Tough As A Mother

My mom threw up at the climbing gym, just after I lowered her from the top of a route. She came out of the women’s restroom a couple minutes later, swearing she felt better, saying it must have been something she ate. Then she powered through a couple more routes, and an ice cream sundae at the diner afterward. This was two days after Christmas.

At the pharmacy a few hours later, she looked bad, shivering with a fever. We picked up the medicine for my grandmother and argued as I backed mom’s white sedan out of the parking lot. I insisted that she go home and rest, and that I could drop off the medicine and check on my grandma. She insisted back, as she has my entire life. This is how it goes—no real reasoning, no debate, just back and forth until someone gives in. I won, dropping her off at the house and texting my brother “make sure mom goes to bed.”

She went inside and sat on the couch next to the Christmas tree with a blanket over her head, feeling like hell but not wanting to miss out on a minute of time with her grandkids. My brother and I would later shake our heads and laugh at Mom and her relentless stubbornness. It might have been the first argument I’ve ever won with her.

I drive to Grandma’s apartment in the assisted living home to find her confused with a 103.5 temperature, and of course Mom flew to the rescue, off the couch next to the Christmas tree, and down the street to Grandma. We began the slow epic of moving an 86-year-old woman across icy sidewalks, into the car, and to the emergency room, three of us trying to gently set her into the passenger seat as she tried to get her feet to work, her brain cooking with fever. Just shuffle your right foot six inches, grandma. Six inches. Okay, how about three. In five minutes, we moved three feet.

At the ER entrance, we couldn’t get her out of the car. Grandma, grab my hands, I say, I’ll just pull you into the wheelchair. I pull gently, and she doesn’t move. I feel like I’m going to pull her arms off. Okay Grandma, put your arms around my neck and I’ll give you a big bear hug. I try to pull and she says I can’t I can’t I can’t. Mom runs inside the door and grabs two paramedics, who pull Grandma out in about 30 seconds, and we wheel her inside, out of the icy night air.

Nobody is happy in the emergency room. We just want everything to be better for the person we brought there, so all of us can spend Friday night doing what people do on Friday nights.

I wheel Grandma down the halls, putting her in room 11. Mom and I sit next to each other in two chairs next to the wall as nurses pop a blood pressure cuff on Grandma and plug her into the IV. Mom sits next to me, mass texting six brothers and sisters in four states. And I think, This Christmas Is Sad.

She says, Call your dad and have him come pick you up. I say Bullshit, mom, what are you going to do? You’re the sick one. You need to go home.

She says, When I’m 86, you can come sit by my hospital bed—I got this one.

I text my dad and go outside to wait. I lean against the wall next the sliding doors at the ER entrance and an ambulance pulls up as I wipe away tears with the sleeve of my puffy jacket.

“Do you think your brothers and sisters know how hard this is?” I ask mom in the van a couple days later on the drive home from Grandma’s apartment.

“I don’t think so,” Mom says. “I just think about what they said about what they did for Christmas—things like ‘we had a relaxing day’—and I think, ‘I want to have a relaxing day. I worked all day!'”

I say, Mom, I think you’re like me. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a relaxing day in your life.

“No, you’re like me,” Mom says emphatically. “I’m the mother.”

We both laugh and I let her have that one. I gently press the brake pedal so we don’t slide on the ice at the four-way stop, and she points out a tree with multicolored big-bulb holiday lights, the only thing decorated in someone’s spacious front yard at the corner of the intersection. This is where we turn left to go to Mom and Dad’s house, and I know Mom has made this left turn hundreds of times this year. Everybody else in the family, including me, gets to drop in whenever our schedules allow. We get to put Grandma away in a box, a building full of sweet old ladies, just like thousands of other places like it in the country, where all those sweet old ladies pass time in small apartments full of photos of us.

Someone else takes care of Grandma, and we leave to go live our lives. But not Mom. She calls in the morning, at lunch, then leaves work late and stops by to see Grandma, every day. Then she drives past this tree with the big bulbs on it, gets home at 8:30, and goes to bed about a half-hour later every night.

