Angry. I was so damn angry. Or at least that’s what I projected so I could hide just how scared I was.
I was 15 years old in late March 1991.
Things were going poorly.
Dad died in 1988 after a long, terrible battle with heart disease. I watched my father shift from an icon of manliness to a gray, withered and cold body with barely enough life left in him to keep his eyes open.
Worse than watching him die was knowing when he was gone, I would be left with Mom, who had lost herself to undiagnosed mental illness and opioid prescription drug addiction.
She died in 1990. She fell down stairs on the night before finals of my freshman year at Winterset High School. She lasted about two weeks in the hospital. That was it.
There was an effort to live with a family in Winterset after my folks died. It failed for reasons too complicated to get into here.
I needed a home.
I didn’t want one.
I wanted a room with a mini fridge and a TV. I would get through school. Slip a few bucks under the door once a month. I’ll make my way.
This was a little bit more than the law would allow.
Two choices presented themselves.
Choice one: Enter the foster care system from whence I came as an infant back in June 1975. I met a nice guy with a beautiful house on Hull Avenue. You could see all of downtown Des Moines from his back deck. We chatted. There was a hang-up. He traveled for business. I would stay at a group home during his trips.
Choice two: My late mother’s hairdresser and her husband, a printer, never had kids. They offered to take me in.
I didn’t care.
I was beat down flat inside. Nobody was ever going to have an emotional connection with me again. I was not going to hurt like that again. Ever. Not going to do it. Forget it. Don’t bring it up.
The hairdresser and the printer made their pitch, showed me the room I would have and talked about camping trips.
They sure seemed nice.
I didn’t trust it.
Everyone goes away in the end.
It all ends in hurt.
The hairdresser played her ace. She offered cake. I declined.
“Are you sure you don’t want a piece of cake?” she asked with a tone that said, Everybody wants a piece of cake, kid.
It was German chocolate cake. It was amazing. It tasted like home.
To this day, the hairdresser, known in these columns as Mom 2.0, does not believe she made German chocolate cake. She only made one in her life.
Well, that was the one.
I moved in. It wasn’t happily ever after. It took work from all of us to make a family.
You don’t see it happening at the time.
But now, 30 years later, I see myself relaxing a little bit with each passing day.
That first summer, when I really only knew one kid in the whole neighborhood, I was cold.
Mom 2.0 would come home from work and shout, “Hello.”
I would pretend to be asleep because I didn’t want to interact.
It was an asshole move.
But to this day there’s always a little bit of me who believes Mom 2.0 will react to me like Mom 1.0 did. I won’t go into detail here, but that’s a truly terrifying thing. The good news is it never happened.
Mom 2.0 and I had more quarrels than Dad 2.0 and I did. I went to my first therapist with my new family. The doctor told Mom 2.0 that she had the toughest job of all: She had to make me like a woman. That’s how twisted my thinking was after Mom 1.0.
The truth is Mom 2.0 and I are a lot alike. We communicate emotively. Dad 2.0 is the quiet, thoughtful one. Mom 2.0 and I tend to vent our frustrations at top volume.
The space between frustrations has increased over the years.
I became a man, with all the strengths and flaws that implies.
They became family, the line of people who will always be there to tell me that no matter what, I’m good enough and I’m OK.
I needed that lift a few weeks back. I visited for dinner. I fell off the back stoop. There they were, the two of them in their 70s, with their arms around each of mine, gripped like vises and helping me stand up again.
That’s family like I rarely saw it in the first 15 years and am so deeply thankful to have had the last 30 years.
So, it’s Mother’s Day.
This is a sad one. Mom 2.0 lost her mom, who was 92, last fall. Dad 2.0 lost his mom a few years back. They always made a Mother’s Day plant gift for each mom. This was the first year they didn’t have to do that. There were no moms left to deliver them to.
Well, Mom 2.0 is here for me. I wouldn’t dream of trying to pick out a plant that would fit into her perfectly manicured lawn and garden.
The only thing I think appropriate is to remind her that the seed she planted in me is still growing strong after all these years.
That seed, of course, is love.
That angry kid 30 years ago didn’t know much about love.
Thanks to Parents 2.0, I do.
I love you, Mom.