Thursday, March 2, 2017

I Am an 800 lb Gorilla

I don’t believe in hitting kids but as the single mom of three boys it’s not like the thought didn’t cross my mind. Children are so adorable and nerve-wracking – like heaven and hell in the same package. Yet despite what I thought was restraint on my part - I never laid a hand on them - my beautiful, hulking sons were apparently scared to death of me.
Here’s the thing. As a second generation Italian mother I’m pretty sure I managed to telegraph a lot of bad ju ju without being a physical menace. An Italian mother has an arsenal of threats that involve evisceration with spoons, coupled with decibel levels that put the Air Force to shame. This kind of mother is an 800 pound gorilla. Where does sleep? What does she eat? Wherever, whatever she wants. I’m not proud of this. But like we say in Jersey, I’m just sayin’.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We are a fiercely devoted tribe, my boys and I (and now their amazing families), and we definitely put the “fun” in “dysfunctional,” but as I watch young mothers in public places gently give their demonic two-year old “choices” around behavior I realize that was not my style. I’m almost a little grateful that my boys feared me because that came in handy in the teenage years when they were jumping off the roof (onto a trampoline) and the cops knew me by my first name. Their knucklehead, adorable teenage friends apparently were scared of me as well, though they loved my open fridge and the fact that I used the “F” word with impunity. Once I discovered a son smoking weed out of a huge bong with a couple of his buddies and when they saw all 5’3” 115 pounds of me the kids fled in abject terror while I pulled my boy out of the house by his ear, took him into the back alley, and threw his $200 bong into oblivion. We watched it explode into pieces and he looked at me, comprehending.

“Capisce?” I asked.

“Yeah, yeah,” he was sweating, “Capisce.”

An Italian mother doesn't pause and search for the right words. We are raised on impulse and anger is like mother’s milk. This all has pretty disastrous consequences in the regular world but is the everyday landscape of an Italian family where love is never doubted and loyalty is so fierce you want to be a part of our clan. We can close ranks and protect and help each other like an army of love but often, as my oldest reminds me, it’s “a slap and a hug.”

We’re all grown up now and the boys are bravely facing parenthood and work-life challenges with the kind of openhearted humor that defines us as a family. But there are still conversations to be had, really important ones at this point as I head into my sixth decade. In my professional life, I work with individuals, families, and healthcare systems to encourage crucial conversations around future medical care. I hear repeatedly how “difficult” these conversations are and I respect that. Quick aside: Italians don’t consider themselves “white people” and frankly we often feel a little sorry for those whose ancestors stepped off the Mayflower. They can’t seem to talk about a thing, other than their portfolios or whatever. When an Italian mother wants to talk about what’s going to happen should she lose her mind and her body goes south, it goes something like this:

“Boys, I have to talk to you about what happens when I get old and sick.”



“You’re never gonna die!”

“Shut up. Sit down. Listen to me. And if you don’t do what I want I swear to God I will come back from the grave and kill you with a spatula which will be a long and painful death.”

Then they listen, bless their ever-loving hearts.

It’s excruciating to watch people get flustered and sweaty at the thought of talking to their families about anything, let alone illness and death. When I worked briefly as a chaplain on an ICU I saw families standing like statues around a deathbed, unable to touch, talk, or navigate this inevitability with any skill at all. I guess when you’re raised in an environment where your mother repeatedly reminds you of your mortality, talking about death is not such a big deal. But for non-Italians (“Medicans” is how we refer to them) it’s apparently complex and nearly impossible.

If Trump was president back when my grandparents came from Naples maybe he would have tried to keep them out but it wouldn’t work. We find a way. Perhaps there’s a deep regret in allowing the WOPS (“without papers”) in at this point, who knows? But this seems true: the tenaciousness we bring to this scene is a welcome relief and a catalyst for great fun, great achievements and brilliant authentic living. Lordy, if exclusively white people lived in the USA – with their carefully raised two-year olds who get to decide things – can you imagine? Havoc, I tell you. Because underneath all the yelling my boys knew and still know that they are the center of my world and I would tear limb from limb for them. At a little league game, when some asshat father was yelling at my son I got right in his face, immediately. The bleacher parents sat in stunned silence as I explained to this man what I would do to him if he didn’t shut up. Afterwards, a big guy came up to me and said, I wish you were my mother.

My own mother’s fierce devotion makes me look like a wimp. Her love for us was sometimes bigger than we could handle, but we never doubted her devotion. When she was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob (“mad cow”) disease at age 66 we were unprepared to lose her, but as spastic paralysis and blindness took her into a vegetative state there was no conflict when the next medical step was a feeding tube. She would have killed us if we went that route, and we knew it. She came to my house where after a few weeks she died at 2 a.m., in my brother’s arms.

I am okay being the 800 lb. gorilla if it means my kids felt safe and loved. And I’m 100% sure that when this big gorilla starts to fade they will lift me up, stare down aggressive doctors, take me out of some bad medical situation immediately and love me big, right to the end of my loud and wonderful life.

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