The smiling idiot

November 4, 2010

I rarely smile authentically anymore. The gesture has completely lost all meaning to me. I’ve distorted the concept to the point where it has become unrecognizable. There are many reasons why this is true, and it will be a long ride if you hope to understand what I mean. You should consider navigating away from this page, because this story will not make you smile unless you are a sadist.

My mother was, and is a huge part of my life. She passed away just three years ago, but she still influences me every day. My mother cared about her children as though nothing else existed. She stretched herself so thin, but I always got the impression that she was doing everything in her power for our benefit. Her powers must have been strong, because we were very lucky children.

I didn’t always acknowledge how lucky we were. When I was twelve years old I made a statement in school about how little I valued my parents. My teacher, Mrs. Townes, called me out in front of the class and let me know how disrespectful my comment was. She was right. I don’t know that I realized it at the moment, but I will never live that statement down. Mrs. Townes let my mom know what I said, and I still feel the pain when I think of what my mother must have felt upon hearing from my teacher. In an odd turn of events, I’m grateful that I was called out for my behavior. The rest of my life I have spent trying to honor my mom, trying to make up for how I acted.

In any event, my mom is a wonderful, shining star in my heart. Most of my actions are attempts to make my mom proud, or to make people think, “he must have been raised by a wonderful mother.” I’ve actually had that compliment, and no gesture could make me feel better.

Knowing how wonderful mom was, it always made me laugh when I heard a story that she used to tell. She was a young girl in catholic school and was throwing a fit for whatever reason. She was angry and flailing and started trying to beat up the nun that was holding her, but the nun calmly held her at bay and kept smiling through the whole ordeal. That smile was what my mom remembered most – “And she never stopped with that stupid smile.” That smile may have haunted her, but its ghost is now haunting me in an awful way.

As I said, I have always tried to impress my mom. I wanted to show her that I greatly appreciated everything that she did for me, and that her immense effort was not wasted on me. I wanted her to be proud. While I have had a lot to be proud of, I’ve always been a strange individual that can be hard to understand. I don’t even claim to understand myself.

My path is not always clear, and a great deal of effort has gone into maintaining appearances so that people don’t worry. In spite of my great efforts, mom always worried and I always tried harder to appear “OK”.

I made the first major step toward outward success just two months before my mom got her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. I landed a prestigious job and began making a lot more money. Getting the new job practically doubled my salary, and the work I began operated in the heart of just about every major financial firm in the world. I was using my brain and my hands to do what few people can do, and things seemed on the rise for me.

The company sent me to a couple weeks of training in Connecticut, and I was performing at the top of the class. While I was in Connecticut my sister called and told me the news about mom. At the time I wasn’t aware of how serious pancreatic cancer is, nor were we sure that it was pancreatic cancer. There was a whirlwind of information, and if you begin to do some research on this particular cancer you will realize that it goes mostly undetected until it is too late. Usually the doctors identify it as pancreatic cancer and the unlucky owner of that pancreas does not make it but a few months longer. The story was no different for my mom.

I couldn’t fathom losing my mom, and I did my best to juggle my new job with the gravity of the situation. I still wanted to make my mom proud and show her how successful I could be. If she only had a few months left to live I was going to show her that her job with me was done. She had raised me to be a successful adult. My meandering path had reached a summit that she could be proud of.

I remember my first major install on Susquehanna’s trading floor in King of Prussia. I was laying out the turrets (glorified telephones for traders) and I began crying like a baby. My co-worker noticed and suggested that I step out for a bit, but I would hear nothing of it. I practically ignored him and the tears, and I kept working because it was the only thing that I could do. My mom was dying of cancer just a few city blocks away, and I was trying to make her proud by fulfilling my duties as a successful adult.

A month later I was sent for further training, but this time it was three straight weeks in Denver. I knew that there was a chance that she could pass while I was away, but I also felt obligated to make good on my commitment to the new job. I went to Denver for the greater portion of a very cold and snowy January, and I slept alone in a glorious hotel suite while the rest of my family huddled together to share in their suffering.

During the daytime I did my best to lose myself in the material that I was learning. The training course was complex, and there was no chance that anything could be retained unless your full attention was honed. After class I was set free in the city, with no friends or family – just a luxury hotel suite and my thoughts. There was a deep contrast between the luxury that surrounded me and the complete emptiness inside of me.

