Please Send Money: A thank you note to mothers who love us at our most unlovable

As my senior year of college was ending, I was living in the height of proverbial college excess. I overslept and missed good portions of my morning classes (or skipped them altogether) to stay hunkered in the dark, dank garage apartment I shared with my boyfriend. Mike was a musician—tattooed, pierced and not at all interested in any form of adulthood. My dad once described him as an “oaf,” whatever that means.

In reality, he was the one paying our rent. Much of my time was spent sunbathing in the yard behind our apartment, digging for change in the car to dine at the burrito place down the street, or drinking at the bar.

Had my mother been privy to all that was really going on—the kind of stuff that I didn’t share in phone calls or emails—she might have been concerned. But she knew that I made A’s in my classes, as I always had, and that I had plans to apply to grad school.
From 2,000 miles away, I’m guessing that, for the most part, she thought I was on track.
That would explain why she agreed to stay with me in my first “adult home” when she visited for my graduation. Of course, I failed to tell her that my version of “adult” meant a garage apartment with a postage-stamp sized bathroom, dirty carpets and a heap of Keystone Light cans in the garbage.

When I picked her up from the airport and gave her the tour of my place, she didn’t say a thing about the accommodations. She didn’t flee to a more sanitary hotel room or politely offer to buy me a vacuum and help me tidy up (I, of course, didn’t even own a mop—let alone electric cleaning tools). Instead, she prepped for my graduation party as I scurried off to the bar to clink glasses with friends in a desperate attempt to trick myself into believing my relationships with them wouldn’t change once I moved away.

Despite my drunken antics and the mystery smells in my place, my mom whipped up a party—dinner, cake and all. As a parade of my tattooed friends walked through my front door, she greeted them and scooped heaping portions of home-cooked food onto their plates.

Before my mother caught her return flight, I left for Washington, D.C. with Mike and my fellow College Democrats in a getaway guised as a trip to meet our senator. My mother didn’t speak a word of complaint. Her only request was that I make it home for Christmas in Oregon. Mike and I promised we would get back from D.C., pack my things, load them into my car and drive across the country in enough time to open presents with my family.

We rolled into our nation’s capital the day of my 23rd birthday. Weary from the drive, Mike curled up in our hotel bed as the rest of us went sightseeing. A few hours later, I found myself staring down the barrel of a handgun in the parking lot of our hotel. My friends and I hurriedly handed over our cell phones, bags and wallets to two men donning ski masks.

As we ran into the hotel lobby, the sound of screeching tires flooding the winter air, someone asked the front desk clerk to call the police as I raced up to my room and grabbed onto Mike. I needed him to hold me and tell me that it was OK to feel so utterly shaken and violated. I needed him to apologize for not being there to protect me, even though I knew there was nothing he could’ve done to stop it. I just needed him to soothe me and understand what I needed.

He couldn’t, so I called my mother.

Speaking through tears as my voice caught in my throat, I relayed the details of the event in rapid-fire succession. Between gasps, she listened quietly and reminded me that it wasn’t my fault. Looking back, I’m sure she felt paralyzed with helplessness and distance. But she just talked to me sweetly and offered to do anything she could—fly there to find me, buy me a plane ticket, transport me to her doorstep—until I got word that the police were waiting downstairs. I told her I had to go.

When I woke up the next morning, most of my friends had asked their parents to fly them home. Mike seemed to think that I could pull myself up by my bootstraps—or at least my favorite pair of ballet flats—and move on. I refused to give in to how helpless and lonely I felt in a big city that hadn’t been so kind to me.

Not to mention, going back to our apartment meant facing the reality of packing my things and moving away from the home I shared with Mike. Even if he didn’t coddle me after the mugging (now a clear sign that he wasn’t The One), I did love him. If I pretended that everything was all right—that I was strong enough to move on unfazed—I could eke out a few more days of our life together. So I stayed.

Despite my mother’s pleadings otherwise, I told her I was fine and that I really wanted to stick it out. She reluctantly wired money, and Mike and I found a new hotel.

I spent the rest of the trip jumping at the sound of unexpected noises, flinching on the city bus and choking down panic as I brushed shoulders with strangers at the Lincoln Memorial. Mike and I bickered as we got lost while navigating the city streets. We walked single file along the edge of the frozen Reflecting Pool at the National Mall, a good five feet from each other’s grasp. The pictures he snapped of me standing next to monuments now depict a forced smile.

Days later, when the trip was over and Mike and I walked back into our place, I was a wreck. As we rumbled across the country in that near-empty van, the sense of dread I had been squashing for months mixed with my resentment of Mike’s reaction to the mugging. It was a toxic blend.

Despite the promise I had made to my mother, I delayed my Christmas trip to engage in a messy weeklong breakup with Mike. By the time I got on the road without him, all of my worldly possessions blocking my rearview mirror, I only had three days to drive across the country.

My mother was frantic about the thought of me logging so many hours on the open road alone, a fear that only grew as she fielded my 2 a.m. phone call from Los Angeles. I couldn’t find my hotel, and once I did, I wished I hadn’t. If I were ever to tempt fate for a repeat performance of the hotel parking lot mugging, this was the prime stage. My mother stayed on the phone with me until I found a better hotel outside of the city.

I woke up the next morning determined to keep my Christmas promise, even if it meant driving through the night in the redwoods of Northern California. Between the coffee and the endless rotation of breakup songs, it seemed doable.

Just before midnight, I heard a snap and pop from my engine. Somewhere outside of the small town of Yreka, California, I ran over and completely annihilated an auto part that had somehow dislodged itself from my engine. Because it was Christmas Eve in a town no one has ever heard of, I holed up in a motel after begging the tow truck driver to chauffeur me around in the wee hours.

I awoke on Christmas morning to a call from the local mechanic, who said I’d have to wait out the holiday until he could return to work to order and replace the part. I phoned my mother with the bad news.

Despite what a nightmare I had been in the weeks prior—and despite my insistence that I was fine spending the holidays alone (there was cable and free wi-fi in the hotel)—my mom was packing her bags. She just had one question: Did my room have a microwave? I assured her there was a greasy spoon nearby.

Later that night, she knocked on the door of my motel room, holding the same bulky ice chest we’d taken on beach trips and family vacations when I was a kid. She set it down on the dingy rug with a thud and hugged me for minutes on end.

I sat cross-legged on the broke-down motel bed as I watched her unpack Tupperware container after container—a whole roasted chicken, vegetables, mashed potatoes—and place each one into the microwave. Before braving the snowy mountain passes to find me, she had cooked an entire Christmas dinner.

At the time, I couldn’t understand how she could love me with such understanding. There was no “I told you so” or “What were you thinking?” Just genuine empathy and understanding.

More than half a decade later, I can see that she just knew what I needed from her then. I didn’t need her to tell me that I had been living in a dump, dating the wrong guy and making a host of bad decisions. Deep down, I knew all of these things myself.

At a time when everything was uncertain and changing—I was graduating college, leaving the life I had built for myself behind, and breaking up with my boyfriend—she knew I needed her to be the constant. Even when I was at my worst, she was the same patient, loving mother she’d always been. To this day, that is most meaningful gift anyone has given me


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Sancy's picture

Great content.I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. Thank you so much for sharing. Sancy

jason spark's picture

Im stunned how fast the response from the cops. Makes me have more respect to them and all other military men.

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