the power of five
this is us.
this is the rest of us.
there are five of us. four boys + me. i’m number 2, and these days, the only one living near our center of gravity, our mama.
my mama ran into a little bump a week or so ago. and ever since, the five of us have been circling her like electrons to the proton that started it all. which, scientifically, she more or less is.
my mama, you know, if you’ve been pulling up a chair for a while, is one deep-of-the-earth mama. she’s often reminded me of those heavy-bottomed tipsy toys that never fall over, no matter how hard you push. (and before you go imagining my mama with a big heavy bottom, STOP!, she has nothing of the sort. she always prided herself on how she had to eat a whole pan of fudge to keep some weight on her skinny bones. what i mean is she’s taken more than her share of hits over the years, and she never ever wobbles. it’s rather uncanny.)
i’ll never forget one scene with my mama: it was at the kitchen door of the house where we did most of our growing up. the long black funeral car, the one that would carry us off — the five of us plus our mama — to the funeral home where we’d say one last rosary over my papa, before he was carried off — in a hearse — to the church and then to the cemetery, that funereal car had just pulled into our circle drive. you could hear its somber idling, telling us it was time, time for what we so deeply dreaded. but before she put her hand to the knob, my mama gathered us in a tight little circle. i was sniffling back sobs, and i know i wasn’t the only wet-eyed one in the bunch. but not my mama. she looked us solid in the eyes — mothers of five have a way of looking straight into five pairs of eyes all at once — and she said four words that i’ll never forget: “do your father proud.”
there’s another scene that i can’t help recalling: it was shortly after i’d miscarried my sweet baby girl, and the doctor kindly let me keep her beautiful little self. so i’d tucked her into the most beautiful wood box i could find, and with all the ceremony of yet another funeral, we drove — my husband, my firstborn, and me, clutching the box — into the cemetery, and up to the spot where, in the rain, we spotted my mama, with her foot to the blade of a shovel, standing atop my papa’s grave. she was digging a spot for her unborn granddaughter, right on the chest of my papa. “she’ll always be safe,” my mama whispered. and before we left, she handed me the sack of flower bulbs she’d brought along, thinking we might want to tuck in more beauty, along with our sweet little girl.
those are only two scenes. but they’re pretty much all you need to know about my mama to understand why the five of us — scattered just about as widely as you can be in this country and still be in the same country; from maine on the northeast, to long beach in southern california, from the mountains of northern arizona to the plains of toledo, ohio — tightened our orbit around her, soon as word went out that, in her words, she’d “flunked her physical,” on the eve of her 83d birthday.
somewhere deep inside, without anyone ever saying it, we all know that we are her lifeline (as she has ever been ours), and, marvelously, we all have a job. i’m the nurse, so it’s a good thing i’m closest in miles. i’m in charge of reading all the medical gobbledygook and driving to far-flung diagnostic outposts. brother number 2 is the one who will always always make her laugh, laugh so hard you just might wet your pants, but we won’t talk about that. another brother, the caboose at number 4, is the one we call the encyclopedia. he looks everything up, and knows the answer before the question is asked. and there’s the artist, brother 3, whose depth is immeasurable, and who always has had a connection with our mama that makes me think that in a past life they were strolling the side streets of paris together, ducking into ateliers of painters and thinkers, both of them in their french berets, their gauloises cigarettes dangling from chic cigarette holders. and then there’s the oldest, the one who takes his birth order to heart, and tries mightily to keep us in line. he’s the one who remembers every birthday, and slips in a $20 bill for each of his nephews, harkening a brand of uncle that is increasingly rare — and delectably sweet.
we’re it, the whole of the life squad. and, deep down, we know it. and, despite the miles and difference in time zones, and thanks to the miracles of texting and email, and the occasional phone call, we’ve all felt the centrifugal tug that’s pulled us tightly together. so tightly that before the doctor had even come into the wee little examining room yesterday, brother 4 had looked up and sent a link explaining the funny word i’d spotted on the medical report. by the time the doctor strolled in, i’d swallowed whole the national institutes of health take on this matter.
but the best part flowed in the hours after that appointment, after my mama and i walked out with sheafs of paper, and a date on the calendar. i’d be lying if i didn’t say our hearts felt a few pounds heavier in our chests. i’d be lying if i didn’t say i felt rather alone and a little bit wobbly (i’m still a student in my mama’s wobble-free school), and suddenly december was looking as gray as the snow clouds building in the late november sky.
but then, without asking, brother 4, the one with whom i’ve always shared far more than just that explosive BAM monogram, he announced he’d be here, right at our side. and not too many hours later, brother 3 said he too was mulling flight options.
and suddenly all my aloneness was wiped away, in that miracle that comes when you’re one of a gaggle. when your mama once looked you all in the eye, and admonished: do your father proud.
we will do our papa proud. we will be right there with our mama, as he so tenderly would have been. we will kiss her on the forehead as they roll her through the double doors, and we will try to keep the comedian from making her laugh so hard she tugs at her stitches. we are fully equipped, the five of us, to hold each other up, and most of all, to hold up our rock-solid sweet blessed mama, the one who’s always always there to rush to our rescue.
it’s what life brings when lived to the power of five.
so that’s the news of the week, here at the old maple table. pray for our mama, who will recover and be strong as an ox, as ever. undaunted by the week’s news, she’s joining me tonight in the kitchen of the homeless shelter where we’ll cook for folks whose lives are far more of a struggle than we’ll ever know. that’s how my mama keeps teaching lessons. she’s the tipsy toy that won’t topple, and she’s taught us all to try to live that very way.
when you travel through life’s tight spots, who clenches your hand and carries you forward? do you have brothers and sisters who lighten the load?