Monday, May 20, 2013

Monday Maternal Musings

Good day,

At approximately 1:30 p.m. on Monday, July 8, 1991, a gowned obstetrician named Elizabeth Warren raised sterile, gloved hands and smiled across a drape as a nurse prepared to tie a mask around the lower half of her face.  "Sorry I'm late," she said, to the Irish midwife across the knees of their patient.  Her assistant raised one eyebrow in the only portion of her own face still visible.  "I was waiting for the Roto Rooter guy," the doctor explained, and she lifted a razor-edged scalpel to make an incision.

Twenty minutes later, a pearl-colored infant uttered his first breath-taking sound, laughter.  All eyes in the room danced.  The doctor and the midwife closed while the pediatrician took Apgar scores to gauge how much trouble might await the thirty-four week newborn and his thirty-five-year-old mother.  Stitch, count instruments, count swabs, stitch, repeat.  The woman lying under their obsessive attention to preventing a malpractice claim?  Me.  The laughing baby?  Patrick Charles Corley.  None other.

Over the next two decades, laughter dominated that baby's vocalization.  He stomped around the living room of our home in Brookside wearing black cowboy boots and a towel tied to resemble a cape, at two or three years old, singing, "nananananananana Batman!". When I sat in my rocker and cried, he stretched the neck of his T-shirt over his five-year old head, and swayed back and forth, chortling, "I am an old woman, who lives by the sea".

At six, he climbed the stairs to his school, seriously inquiring of his ailing maternal unit, "Are you going to die before I'm old?'  When I tossed off a cavalier answer -- "No, I am going to live to be a hundred and three, and nag you every day of your life!", he crowed, so loud the first-floor pre-school teacher shushed him, "Then I'm going to ANNOY you every day of YOUR life!"

The trek from 1991 to 2013 held a few detours, some that led to dead ends, no-through streets, and construction barricades.  A skirmish or two with frowning principals, some medical challenges, and the occasional foray into misty valleys inhabited by unfriendly trolls.  Along the way, Patrick uttered some damn clever lines, I am here to tell you.  He grew to a height less than he wanted; he failed to groom muscles despite a solid year of working out every day; and he often biked further than his mother cared to know, starting with the length of the Brookside Trolley Trail at age nine.  Sometimes it took him a  while to learn something, but once he learned, it stayed with him like white on rice.  Unless it's brown rice.  Or black rice.  Or that yellow stuff that comes in packets and takes forever to cook.

He got a white and black cat and named it Sprinkles after the candy you put on ice cream.  He got a brown dog and named it Chocolate, because, well, if you're going to have Sprinkles,  they ought to be chocolate.  He organized a sit-down in Kindergarten when the teacher closed the playroom due to the carelessness of some of the older girls.  The sit-down had as its mantra that the many should not be punished for the sins of the few.  His mother taught him that.  His teacher was not amused. 

A few years later, in fourth grade, that mother got a call to come over and straighten something out at the school.  I found Patrick, now nine, leaning against the teacher's office desk with a black Metallica hat pulled down over his forehead so low that only his nervous eyes could be seen.

"What did he do," I asked.  When told he had publicly and loudly accused the teacher of being unfair, I fell silent.  "Were you unfair?" I finally asked the teacher.  It seemed that Patrick and another student had taken the same test, and missed the same question.  The other child got an A; Patrick got a B.  "That does seem unfair," I ventured.  "The very same test?  The very same one wrong answer?"  The teacher nodded.  "Why did he get a B?"  I  asked.  The explanation:  The teacher felt Patrick could have gotten them all right, whereas the other child could not have.  "I've got to side with my son on the merits," said I. 

I told him, later, on the way home:  "Right message, wrong method." 

Those words would haunt me.  Years later, when Patrick, now nearly twenty, heard me lose me temper, he took me aside and told me, "Right message, wrong method."  But he took his analysis a step further. He asked why I had raised my voice in the first place, what had prompted my displeasure.  He probed my logic, and then declared that  he had changed his mind.  I had erred at both ends.  What could I say?  I had been warned; when I told my second husband that I preferred cooperation to obedience, he predicted eventual regret.

In reality, I have no regrets.  Or, perhaps, only one:  That I could not provide broader experiences for my son.  But that lament has roots deeper than his twenty-two years.

To say Patrick's life has been a wild ride understates the situation.  He hasn't been to Europe, or Canada, but he has been to Mexico, and L.A., and North Carolina; to the Badlands and Beale Street; to the Dakotas and New Mexico. 

He has also been made to take chances.  I pushed when I wanted to cuddle.  When he nearly drowned as a toddler, I forced the swimming instructor to immediately put him back in the pool, so he would not later fear water.  My payback came in photographs of him swinging on a rope to fall in a crystal clear pool of water, deep in a cave, somewhere in Mexico.  And I cajoled him into taking that trip to Mexico, something he fought all the way to the airport.  When he deplaned at the end of six weeks, tan, with astonishingly curly hair and three inches taller, he crowed.  "I am so glad you made me go!"

One year he struggled to adjust to school because of health issues, and I decided to finish his elementary education as a home-school project.  He read novels that others would not encounter until college, and stayed up until three a.m. at the Powell Observatory to see a low-hanging planet not normally visible here on Earth.  On the first day of high school, where he found himself one of only three Caucasians in a class of 40, he pulled his dinner plate toward him and sighed:  "Now I know what it must have been like to be Black in Atlanta in 1950."  But he persevered, formed friendships, and learned lessons.  Some I will never forget.  On the bus to Des Moines with the Debate team, he mentioned that his colleagues would probably be the only black kids at the tournament.  One of his teammates quipped, "Well hell, Pat, you're the only white kid on this bus.  How does it feel?"  The heavy silence splintered beneath the weight of their laughter, as they drove north through Missouri in the quiet of an autumn night.

