woman to the ground, the threatening to beat her
with the stick, the “what kind of mother tells her son
…” admonition. I could also describe in great detail the memory of the woman being dragged from the playground by her hair and maybe I could share some of the swear words that were used. But I won’t, because I don’t think it’s necessary.
But suffice it to say, my 5 foot 4 inch tall mother showed that other mother that it’s not wise to bully and force your child to hit another child…with a stick no less….when another mother is watching. Particularly when that other mother is my mother: Supermom. Raised tough and Italian-Irish in Brooklyn, the descendent of a long line of lovely, loving, tough and funny women.
Flash forward almost thirty years.
I am being dragged by security guards into the emergency room of Glendale Adventist Hospital. It’s early dawn, and my husband Patrick and my mother have spent the last several hours driving around South Pasadena trying to find me. I’ve been on a colossal meth binge, and I’m completely out of my mind. I’d called home sometime during the night, and having gleaned my general whereabouts from my incoherent ramblings, they had set out in search of me. Now, they are trying to get me admitted to the psych ward. Having suddenly realized that I am about to be put in lock-down (not again!) I’ve tried to flee. The guards, roughly gripping my arms on either side, are trying to keep me from doing so.
They’re no match for me, the master of duplicity: I go limp, as if resigning myself to my fate. Their grips loosen slightly, just enough for me to suddenly yank free and go running down the sloped lawn of the hospital towards Chevy Chase Drive. The guards, now pissed off in the very non-professional manner of the budget security professional, are in pursuit. With a significant lead, I bend down quickly to yank off my one remaining shoe (don’t ask) and turn to throw it at the advancing men, their chubby faces contorted with the effort of chasing this crazed tweaker.
And that’s when I hear my mother scream.
“Andy!” she wails. “Oh my God, ANDY!” It’s more than a call to stop running. There’s a weird tone, like she’s being mugged or something.
“ANDY!” she yells again, and I look up at the top of the hill.
My mother, zaftig and in her late fifties, is clutching at her chest.
“I’M HAVING A HEART ATTACK!” she screams, and falls to her knees, face contorted in pain.
Holy fuck. This stops me in my tracks. I pause, watching her sink to the ground. The security guards run back towards my mother, and I stand there, frozen, forgotten.
my mother, circa 1951
The meth haze clears for a moment, and tears form in my eyes. SHIT. Then, I’m running back up the hill to the emergency room entrance. I pass the security guards and get to my mother first.
I notice that Patrick seems fairly unconcerned about my mother, and it rankles me for a moment. Then, I notice Patrick silently indicating something to the security guards, who instead of tending to my mother, grab me by the arms and drag me forcefully inside. I’m absolutely confused.
As I’m being pulled into the hospital, I glimpse my mother standing up and brushing grass from her knees, picking up her purse, and hand in hand with Patrick, following me inside.
She’s crying, but it’s not from physical pain.
Now she’s talking, but it’s not about a heart attack.
“I’m sorry, honey!” she’s calling to me, “I knew you’d come back if you thought I was in trouble!”
That BITCH, I thought, as I was being put into four-point restraints. She fucking faked a heart attack.
And it worked.
Flash forward ten more years. I’m writing this with almost one year of solid recovery under my belt. Not just sobriety, but recovery. There’s a difference. Today is mother’s day, and I can look back at that incident at Memorial Hospital and laugh. Of course she knew I’d come back if I thought she was in trouble. Even at my craziest, my most self-involved, my most self-destructive moments, I’ve loved this woman more than anyone in my life. Even when I was swearing at her, debasing her with meth-fueled insults and making her life a living hell, I loved her. I honestly believe there were times I hated her simply because I loved her so much. I hated myself, I hated everyone, I hated everything. Yet she just kept loving me. She just stayed.
She made it impossible for me to say “I don’t have anyone
.” When everyone else had abandoned me….wisely, I’d say….this woman stubbornly continued to hold out hope that I’d get better, that I’d stop using, that I’d become the son she knew before I had found crystal meth.
My mother gave birth to me when she was sixteen, her marriage to my physically and mentally abusive biological father annulled before I was even born. We’d survived intense violence together while I was still in her womb. She protected me then, jumping six-months pregnant from a moving car and hiding in a roadside snowbank while my raging “father” tried to run us over . We were threatened with a shotgun, and we survived. We formed a bond, similar to the typical overly protective Italian-American mother and her firstborn son, but more so. We grew up together, a child raising a child.
She has loved me fiercely since the day I was conceived, and I have never, ever been in doubt of that fact.
When I came out to my parents in 1986, she was taken aback, perhaps because I’d spent so many years cultivating smokescreen…and highly sexually active… relationships with girls. However, it only took a couple of weeks for her to come around fully, and even during those two weeks she was nothing less than loving and concerned about what my future would hold for me as a gay man. In those years of the deadly plague, it was a very legitimate concern. After those two weeks, however, she became a fierce ally. Within a year she was voting democrat instead of republican, and even accompanied me and some friends as we marched on Sacramento for some gay rights concern (my sister Theresa also followed suit, and I count her among some the finest mothers..and human beings…i’ve ever known.)
I know I made her life a living hell for the ten plus years I was hooked on speed. I remember too much of the shabby treatment I gave her. I remember making her cry, seeing her mouth tighten and her forehead crinkle as she’d hear the horrible words I’d say to her.
I remember the night, convinced the house was surrounded by armed intruders, that i’d made her lie on the hardwood floor beside my bed with me, keeping her awake with my incessant “look, see that shadow? that’s one of them” comments. She knew I was insane, but she stayed with me anyway, frightened that if she left I’d do something stupid, perhaps hurt myself.
I remember standing on the back porch, screaming into her face while she stood there in her bathing suit, trying not to cry. I can almost hear her thoughts, even now: “this is not my son. this is the meth. this is not my son” as I threw expletive after expletive at her.
I am a forty-eight year old man who is crying as I type these words. Some of the tears are of regret, of the pain I caused this wonderful woman. Most, however, are of gratitude.
I’m so grateful that i’ve never gone a day in my life without knowing that I’m loved. I’m grateful that my mother never let me go, even when she had every right to….even when she would have been commended by others for doing so.
I’m grateful that I have someone I can call when I need advice, and I’m grateful that my husband has forged a close relationship with this woman who thinks of him as one of her sons.
I’m grateful for my recovery. I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue making amends to my mother. I’m grateful that with this new clarity I can appreciate the joy and happiness she brings to other’s lives…not to mention the fierce loyalty she displays for every person she loves, family or otherwise. I’m grateful for a mother who will speak out about injustice and unfairness, even if she’s past the age of beating those lessons into other mothers on playgrounds.
I’m grateful that I am now able to be present in her life again, to be of assistance, to be there for her when she needs support. Grateful it’s once again a two-way street.
I’m grateful for all the strong women in my life….the ones who have passed, and the women who continue to inspire me today with their fierce love and emotional strength: my sister Theresa, my Aunts, my nieces Taylor and Alexa and Kira, all my cousins (particularly Amber and Kristi and Lisa and Gail and Denise and Denise and Nadine and Beth and Barbara and Cassandra and Brooke).
I’m grateful most of all today…Mother’s Day…for Ann Vacante Nicastro, who first saved my life, then gave me life, then saved my life again.
Mom, you are the most amazing human being I have ever known. I love you. I always have and I always will.