Call Me Mom Again
An unlikely family gathering after his father's death prompts Jared Bilski to think about stepping up when people you love are suffering, and finding a way to forgive what you can't change.
“And do you know what your mother says to the guy whose car she just hit?” my grandmother asks. “She says, ‘Well, as long as I have your attention, could you tell us how to get to Cooper’s? We seem to be a little lost, hon.’ I couldn’t believe it! Who the hell does that?”
I’m not paying attention to the story — I’ve heard it dozens of times. My grandmother tells it every other time we talk on the phone which, admittedly, occurs less and less frequently these days. I even missed a Mother’s Day call. You’re busy. You have two toddlers who don’t sleep, I tell myself to justify the lack of communication. Still, it’s impossible not to feel guilty.
My dad died just over a decade ago, and I was sure my grandmother would follow soon after. I can still see her face when I met her at the elevator in the hospital where he died, terrified yet hopeful she’d get a chance to say goodbye to her only child. When I shook my head, she collapsed into my arms.
“What am I gonna do now?” she kept repeating.
The fact that my mom is sitting in the same room with my grandmother and listening to her formerly estranged mother-in-law tell this Cooper’s car crash story is a modern-day miracle.
I didn’t have any answers, but in spite of my own grief, I tried to step up. I made regular trips up I-476 to Wilkes-Barre, sent the occasional letter with photos or other mementos, like old nursing ID badges and race bibs I’d uncovered while slowly clearing out her son’s belongings from his house. I made sure she kept the new car my dad had just bought her, and even begged the estate lawyer not to send the death certificate to my Gram to spare her from seeing the three letters in the cause of death section that would break her: H-I-V.
Most important, however, were the phone calls. I called at least once a week to check in on my grandmother in the year following my dad’s death. The early phone calls were pure tests of endurance. After losing her only child, my gram was struggling to find reasons to keep living, so maintaining the dying art of telephone conversation wasn’t exactly at the top of her list of priorities. Gradually, though, she came around, and we managed to find a rhythm to the hour-plus calls by sticking to the Big Three: The Weather, The Health Issues, and The Goddamn Neighbors. (These days, the sporadic calls last a half hour — if that.)
“It's OK,” she said. “Your mom has picked up the slack in the call department.”
That she has. The fact that my mom is sitting in the same room with my grandmother and listening to her formerly estranged mother-in-law tell this Cooper’s car crash story — the one where my mom gets lost looking for Cooper’s until she slams right the back of a car at a red light and views it not as a calamity but, rather, as a serendipitous opportunity to find out how to get to the restaurant she’s determined to take my grandmother to — is a modern-day miracle. Every time I scan the room, I can’t believe what I’m seeing. My mom, my wife, my two kids (at that time a two-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl), and my grandmother are lounging around the living room of this cozy shore house we rented, one of those places where every decoration, like the gaudy wooden sign stating “Beach Life is Shore Perfection,” was chosen to constantly remind you where you are. We’re in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, the place my family used to vacation when I was a kid, to visit the spot where we spread my dad’s ashes — just like we’ve done every year since he died back in 2011. My dad’s death anniversary isn’t the only occasion; it’s also my mom’s birthday. My mom has spent the last ten birthdays remembering the life of her dead ex-husband with a mother-in-law who essentially blamed her for the divorce.
That divorce got messy when my sister discovered love letters my father had written to another man and showed them to our mom. My mom immediately called my grandmother and asked if she "was aware that her son was gay?" She then went on to describe the contents of the letters. I'm not sure what type of response my mom had hoped for. Did she expect my grandmother to say, "Of course I was aware. For Christ's sake, Angie, no straight man loves Patti LaBelle that much"?
Whatever my mom had intended, she was stunned by my grandmother's response.
"Why couldn't she have just minded her own goddamn business?" my grandmother barked during the call. "If your daughter didn't go snooping around where she didn't belong, none of this would’ve happened in the first place."
That phone call seemed to mark the end of my mom’s relationship with her mother-in-law. It was a relationship that had evolved from the forced formalities of the early days, when an unintended pregnancy with me resulted in a shotgun wedding, to just before the divorce, when it finally sounded natural for my mom to say things to her mother-in-law like, “Let me get you more ravioli, mom” or “Why don’t you stay until Monday, mom?” or, “Don’t feel bad, mom, he doesn’t tell me anything, either.”
That divorce got messy when my sister discovered love letters my father had written to another man and showed them to our mom. My mom immediately called my grandmother and asked if she "was aware that her son was gay?" She then went on to describe the contents of the letters.