The college choice became an awkward dance between grades that were good but not great and the limits of his mother's pocketbook.  But respectable scholarships and some judicious use of limited funds got him to an ivy-covered, self-contained campus in the middle of Indiana, where he would cut off his curls, join a fraternity, perfect his guitar riffs, and discover his literary voice.

 He came home for Fall break freshman year, taking the nonstop from Indy; but then stayed in his dorm that Thanksgiving, much to his mother's lasting lament.  I thought there was a girl involved, but it turned out he just wanted to save my money.  When he didn't answer his cell phone, I called campus police.  "He's over 18," they explained.  "We can't tell you anything; we can only do a well-student check."  They found him ill, unfed, alone.  The security officer called me back despite the fact that she wasn't supposed to do so.  "What the hell," she said.  "I'm a mom too."  They made him go to Student Health and he got on antibiotics.  Christmas-time, back home, he stood in the kitchen and admitted it had been a stupid thing to do.  "Not stupid," I told him.  "But let's communicate better.  I  would have gotten you tickets." 

The following Spring Break, a small group of students spent a week in California. Patrick rode his bike across the Golden Gate Bridge right before a man tried to end his life by plummeting over its side.  He called me, whispering, awed by the sight of a cop pulling the man back to safety.  I keep expecting that week to appear in an essay, or a play, or a short-story.  Maybe a novel.

His time at DePauw University had highs and lows.  Good grades, bad grades.  Expectations that matched reality; some which didn't.   He spent a fabulous couple of weeks in Park City, walking alongside newsmakers.  He won writing awards, richly deserved.  Some chances he took; some chances he squandered.  For the last three months, he has told me that he did not intend to walk at commencement, and I have answered his news with the same dogged refrain:  "It's important to me that you do."  Most of the time, he did not answer.  Once he said it meant more to me than it did to him and I snapped back:  "Exactly why you should do it."

Last Friday, he called me, apprehension apparent over the crackle of a bad connection.  "I'm about to open my grades," he intoned slowly, gloomily.  I waited.  The silence sizzled with his fear.  Suddenly:  "I passed!  I passed!  I'm going to graduate!"  I released the breath I had intentionally held.  Pride would shortly replace relief, but at that moment, I could only say, "Thank God!"

Most of the village which raised my son attended Commencement in spirit.  Beside me on chairs dampened by the prior night's sudden shower sat my stepson Mac, who just completed his first year at Rhodes College; and my husband Jim, who has been Patrick's stepfather for a scant but potent two years.  We had taken my son and a friend to dinner on Saturday; and fretted past midnight about the lost graduation tickets, which we would only need if the affair moved inside.  I took some of that worry out on the wedding party having a kegger in the room next to ours, at 1:00 a.m.  They were not pleased.

But the weather did not disappoint.  A sapphire sky towered above us.  Early fog burned away before nine.  I held chairs while my companions got coffee, chatting with the young man to my right engaging in a similar violation of protocol.  The quadrangle slowly filled, hundreds, thousands, mothers in new spring dresses, fathers in an assortment of khakis, siblings in short sleeves, all with cameras close at hand.

The faculty paraded into their seats, walking with a noticeable measure of unbridled joy.  Some wore unorthodox hats, and I turned to my husband to gesture.  "This conservative college seems to be relaxing a bit," I said.

Then the school band struck up the chords of Pomp and Circumstance, and the students flowed down the aisles.  I strained to see Patrick, not sure if he would enter from the left or the right, not having known in advance that there would be a left or a right, not having asked.  But I needn't have worried.  I saw him clearly. He wore a wild pair of sunglasses above a dazzling smile, the light of laughter in his eyes visible across the many rows.  I should have known;  I did know; how could I not have recognized him?

He entered, laughing, once more.  There have been tears in the last twenty-one and 3/4 years, and there will be more.  He will encounter mountains that he hesitates to climb, and walls in which he cannot see a door, or a window, or even a crack.  He will no doubt flounder from time to time.  He will dawdle at intersections, torn between an easy path and a winding road on which he fears to tread.  But on that day, on Sunday, 19 May 2013, just before noon, he walked across the stage without so much as a glimmer of concern.  With a wide, open countenance, hand reached out for that of President Casey, he made his last journey as a college student, and descended on the other side as an alumnus of DePauw University, class of 2013.

And his mother, she who had trembled with trepidation beneath that draped sheet in 1991, wide awake, gripping the hand of her labor coach, listening to surreal chatter about the flood in her doctor's basement and the tardiness of the plumber, could not be more proud.

Mugwumpishly tendered,

Corinne Corley


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The Missouri Mugwump™

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I've been many things in my life: A child, a daughter, a friend; a wife, a mother, a lawyer and a pet-owner. I've given my best to many things and my worst to a few. I live in Brookside, in an airplane bungalow. I'm an eternal optimist and a sometime-poet. If I ever got a poem published in The New Yorker, I would die a happy woman. I'm a proud supporter of the Arts in Kansas City. I vote Democrat, fly the American flag, cry at Hallmark commercials, and recycle.