I walked through the city trying to balance the joy of success with the pain of my impending loss. It has been said that the body reacts to stimulus before the brain, and that a good trick to help you to be happy is to smile. The brain reacts to the feeling of smiling and your thoughts assume softer, more friendly tones. This concept has led to me walking through the streets, or driving through the town with a smile on my face and absolute woe in my heart. A smiling idiot unwittingly associating a grin with dread.

Somehow I survived the three horrifying weeks away from my family, and so did mom. I ended up going back to Connecticut a few times over the next couple of months, but when things turned in a bad direction I made the decision that work must wait. Nothing could ever replace my mother, and no job was worth missing her last moments. I needed to be there for her, for my family, for me.

The last month was dreadful, and really the last week is what sticks out in my mind most. At that point she was suffering through immense pain and discomfort, and all we could do was wait. We took her to a new hospital and we were hoping it was going to make a big difference. Her condition was very bad, and when we knew how bad it was we made sure that everyone dropped what they were doing and came to be with us. My brother was the last to arrive, and he was speeding like a madman on the way to the hospital. As my mother’s condition worsened they made an attempt to prolong her life, if only for a few hours. My brother finally arrived and it was determined that nothing more could be done.

They wheeled her bed over to the hospice area, and we were told she’d pass very shortly – possibly on the way down the hallway. That didn’t happen. She stayed in a sort of limbo for almost a whole week. We dipped a sponge lollipop into water so that she could get some hydration, and the staff would occasionally come in to check her vitals and to let us know what was happening. At one point we were told that her feet were beginning to lose life, and I could only imagine death taking her away from me inch by inch, though I knew she was already far beyond my reach. Now was the unfortunate time where my mind had to struggle with the idea of praying for her to die so all the suffering could end.

Just the concept of hoping for the death of the most loving individual that I have ever met was enough to tear me apart. She would have moments of wakefulness and we did our best to comfort her, but what can you do to comfort someone who you are hoping will die soon? What did I do to attempt to comfort my mom? I smiled. I smiled like a fucking moron. I wanted to show her that it was ok, that she didn’t have to hold on any longer, that she could stop struggling and let go. We were going to be ok, and her job was done.

I felt like I was doing the right thing, but ever since then all I can think of is the nun that just kept smiling while mom was suffering, and how much that pained her. So there I was, staring at my dying mom and praying for her to die while I smiled in her face like an idiot. I will never forget this. How could a smile ever mean anything again?

So here I am in a hotel room in Denver, all alone and crying like a newborn, posting this awful story and doing anything but smiling.

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4 Responses to “The smiling idiot”

  1. Mayra Says:

    David, oh David, you are not the only one crying right now. As your words take me back to the last time I saw your mom, my heart rebels, and remembers Cheryl’s proud voice describing your writing.
    Keep capturing those feelings, shape them into images and let them go. Little by little create a tunnel to the bright side. Your mother will always be right there with you.

  2. Joy Says:

    Dear David:
    Words cannot express my fellings right now, but as a mother I most tell you That I am very proud of you and so is your mother. A smile is a gift you give that makes the person you are smilling belive in happiness, in better times, I belive your smile ment everything to your mom, it problably brouth her memories to. DONT ever stop SMILLING. God bless you always.

  3. CB Says:

    Your words bring back a familiar situation when I last saw my Mom 10 years ago.
    I am certain your smile brought her some comfort and a moment of happy, though surely she knew her son and family were sorrowful at her pain and imminent passing.
    Remember that a simple act of a smile, or politeness/kindness, no matter how hard to genuinely muster sometimes, begets more smiles, positive and kind energy in return…which, who knows, what you get in return just might fuel that hard-mustered smile into a genuine one coming from a good place of positive light and joy inside 🙂
    Blessings on you in your journey of processing and letting-go.

  4. Lorraine Says:

    David,
    It’s human nature to go about life ensconced in the day-to-day b.s. and you
    don’t realize how much someone means to you until they’re gone.

    Perhaps it was your smile through the pain and grief that helped your mother pass peacefully to the other side. Isn’t that the way every mother would want to remember her child? She knew how you were hurting and yet you “wore” that smile to comfort her. Maybe that’s the way it really was. You’ll never know for sure, but it could have been….

    Hold onto the loving memories of you Mom, and let go of any guilt you may hold. Keep smiling because that’s how she would want you to live your life.


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