NOTE: Last week was Mary Ann Muska’s birthday. Mary Ann Muska is my mom. Since this is the website Funny Moms and I’m a managing editor, which makes me one of the Head Bitches In Charge (and also since I’m poor), I figured I would post this story I wrote for her as a gift, so that she can be recognized for how unprecedented a mother she is. (And my dad is great, too. Keep fightin’ the good fight, pops!)
Happy Birthday, mom! I love you beyond words. But since words are all I’ve got this year, here it goes.
When I was growing up, I had no idea how emotionally composed and resilient my mom and dad were. In fact I’m not sure I’ll ever fully comprehend the stress they endured and the sacrifices they made so that they could more than properly raise a family.
In two words, they were FUCKING TOUGH. At least outwardly.
If you’re keeping track, that’s four children in less than five years.
Or as many might say, an ill-advised decision. A decision that meant a great deal of maintenance and money were required to keep us from being taken in by someone like the principal in Matilda. (I am happy to say I’ve gone 26 years without having been sent to something called “The Chokey”).
Needless to say, both of my parents worked extremely hard. My dad was in charge of the whole money thing, and since you can’t run an autobody shop with a bunch of half-naked kids running around swinging their proton blasters (the toy from Ghostbusters, not our junk—I said half-naked, not full-frontal), my mom had little choice but to give up her profession as a nurse to take care of us.
Taking care of four kids so close in age would’ve been tough. And even tougher still if one boy had a learning disability, the other two boys were just straight up assholes, and the baby girl meant well but was constantly interrupting things because she peed even more often than my mom did when she was pregnant with her.
My little brother Ryan was a white-haired demon in early childhood, though not on purpose. He was never officially diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s syndrome, but his disability was somewhere on the spectrum. And thanks almost exclusively to my parents’ resolve and his own determination, his position on that spectrum has moved steadily toward the milder end over the years.
My mom has always taken control of just about whatever she could. Even when confronted with my brother’s seemingly uncontrollable diagnosis, neither she nor my dad ever accepted the possibility of powerlessness. Instead they chose to do EVERYTHING they could to help improve his situation and that meant a rigorous early intervention regimen, which carried no guarantees
I say this with complete honesty and conviction: my parents would have sacrificed anything to make our futures even a bit brighter. In fact they did. My dad left his autobody shop when I was 10-years old to take over his father-in-law’s grocery store. This meant that he gave up his second greatest passion in life – motor vehicles – to ensure that his family (the first great love of his life) would be better off financially in the long run.
It should be noted that everything they did for Ryan resulted in him growing up to be, quite simply, the man. You can’t not like Ryan. There isn’t a mean bone in his body. Had my parents not sacrificed what they did for him, he wouldn’t be where he is now. None of us would.
There wasn’t much in the way of early intervention for potentially autistic children where I grew up. This meant the entire family had to travel frequently, and that meant I spent a great deal of my childhood in the back seat of one oversized vehicle after another. A few times, my parents even planned family vacations around a program my little brother would be attending. I’d wager that we’re the only six people without family in Ohio to ever have taken a 10-day vacation to Cincinnati.
It was during those endless hours in the back seat of the conversion van, woody station wagon, or red Suburban, that I developed my love of reading. A devotion unendingly supported by mom and dad, who never hesitated to hook a player up with the latest Animorphs or Goosebumps title. And it was my love of reading that generated a love for writing. Had I not spent all that time riding around in the car or had I suffered from carsickness, I would probably be a gym teacher or door-to-door vacuum salesman or a hunter/gatherer right now.
And who knows where my brother would be, or what he would be doing. It makes me sad to think about the possibility that he could have been born to parents who weren’t as dedicated as mine were to finding whatever help they could for him.
Despite the constant travel for Ryan, none of us other kids suffered. My parents still found the time to drive me to a million basketball tournaments in unremarkable areas, located remarkably far away. I even remember one summer when my mom took a break from taking Ryan to appointments for a week, so that she could drive me to a writing class for children, conveniently located an hour away.
At the time, I had very little understanding of how much these myriad therapies and programs would help my brother, none of us did – not even my parents. And I wasn’t able to appreciate what that sacrifice really meant – to dedicate themselves so entirely, despite such little certainty.
I was in elementary school, after all. Paramount in my mind was how much fun my friends were having swimming in pools or playing baseball in back yards while I was wasting away in the back of a station wagon, making the universal honk motion each time Kev and me saw an 18-wheeler pass. Never once did I consider what it must have been like to be driving that station wagon, without any assurance that the endless miles logged, time spent, nights passed in worry, would make any difference at all.
