I was ten years old when my mother was left paralyzed by a spinal tumor. Prior to that, she had been a vital, vibrant woman-active to an extent most people found astonishing. Even as a small child, I was awed by her accomplishments and beauty. But at thirty-one, her life changed and so did mine.
Overnight, it seemed, she was flat on her back, confined to a hospital bed. A benign tumor had incapacitated her, but I was too young to comprehend the irony of the word “benign,” for she was never to be the same.
I still have vivid images of her before the paralysis. She had always been gregarious and entertained frequently. She often spent hours preparing hors d’oeuvres and filling the house with flowers, which we picked fresh from the gardens that she kept in the side yard. She would get out the popular music of that era and rearrange the furniture to make room for friends to dance. In fact, it was my mother who loved to dance most of all.
Mesmerized, I watch her dress for the evening’s festivities. Even today, I remember her favorite dress, with its black skirt and midnight-lace bodice, perfect for her blond hair. I was as thrilled as she, the day she brought home black lace high-heeled pumps, and that night my mother surely was the most beautiful woman in the room.
She could do anything, I believed, whether it was playing tennis (she won tournaments in college) or sew (she made all our clothes) or write (she was a newspaper columnist ) or cook (especially Spanish dishes for my father.)
Now, although she could do none of these things, she faced her illness with the same enthusiasm she had brought to everything else.
Words like “handicapped” and “physical therapy” became part of a strange new world we entered together, and the child’s rubber balls she struggled to squeeze assumed a mystique that they had never before possessed. Gradually, I began to help take care of the mother who had always taken care of me. I learned to care for my own hair and hers. Eventually, it became routine to wheel her into the kitchen, where she instructed me in the art of peeling carrots and potatoes and how to rub down a good beef roast with fresh garlic and salt and chunks of butter.
When, for the first time, I heard talk of a cane, I objected: “I don’t want my pretty mother to use a cane.” But all she said was,”Wouldn’t you rather have me walk with a cane than not walk at all?”
Every accomplishment was a milestone for us both: the electric typewriter, the car with power steering and brakes, her return to college, where she earned a master’s degree in special education.
She learned everything she could about the disabled and eventually founded an activist support group called “The Handicappers.” One day, without saying much beforehand, she took me and my brothers to a handicappers meeting. I had never seen so many people with so many disabilities. I returned home, silently introspective, thinking how fortunate we really were. She took us many other times after that and, eventually, the sight of a man or woman without legs or arms no longer shocked us. My mother also introduced us to victims of cerebral palsy, stressing that most of them were as bright as we were-maybe brighter. And she taught us to communicate with the mentally retarded, pointing out how much more affectionate they often were compared to “normal” people. Throughout all of this, my father remained loving and supportive.
When I was eleven, mother told me she and Daddy were going to have a baby. Much later, I learned that her doctors had urged her to have a therapeutic abortion, an option she vehemently resisted. Soon, we were mothers together, as I became a surrogate mom to my sister, Mary Therese. In no time at all, I learned to change diapers, bathe and feed her. Though mother maintained maternal discipline, for me it was a giant step beyond playing with dolls.
One moment stands out even today: the time Mary Therese, then two, fell and skinned her knee, burst into tears and ran past my mother’s outstretched arms into mine. Too late, I glimpsed the flicker of hurt on Mother’s face, but all she said was, “It ‘s natural that she should run to you because you take such good care of her.”
Because my mother accepted her condition with such optimism, I rarely felt sad or resentful about it. But I will never forget the day my complacency was shattered. Long after the image of my mother in stiletto heels had receded from my consciousness, there was a party at our house. I was a teenager by then, and as I saw my smiling mother sitting on the sidelines, watching her friends dance, I was struck by the cruel irony of her physical limitations. Suddenly, I was transported back to the days of my early childhood, and the vision of my radiant, dancing mother was before me again.
I wondered whether Mother remembered, too. Spontaneously, I moved toward her, and then I saw that, though she was smiling, her eyes were brimming with tears. I rushed out of the room and into my bedroom, buried my face in the pillow and wept copious tears, all the tears she’d never shed. For the first time, I raged against God and at life and its injustices to my mother.
The memory of my mother’s glistening smile stayed with me. From that moment, I viewed her ability to overcome the loss of so many former pursuits and her drive to look forward to things I had taken for granted, as a great mystery and a powerful inspiration.
When I was grown and entered the field of corrections, Mother became interested in working with prisoners. She called the penitentiary and asked to teach creative writing to inmates. I recall how they crowded around her whenever she arrived and seemed to cling to every word, as I had as a child.
Even when she no longer could go out to the prison, she corresponded frequently with several inmates.
One day, she asked me to mail a letter to one prisoner, Waymon. I asked if I could read it first, and she agreed, not realizing, what a revelation it would be to me.
I want you to know that I have been thinking about you often since receiving your letter. You mentioned how difficult it is to be locked behind bars, and my heart goes out to you. But when you said that I couldn’t imagine what it is like to be in prison, I felt compelled to tell you that you are mistaken.
There are different kinds of freedom, Waymon, different kinds of prison. Sometimes, our prisons are self-imposed. When, at the age of thirty-one, I awoke one day to find that I was completely paralyzed, I felt trapped-overwhelmed by a sense of being imprisoned in a body that would no longer allow me to run through a meadow or dance or carry my child in my arms.
For a long time, I lay there, struggling to come to terms with my infirmity, trying not to succumb to self-pity. I asked myself whether, in fact, life was worth living under such conditions, whether it might no be better to die.
I thought about this concept of imprisonment because it seemed to me that I had lost everything in my life that mattered. I was near despair.
But then, one day it occurred to me that, in fact, there were still some options open to me and that I had the freedom to choose among them. Would I smile when I saw my children again or would I weep? Would I rail against God or would I ask Him to strengthen my faith? In other words, what would I do with the free will He had given me and which was still mine?
I made a decision to strive, as long as I was alive, to live as fully as I could, to seek to turn my seemingly negative experiences into positive experiences, to look for ways to transcend my physical limitation by expanding my mental and spiritual boundaries. I could choose to be a positive role model for my children, or I could wither and die, emotionally as well as physically.
There are many kinds of freedom, Waymon. When we lose one kind of freedom, we simply must look for another.
You and I are blessed with the freedom to choose among good books, which ones we’ll read, which ones we’ll set aside.
You can look at your bars, or you can look through them. You can be a role model for younger inmates, or you can mix with the troublemakers. You can love God and seek to know Him, or you can turn your back on Him.
To some extent, Waymon, we are in this thing together.
By the time I finished Waymon’s letter, my vision was blurred by tears. Yet for the first time, I saw my mother with great clarity, and I understood her.
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