It feels weird to be doing this by myself — getting ready, wrapping up the pie, loading bags for the ride to Ohio. My parents are doing the same thing about an hour north right now. Don’t we do this holiday together? I pour hot coffee into a travel mug, turn off my coffee maker, and text my mother.
Hey, I’m thankful for you. You’re a great mom who has gone through more than someone ever should. It seems more heartfelt than Happy Thanksgiving, and it’s truly, deeply, how I feel about the woman. I slide my iPhone into my coat pocket, sling an overnight bag, a bag full of dinner rolls, and my purse over my shoulder. I balance the pie on top of my coffee as a lock the door to my apartment. I feel organized and efficient. I feel a little like my mother.
Outside it’s cold enough to see your breath, so I stay bundled up in my scarf and coat for the drive. It’s cold in the way I remember the almost winter months in western PA to be. I rub my hands together, start up Pa’s old Honda, punch the radio on, and pull a bottle of dark green nail polish from my purse. “Holy shit,” I say out loud, securing the bottle between my knees and unscrewing the top. “We really do become these women.” My mother is the only other person I know who paints her nails before a car ride. I sit for a while as they dry, watching a quiet downtown Pittsburgh wake up on Thanksgiving day.
Bing! I swipe the screen of my phone. At the top of ignored turkey texts, Happy Thanksgivings, and Steelers football banter is the most recent one from my mother: We are thankful for you too …and electricity at this point in time! I wish I wasn’t so stressed all the time.
In this age of texting, there is always a reason you must text something back — instant gratification, over-technology? I pause before replying a quick love you mom! Saying nothing seems right, because texting isn’t the way to convey what I feel. My mother is amazing. Sometimes I tell people she’s an alien because there is no one I know like her. She is fiercely loyal and figures out shit when pretty much everyone else I know can’t, including me. She loves harder when other people would leave, maybe even me. Yet her soul, her entire being, is exhausted by my dad’s brain injury. Yes, nothing to text — the stressed part is understood and the electricity part we can talk about at my aunt’s house.
I fish around for my spare sunglasses and find them in the center console along with a bite-sized Snickers. It’s my favorite candy bar, but I never eat them anymore. This particular one is left over from when a woman gave it to me at a brain injury conference in October. Seeing the Snickers makes me think about the times when no one was stressed and everything was easy.
I’m twelve, sitting in the passenger seat of my mother’s Jetta, nibbling at the end of a Snickers. I try to take the smallest bites possible so my candy bar will last the whole way to the Lake Latonka entrance. As the car crests on the top of the hill on Route 62, a bright blue sky, paint-stroked with wispy clouds opens up, and as the car glides down the other side, my stomach does the same joyful flip it always does at that spot on the way home.
“Feet, Janna!” my mother says looking at my K-Swiss, which I have propped up on the glove box.
“Sorry, Mom,” I inch them down and take another tiny bite. “Do you know the difference between cirrus clouds and cirro-cumulous? I do because of my report on …” I explain, looking over at my mother who is eating her Milky Way in big gooey bites like adults do.
Candy bars were for special days, days when we’d stop at the tiny convenience store on the way home. Nine times of out of 10 it was for a half-gallon of 2% milk. Sometimes it was cat food. Just us two — our thing. My dad didn’t like sweet stuff, anyway. Always a Milky Way for her and a Snickers for me — for years until we got too old, or maybe because of my dad’s accident. I guess we just stopped.
I meticulously pull the wrapper away from the chocolate trying to remember the last time I ate a whole Snickers. Well, there was that one time in Florida where I split half of a King-Sized one with a very attractive lawyer before our late-night beach walk. I make this one last by taking sips of black coffee in between baby bites. I’m determined to make it last until I’m out of Pittsburgh.
Four hours later and I’m hugging my knees in, leaning against the fridge at my aunt and uncle’s house in Ohio. Wa-ay too much food, and my stomach doesn’t feel too hot. I look up at my mother, standing hip to hip with her cousin, each of them holding a cup of coffee. She’s telling us what it was like to be without electricity. Cold. Silent. No phones! She wraps herself up in the wool sparkle of her sweater wrap and holds the cup up to her cheekbone. I can tell she’s glad for its warmth. My dad walks in, grabs a handful of leftover turkey and walks out.
“Dad looks like he’s lost weight.” His caramel button up is fitting far less snugly. “And I just saw you guys two weeks ago.”
“I know!” my mom exclaims. I love it when she exclaims.
“Yeah, Claudia, he really does,” her cousin Jayne echoes. “What’s he been doing?”
“Well we haven’t had any electricity for days, so he can’t eat!” She laughs, and I know she’s half-joking. I add in my two cents about my parents’ new and painstakingly adorable golden retriever puppy and the fact that my father told me he’s been doing the yoga routines I gave him. Then I groan, audibly.
“Are you gonna barf up your Thanksgiving?” my mother asks, looking down over me.
“That was my twenties, mom!” It’s like we’re exchanging our own personal zingers. “This is my thirties. Come on, now.”
We chuckle, while everyone in the kitchen gives us strange looks. Deserved, because who really jokes about bulimia? It’s not a joke though — I mean, it wasn’t. And neither is my father’s traumatic brain injury. Or how my mother rarely catches a break. But it’s the jokes that aren’t funny that seem to be how my mother and I tackle this TBI best. That, and sarcasm. We find our ways to be a team. It’s been like this since the day of my dad’s crash. Riding in that car with her to the hospital, when neither of us knew the outcome, and each of us believed in a different one, was what solidified an understanding. I would always be on her side. Here on out we were John’s two favorite women taking on challenge and sorrow from two different generations, two different personalities, and two different perspectives.
Admittedly, I don’t know what it is to marry someone and have his personality — and capabilities — do a 180 just about the time my kid was growing up and life was looking happily long term. I don't know what it feels like when life bottoms out at 46. And does my mother know what I experience? Not really. In fact, on the rare occasions when we’ve broached the subject of who has it worse, it gets ugly. We end up saying things that hurt each other. Each of our losses is unfair. Period. And it’s the unfairness of things that bind us in an odd, protective, dark humor sort of way. That’s our thing. It’s not candy bars or singing along to Elton John or planting flowers anymore, but the way we handle the gravity of things — with more sarcasm and mockery than a dissecting of our feelings — is how we’ve stayed afloat.
After all, I take my mom’s lead when it comes to this stuff. She handles what we’ve gone through better than anyone I can imagine. She is the glue, the thread, the silk that keeps us together. As I get more involved in the TBI community, the more stories I hear of families falling apart, and the more I appreciate my mother’s efforts. And as my book gets out there, there are more women who ask for my mother’s e-mail address. They just want to talk, I tell her. I don’t know how I can help them, she says. You don’t have to do this, I say. No, it’s okay. I do want to help, but I’m going to be very honest … just so they know, she adds. These women must see a glimpse of what I see. She is a woman who knows how to love best in times of brain injury.