10 May, 2014

The Hail Mary Pass

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. I’m in the midst of many crises. On the one hand, the public – I live in a neighborhood where I am perpetually reminded of the American tendency to shut up and let others fight our battles so that we may preserve our veneer of bogus solicitude. On the other, private – including prom for a gorgeous freshly minted adult whose similarities of disposition with mine (speaking out, a gift for writing, a deadline-oriented academic rigour), are only matched by her complete dis-similarity, namely, (apart from her athleticism), a vast disregard for planning when it comes to clothing and presentation. It includes rushing into shoe shops ten minutes to closing to find the perfect shoes. It includes a freshly minted teenager in conniptions about what to wear to her 1000th bat/bar mitzvah. And it includes clothes flying out of my closet upon the lithe and graceful backs of daughters. Usually the same clothes they had so recently scorned as being beyond the pale when it comes to fashion. Uh-huh. Oh, it is hard not to gloat.

As I nipped in here to check in on this and that, I happened to write back to a dear friend whose exceedingly well brought up son, a chivalrous and handsome young man who is now in college, is due to arrive shortly to escort my daughter to her senior prom. A few years ago, when he was still only my height, I taught him Latin/ballroom dance in my class for kids between the ages of 11-14. A class I was inspired to take on after I watched the documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom, about a group of NYC kids. My daughter and many of her friends were among those in the class. Little time has passed. And a great deal, too. Here they will be in a few short hours, looking like they never jumped around in socks to Lou Bega’s Mambo No. 5 at the end of class.

Where was I going with this? Oh yes, that email. In writing to her I was reminded that this young man stepped in to rescue her from the ridiculousness of having to wait for a “promposal” from some inept high schooler. Instead, she will go to prom with someone who has, over the years, cooked for her family, walked and run her dog, lead her onstage in a jerky but charming tango, and even, during a blizzard in Maine, towed her maternal grandmother in a sled through the snows to his house for Easter dinner. This date was a scheme cooked up by two mothers, as mothers the world over have cooked up schemes to rescue their sons and daughters, sometimes from each other.

The phrase “the Hail Mary” popped into my head as I wrote her back. I’m sure most people who read this blog know what this term means, but here it is for those who may not:

The phrase Hail Mary was coined by Roger Staubach , the quarterback of Dallas Cowboys after throwing the football to Drew Pearson in the NFL divisional playoff match in the year 1975-76. The move turned out to be a winning touchdown pass. A Hail Mary is considered an offensive move where the quarterback sends the ball up with no specific receiver being targeted but just hoping that one of his team members would successfully catch it.

It has entered the vernacular to mean a last ditch effort to save what is worth saving. And I was reminded of the hundreds of times I have been called upon over the years to answer that prayer for this particularly errant and absent-minded oldest daughter of mine. The numerous times when I have procured everything from a Cliff bar to a necessary totem before a meet, from arguing her case (successfully), with a national outdoor program to reconsider their decision to deny her admission, to persuading a college to award her a scholarship (also successfully). All of it was deserved, it took no great skill, just great love.

And it reminded me of the thousands of times my mother did the same for me and for my older brothers. Hers, like mine, was not always an easy love to bear, but it was an easy love to take for granted. She persuaded a physician to remove the word “possibly” from the phrase “possibly negligible” on my brother’s medical record when he was admitted to college in the U.S. It was a clearance for Tuberculosis, a completely benign trace of which exists in every Sri Lankan vaccinated during a global effort to eradicate it from the populace. Nothing would come between her son and the safety guaranteed him by his leaving a country where boys were being disappeared by the dozen. Nothing would come between her daughter the preservation of her dignity, either, when the nuns sought fit to expel me from the convent I attended.

But the story that I am reminded of most is the one where my mother, even after realizing that I had lied through my teeth to (a) get a friend permission to attend a party and (b) stolen – yes, I admit it, stolen! – money from my mother for a wash-and-blow-dry hair appointment that I had told her was free, still played along so that my friend’s parents would not know what a dreadful creature (that’s what she called me privately as she berated me all the way to the hair appointment), I was. My mother taught me that brand of love, the one that would defend to the death the one who is loved, against all odds, and beyond all reason. The kind of love that alone is worth living for.

It is, I know, a form of madness. It leaves me, sometimes, feeling depleted and crazed, questioning my own sanity and wracked with self-doubt. But in the end, I have never regretted any of it. Not the many rides to school, nor the time I marched in and requested of the befuddled school secretary that she exacts detention on this serial late-comer, not the late night sojourns to procure “twenty apples for tomorrow!” nor the times I have flung everything out of a hideously ill-managed closet and delivered my ultimate punishment “clean it up you ingrate!” not the time that, “Karate Kid” (new movie version) style before that movie was ever made, I have asked her to pick up the coat dropped on the floor, walk to the closet and hang it up bring it back, throw it on the floor, pick it up, walk to the closet and hang it up, 100 times, nor the moment I watched her walk in with a list – a list! – of things that are wrong with me (me?!), and listened as she went through each one, not the times I have heard her cry and sometimes said “get a grip,” not the times when I’ve seen no tears but have known enough to ask, “what is going on, sweetheart?” And never the times I have simply opened my arms.

Thinking now of my mother, I realize that all of those times, every single one, were about opening my arms wide and saying this is a safe place. There was a time when I would wrap her in my robe every morning as she got ready for kindergarten, and we would talk about how safe and cozy she was in my “house.” She doesn’t fit inside my robe anymore. But I know that this evening when she stands there in her borrowed dress, and her last-minute glittery shoes, and her graduation-gift jewelery, and that other mother’s son beside her, offering his steady arm and comforting presence, she’ll still be safe with me.

I may even recite the Hail Mary, a prayer that has often sprung to my lips as an ambulance passes by, a prayer I have taught my daughters to recite, too. It has always felt like the right prayer, the prayer when all others fall on deaf ears. Little wonder that it is attached to that most masculine of games, football. Mothers will catch every pass. They will make sure your uniform is clean before the game. They’ll get you to the game on time. And when the goal is made, they will miraculously also be there to cheer from the sidelines like any other spectator. Whether you see them or not, they will be there.

So here’s a little Ave Maria for all of you and Happy Mother’s Day to those who play Mary to sons and daughters of your own!

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The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.