My Mom and Fred Astaire

Her voice reverberated throughout the house. It was seven a.m.

My mom, she’s a morning person. And likes to sing.

She’s terrible at it. Off-key, a crack here and there, lyrics jumbled.

And that morning, it was Fred Astaire.

She stopped mid-wail, saw me shuffling in, hazy fog in my eyes.

“How’s my binky-baby-boy this morning?”

I’m 48.

Forty years ago. In the kitchen then, too. No songs. No voices boomed. She was upset.

“What’s the matter, mom?” I asked, my eight year old self tentative. I didn’t know how other people lived. Just our duplex, the little gas heater. Well-used furniture that looked comfortable to me.

“I don’t know what to make for dinner,” she said.

I glanced up in the pantry. There was a box with fried chicken on it. Flour.

“Let’s eat that,” I said.

“I don’t have chicken, Michael. Not today.”

We ate peanut butter and jelly. I thought it was delicious.

Delicious every time that happened.

Another day, thirty-three years ago. Fifteen year old me, socially awkward, first year of high school, in a new world where familiar faces fade and something larger emerges, something outside of a happy bubble.

I was lost. Caught somewhere in the middle. Lots of middles in life, come to find out. On my birthday of a decade and a half, Mom somehow came to my rescue. She rented a building, had a band play led by her co-worker’s son, brought food. A cake. A who’s who of high school royalty showed.

Still don’t know how she paid for it.

It was then I came out of my shell.

Another day, five years ago:

A streak of pain shot up each leg with each step as I plodded toward my English class in Port Isabel, Texas. I planted in the office chair, took a shoe off, a sock.

The swelling was worse.

A week later, the palpitations started. Any exertion, any strain, and my heart would race. I’d turn pale, sweat dripping from my brow.

And then it happened in class and wouldn’t stop.

The principal called an ambulance.

“I’m flying down there,” my mom said, calling from Utah. “I’m staying until you’re well. I don’t care how long it takes.” My 43 year old self tried to object, but she was having none of it.

And she did. Slept on a couch in my one room, cramped bungalow. Wearing a heart monitor and on warfarin, I’d feel her hand on my head sometimes in the middle of the night. For weeks.

An ablation surgery corrected the artery obstruction.

And so we celebrated with her beloved fishing. She, as usual, caught the biggest trout.

For nearly two years, I was halfway around the world, the heart scare propelling me forward to faraway lands: a semester in China, a year in the Philippines. Mom couldn’t stay away, of course.

No place on earth is too far to see her binky baby.

She arrived in Cebu after a lengthy layover in Seoul, and we saw the big city, traveled by ferry to Bohol and the Chocolate Hills, then on to the island of Leyte and Kalanggaman.

“I don’t feel so well,” she said, one morning shopping in Ormoc.

She looked tired, eyes a little clouded over, unfocused.

“What’s wrong?”

“Just a little dizzy.”

We cut our shopping short and retreated to the hotel so she could rest.

“Heaven. I’m in Heaven,” my mom sang out, me taking the first sip of coffee to kickstart another groggy morning, and another day of substitute teaching at a middle school in Utah.

I arrived back in December from the Philippines, concerned for her and my stepfather in the midst of the pandemic, deciding I’d stay with them until a new teaching contract materialized for the fall.

After work that day, her words echoed in my head.

“75, binky baby. How many more years do I get her? What does that look like, life without her?”

I couldn’t imagine.

I can’t imagine.

Every high, every low, with plenty of both, she’s been there.

“It’s going to be all right. We’ll get past this.”

“No matter what, we’re in this together.”

“You make my heart so proud.”

“You ARE my heart.”

She tells me she loves me every time I leave, every time I return, on Skype, on the phone, in person, in Asia or down the hall in Salt Lake City, U.S.A.

I dread that next middle, a middle where I’m lost once again, and she’s not there to rescue me.

I push that away for now because I must rescue her soon.

She is my heart.

Author, Educator, occasional Journalist

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