I wonder how much longer Mom can handle it, working 55 hours a week as a nurse practitioner helping patients, then taking care of Grandma when she can and worrying about Grandma when she has a spare minute, then sleeping a little bit and not eating enough and then running off to a spin class. I think about this thing people call “self-care” and how bad I am at it, and I think Mom might be worse, and maybe that’s where I learned it. And maybe she’s why I tell people “‘Stubborn’ is what lazy people call determined people.”

I don’t imagine Mom ever sat down and decided she was going to be a devoted person, but when things get tough, I think she’s the type of person you want in your life. One of my aunts said it’s because she’s been a nurse her whole life, but I don’t think that’s it.

We don’t say I Love You a lot in my family. To me, those three words always sound like someone else’s. Maybe that’s because I’m a writer, and when you’re a writer, they teach you to avoid cliches. We do it better than we say it. We show up for it because it’s our job as human beings. Like my mom, I may not be the most touchy-feely person in the world, but I do my best to show up when you need a ride to the airport, or a couch moved, or somebody to talk to. Just like my mom.


17 replies on “Tough As A Mother

  • Julie

    Wow, what an awesome post! I hit the jackpot with my mom too, the best person I’ve ever known. Will always miss her.

  • Jenny Johnston

    I have been following your blog/writings/dirtbag stories for a significant amount of time now. It used to be that I would get the email saying I had a new “semi-rad” and I would read it when I got a moment. Now, the first thing I do on Thursday mornings (after my husband and kids are fed and he is off to work) is open my email to read the new post from you.

    I homeschool my girls…I do not get a lot of down-time, or time for self care. But I do like to think about how the time that I am putting into them now will pay off when I am 90. I am showing up for them 100% of the time right now so that they will want to show up for me when I need them. It is so important to be there for people, thanks for the reminder today.

  • Amy O

    That has “I love you” all over it.
    Happy Mother’s Day to mom and gma from your pals in Petaluma.
    Two rockin’ cool ladies:)

  • Matt Viara

    I do the same thing as jenny when they show up in my inbox every Thursday. You have earned your right to derail my workday sir…keep it up.

  • Sharlea

    Ice cream and coffee will help this situation. Maybe both together? I hope Mom and Grandma are both doing better. Oh, and you too.

  • Heinz Weichselbaumer

    I too look forwards to Thursdays when I get to read your stories. Your ability to tell a story is a gift. That said, you blew me away with this one !

  • Matt Hoffmann

    This one hit me hard… My mom has spent the last pretty significant part of a decade caretaking all my grandparents and I am constantly amazed by her ability to smile and not complain.

    Mom’s are pretty darn special.

    Thanks Brendan.

  • songsta

    perfect tribute to moms who give so much of themselves. i’m grateful to my mother, my children’s mother and my grandmother for all the love they have bestowed on me and my family. it is right to give thanks and praise. happy mother’s day.

  • Shelby

    As a mom, I can vouch that honoring her by telling her story to others and “doing” love means even more than saying “I love you”. Your mom would be proud!

  • Tiffany

    Seriously, if you switched out Brendan for me, that was the exact same Christmas I had a few years ago with my mother and grandmother … down to the spin class. Moms are tough as nails and they’re awesome. Great tribute Brendan! Hugs to all the moms and grandmas…

  • Krista Fredrick


    Having met your Mother I can say with the utmost and sincerist emotion, that you are
    your Mother’s son. And… your Mother is an Angel.


  • Justin G

    As I am surrounded by nurses daily, I am constantly in awe of those people who not only care for others as their career, but can’t turn it off throughout their lives. Moms like yours inspire me to be a better human. Great post, Brendan.

  • Pete S

    Brendan, thank you for this. Mothers are so special… I’m a generation up on you – my Mom is 87. We lost my Dad before Thanksgiving last year, Mom spent every day with him at the memory care home. We tried to move her into our house afterward but she was not ready to leave all of the memories in their home. She still wins “arguments” too, even at her age… I’m at her house several times a week and it’s always so hard when I go home and leave her there alone. Sorry for running on, this just struck a chord as so many of your posts do. If you’re ever in NorCal I’d love to buy you a beer.

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