There is a silly thing I sometimes say when I’m teaching. Though I’ve been saying it for far too long, I still get laughs, which I love, so I keep making the joke. More to the point, I keep making the joke not just because I get laughs, and students don’t laugh because it is especially humorous, but because I suspect what I say is apt, it accurately describes our shared embodied experience and it gives us an unexpected chance to release our built up tension, it provides a small moment for relaxation. So, it happens something like this: A student will be complaining about a particularly difficult reading assignment (usually something theoretical) or discussion topic (usually something theoretical!), lamenting the impenetrability of the ideas and how they’ll never be able to get their minds around “this stuff,” and describing vividly the excruciating pain involved in thinking deeply. I listen closely to their plaintive cries and only when I am sure they are finished speaking I ask, “Does your head feel like it is going to explode”? And they always respond, “Yes!” and then laugh, to which I reply with something along the lines of, “Good, that’s exactly the experience I was hoping you’d have. If your head doesn’t feel like it is going to explode once in the while, then you aren’t doing your job!” Also, the “joke” might happen this way—Sometimes, when a student says something particularly insightful, brave, or innovative for her or him, I exclaim, “Everybody out of the way – that’s so amazing what you said, my brains are about to explode!”
I never once imagined that my mother’s brains – or mine, for that matter – could explode for real.
Two weeks after she celebrated her sixtieth birthday and one week after returning from a cruise to Mexico with her younger sister an undiagnosed aneurysm ruptured in my mother’s brain as she was driving from the library at the university where I work to my house in order to meet me and my daughter for dinner. I had recently celebrated my thirty-ninth birthday, my daughter had celebrated her tenth birthday, and we’d all felt as though we were emerging from a period in our lives that had been extraordinarily challenging, even traumatic. In my own life over the past decade there had been many unanticipated events that demanded of me what felt like an almost constant process of adjustment and adaptation, periods of recovery and reflection followed by rebuilding of self and life-world. But in the most recent months there had been my maternal grandmother’s rapid decline and near-death, followed by her equally rapid and unexpected improvement. This woman, my only surviving grandparent, had been my “best person” throughout my growing-up years, my primary source of care and regard, my model for the reality-bending possibilities of intent, curiosity, will, and the belief that there could always be something better. Rushing to her side and caring for her during what we thought were her final days on earth had been in many ways a singular experience – when I arrived at her bedside, she seemed to be dying; I climbed in beside her and slept with her all night. In the morning, she woke up, toileted and dressed herself, whereas I woke up vomiting and continued to do so for two days. This was an unexplainable yet empirically verifiable event that deeply shook me.
Also during the half-year prior to her ruptured brain aneurysm there had been the unexpected and violent end of my mother’s second marriage and her first sustained experience of living alone. She and her first husband, my father, married when they were both eighteen-years-old; I was born nine months later. Three years later my brother was born with severe and irreversible auditory and visual impairments caused by a congenital syndrome, the existence of which was heretofore unknown to my family, and until he left home in his early twenties, my mother’s daily reality -- her identity, in fact – was organized around the considerable responsibility of parenting a child with disabilities. She’d been married to my father for twenty-five years and had cared for my brother for twenty-one of those twenty-five years when, the day after my brother’s twenty-first birthday, when I was a twenty-four year-old married graduate student, for the first time in her life she chose herself. Quite courageously, she walked away from life as she had (and we had) known it, as she felt her responsibility to keep the family together for my brother’s sake was over. I’d known for several months that something of significance was going on as each time I saw my mother she’d hand over to me another small box of objects that were important to her, that she wanted me to protect for her. I even suggested to her on the occasion of one of these exchanges that it seemed that she was “preparing for flight.” And so, when she called me and asked that I pick her up and help her “run away from home” I wasn’t too surprised – I’d always wondered why she hadn’t fled sooner -- though I was in shock because of all of the foreseen and unforeseen consequences of her actions. After a few months, in between staying temporarily with me or friends and for a very short while alone, she met and married her second husband, to whom she was married for thirteen years until the day after Mother’s Day 2005, when she found herself, for the first time in her entire life, truly on her own.
In the months that preceded the sudden explosion in her brain she had gone a long way toward establishing her life as a single woman who’d already traveled through the life-course for several decades, to fully embracing her “third age” with vitality and purpose. I’d helped her to acquire an apartment in the neighborhood where my daughter and I are established; a friend and I had moved her into the new place and had kept her clear of her second husband. I’d also suppressed another wave of mild shock and even some panic when she announced that she had decided to return to college – in fact, the university where I am a professor – in order to complete her undergraduate degree and fulfill a life-long dream that had been disrupted so many years previously, a dream that she shared with the majority of my students who are also mid-life women.
She’d worked for over two decades as a medical assistant without a college degree in a managed-care setting. (And it is important perhaps to know that this was the same setting where she’d be a patient after the aneurysm ruptured; the same stubborn institution that I’d have to navigate as her caregiver, with varying degrees of success and a lot of exasperation; the same setting that would attempt to renege on their commitment to her as an employee and client, threatening to deny her medical claims and discontinue her relationship with the specialist to whom they had referred her.) She had decided that with the approach of her sixtieth birthday it was the ideal time to pursue as many of her dreams as she could: going back to school; training for a walking marathon; building economic security; developing current and new friendships. She felt an unfamiliar vitality, clarity, and purposefulness; she said she’d never felt better or younger in her life, that for once her “insides” and “outsides” matched, she felt a coherence and symmetry she could grow accustomed to and wanted to make last as long as possible. (When my mother speaks of her “identity” in this way, I can’t help but think about the subtle and sufficiently complex analysis of the self-constructions grown-ups engage in offered by Biggs, 1999.)
As well, there seemed to be a more fundamental shift happening throughout the substrates of her identity, her very way of being in the world was transforming; for what felt to me to be the first time in the almost forty years I had been her daughter, she started expressing her thoughts and feelings in a way that impressed me as representing some deeper truth that she’d carried around for decades but never felt up to narrating. And she not only expressed herself in an increasingly open and innovative way, but she began, at least discursively, to assume responsibility for her choices in a way I was completely unaccustomed to and wanted to put my faith in with a desperation that surprised and somewhat concerned me because I hoped so much that her new habits of thinking and being in the world would “stick” (And I must admit here that I wanted this as much as for my own sake and the sake of my daughter as I did for my mother’s sake.).
My mother was asking the kinds of questions that she’d never allowed herself to ask before without being paralyzed by fear, as if to ask such existential questions about the universe and her place in it would unleash uncontrollable and destructive forces. And I noticed that she was inventing a wholly new language to describe her current self, whom she aspired to become, not only whom she’d been in the world in her “past life.” Before my eyes, my mommy, who seemed resistant for so many years to engaging in self-reflexivity and assuming her own agency, was evidencing the possibility of the “reversibility of discourses” about her life and self . For the first time in my life as her daughter I experienced her as a growing-up person, by which I mean to say, she was exhibiting the characteristics I had come to associate – theoretically and in my own struggles with personhood -- with grown-up-hood, an intentional commitment to our own deep development and a purposeful and responsible life.
All of this was jarring – largely because of its unfamiliarity to me from the standpoint of being my mother’s daughter – and it instigated for me what felt like yet another spiraling period in my own identity work. But the innovations my mother seemed to be making in herself and her life-world were also a source of new hope for me about potentialities for her life and our life together as growing-up mother and daughter.
She was becoming – how to say it? Not so much a new person but a larger person in the world, an expanded mommy who took up more space, a fuller-being.