Then my dad died just weeks after my grandmother found out he was sick. At the very top of my mom’s long, list of fears is losing a child. “No one should have to bury a child. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.” Thanks to the call where she essentially blamed my teenage sister for blowing up our lives, my grandmother was definitely in the enemy camp for a while.
Still, my mom wasted no time reconnecting with her sworn enemy after my dad’s death. She eased back into my grandmother’s life in the same way she’d started — with persistent, mundane phone calls about the very topics I spoke to Gram about when I played the primary caller role: The Weather, The Health Issues, and The Goddamn Neighbors. Before long, my mom began making four-hour roundtrip drives to my grandmother’s for “girls’ days that consisted of the fancy meals my gram’s small fixed-income budget didn’t allow. Northeastern Pennsylvania’s finest, freshest lobster tail and clams casino were generally followed by trips to the movies, the nail place or, most often, the Mohegan Sun Casino, an oasis in the entertainment desert that is Wilkes-Barre. I didn’t realize just how big of a role my mom now played until my grandmother ended a phone call with me by saying, “Well, that’s my story.” That line — a line so cheesy it sounds as if it could be a colorful local news anchor’s patented sign off — is how my mom ends every call.
The more my mother stepped up for her mother-in-law, the more I backed off. Despite the fact that the Covid shutdowns didn’t change much for shut-ins on the day-to-day level, my mom called Gram every day during the first year of the pandemic. I could count on two hands how many times I called during that time.
It’s easy for me to blame my kids for the reduced phone time with Gram, but it’s a cop out. Even with the tyrannical toddlers, I still have no trouble mindlessly scrolling Twitter or Instagram for a couple hours each day. If I made it a priority, I could find time for my grandmother. But lately my priority has been learning more about her son.
My mom wasted no time reconnecting with her sworn enemy after my dad’s death. She eased back into my grandmother’s life in the same way she’d started — with persistent, mundane phone calls about the very topics I spoke to Gram about when I played the primary caller role: The Weather, The Health Issues, and The Goddamn Neighbors.
I’ve been rereading those love letters, poring over old emails and texts my dad sent me for clues and reaching out to people in his life who might have the answers I’m lacking. The more I learn about my father, the more frustrated I am with my grandmother. For all the stories she’s shared about my dad since his death and all the pointed questions I’ve asked about his past, she’s never once addressed that phone call with my mom about the letters, my dad’s death certificate, or the “buddy” who just happened to spend Christmases with her son. Doesn’t she care why he felt compelled to keep such a fundamental part of who he was secret? Doesn’t she need to talk about how hard it all must’ve been for him?
While my grandmother continues with her well-practiced story, I watch my mom in amazement. She laughs at all the right parts and even pats my grandmother’s thigh when the story’s complete.
“We do love our adventures, don’t we, mom?”
I wonder how it felt the first time my mom used the M-word again — how she feels about all of this. Tonight, we’ll go to dinner at some overcrowded restaurant where the waiter or waitress will bring out a little cupcake and sing to my mom in our half-assed attempt to recognize her birthday. Tomorrow, we’ll venture down to the beach, plant flowers in the dunes and stare out at the Atlantic, lost in our own thoughts and hypnotized by the crashing waves’ relentless song. Eventually, emotion will overtake my grandmother and all of us, including my two children, will rush to wrap our arms around her and provide comfort. After a few minutes, my Gram will crumple up her tissue and say, “Well, I guess that’s that.” My mom will load Gram into her white Jeep Wrangler, the one from the Cooper’s crash, and make the 300-mile trek back to Wilkes-Barre, all the while listening, really listening, to the same stories and regrets she’s heard time and time again.
“Remember to call your grandmother today,” my mom says to me on what would be my dad’s 66th birthday. “She always tells me how good she feels after she talks to you.” I know how grateful Gram is for my mom. The last time we spoke, she said, “I’d be lost without your mother.”
What I hadn’t considered is how much my lack of contact lately has affected her. I realize now it’s not my place to judge my grandmother for refusing to acknowledge the truth about her son’s life; that’s on her. It is, however, my job to step up and be there for the end of hers. My grandmother may not have her son around to see her through these final years, but she never tires of telling me how lucky she is to have a former daughter-in-law who calls her mom again. She deserves a grandson who makes it a priority to call, too.
And I’m trying — although my Gram sure doesn’t make it easy, as she barrels toward her mid-90s with her list of grievances expanding with each passing day. But whenever I feel I’m slipping and I catch myself excuses for communication lapses, I think about my mom and her annoyingly accurate belief in the power of forgiveness, and I know it’s time to pick up the phone.
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