That’s because when you’re a little kid, you think only about yourself. You don’t really care about anyone else, for the most part. Sure you experience the feelings you’ll eventually recognize as fear, sympathy, empathy, hate, love, etc., but early on, those sensations feel like meaningless stomach pangs, or a burning in your shoulder blades, they’re nothing more than discomfort. And you cry because you’re pissed or sad about something, but you never fully grasp why you feel that way.
There’s no real context for emotions until you reach a certain maturity.
I happen to vividly remember the exact moment when I reached such relative emotional maturity.
My epiphany happened after a particularly trying session with Ryan’s visual therapist one afternoon. We hadn’t behaved in the waiting room, and then on the ride home, Ryan started acting out (as he often did but couldn’t control), and Kev and I joined in basically being insolent douchebags (as we often did and most certainly could control).
We wanted to go to our grandparents’ place, because they had a pool with a deep end and diving board, which is essentially the Promised Land to an eight-year-old on summer break. Mom was not up to it, and told us so. Had we been behaving, she would have certainly been up for it, but we were being punished, and this upset us. So we reacted like any irrational assholes (i.e., children) would, by behaving even worse. We basically tortured my Mom the entire ride home.
When we got to the house something very strange happened. We exited the vehicle, walked inside and were suddenly issued carte blanche to roam the house and do whatever we wanted. This was highly abnormal and a clear sign that something supremely fucked up was going on. Ryan and Holly wasted no time raising their ruckus to a feverish pitch by sprinting up the steps—Holly to the bathroom, naturally, and Ryan to his room, where he would pore over Pittsburgh Penguin and Ghostbusters paraphernalia until one of his older brothers came and grabbed him for a Mortal Kombat competition. Kevin and I decided to spend our hall pass playing hockey once we realized my mom had made a beeline to the bathroom. Even a self-absorbed eight-year-old could deduce a probable gastrointestinal emergency, which meant she wouldn’t be out for a while.
As we were suiting up to play (which meant I was buckling my goalie pads and Kevin was winding up for a slapshot to fire directly at my head five minutes before I’d be ready to defend it), we heard crying.
We made eye contact, and then looked quizzically at the bathroom door from where the crying was coming. Then we looked back at each other with expressions that more or less said: “The heck is happening?”
We had never heard my mom cry before.
She bounced between vaguely happy to pissed to stoic, but never did she approach outwardly heartbroken.
And so we stood paralyzed in silence, as we listened to her heartbreak. We broke formation only when she did one of those three-quick-breaths-in-and-one-strained-breath-out sobs that we knew meant very real—and likely lasting—anguish. At the sound of the exhale, we sprinted up the stairs, caucusing at the top about what in the fuck we had witnessed, and what in the fuck we could do to make things better.
And the realization hit me just as hard and painfully as Kevin’s slap shot would have had he been given another 30 seconds to get it off: my mom’s life was a mess, and it was a mess because of us. A mess she loved and was more than willing to take on, of course.
But a mess nonetheless.
My mom was sad, very sad, and overwhelmed, and worried, and angry. And seeing that actually made me sad, and worried, and…ashamed, because I finally understood that by Kevin and I acting like dicks, we had directly contributed to her despair. I realized that my mom had more important things to handle than putting up with nonsensical bullshit from her two little boys who should not have had a complaint in the world.
My indistinct stomach pains had transformed into actual and real feelings of empathy.
Reeling from this newly developed emotional maturity, I suggested that we make lunch for the crew. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches always made me feel better if I was crying, I reasoned. And by completing this chore, we would surprise my mom and help her cross something off her perpetually interminable to-do list.
Since we’d never prepared anything for ourselves, we made a pretty great mess of things, but our efforts ultimately resulted in edible sandwiches. Mom came upstairs just as we were finishing, and while she was initially pissed off about the mess, she soon became emotional and grateful for the gesture. She recognized that it was our clumsy kid way of apologizing.
Apologizing for our larger failure to appreciate this extraordinary woman who gave up the life she had previously known, to make sure we would make it successfully to adulthood, and apologizing specifically, for being shithead little kids that day.
We had tried to make amends, and as she had done a million and a half times before – literally and figuratively – she helped clean up the mess we had made.
And then she drove us to our grandparents to go swimming.
That was my mom: her life was a mess, mostly because of us, but all she wanted to do was help us clean up so that we could be happy.
And she still does. All four of us have made horrible decisions at one point or another, and we’ve all had to go weeping to our mom and dad about it. Each time, they’ve done more than most parents would to help us out, and the love and thankfulness we feel for them cannot be overstated.
Each of us is still a bit of a mess, in our own ways.
But thanks to our mom and dad, we’re beautiful messes.