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My Mother’s Gift

In 1991 my mom brought home Matt; I was not happy. Although I had moved out, I still had a room at the homestead – a room I needed to clear of my belongings so it could go to this new kid. But that’s not the whole reason I was upset.

Taking in kids was nothing new in our home. I had four younger brothers and we had all, at one time or another, brought home friends to stay for extended periods of time. My parents took in my cousins, kids who had aged out of the foster care system, and runaways (there was always a phone call to the parents to let them know where the kids were). My parents would not turn their backs on a child in need. Eventually they decided to start taking in foster children, and Matt was the first of many special needs placements my parents welcomed into their home.

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But Matt was scary. He was a 16-year-old, severely developmentally challenged kid that had been held in a motel room 24 hours a day for  months because they could not find a home that would take him. After time in the foster care system, Matt had an attitude, and he was very difficult to care for because of his medical needs as well. Along with an improperly formed brain, Matt had cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus; he functioned at the level of a two year old. He was difficult to look at. His hair grew in funny little tufts around the scars from all his brain surgeries, he shuffled along all bent over, he had a vocabulary of only 50 words, and he was a head banger. By head banger I mean that whenever he was frustrated or angry or for whatever other reason he would haul off and slam his head on whatever hard surface was handy, often drawing blood.

He terrified me. I did not like the idea of this kid living in my parents house.

Why am I using this Mother’s Day post to tell you about Matt? Because Matt became a part of our family. My Mother would not give up on him. No matter how hard it was, no matter how many late nights she sat up wondering “what have I gotten myself into,” she would not be just one more foster home that sent him back to that agency. He deserved better than that. And we learned a valuable lesson about acceptance and love, because we all came to love Matt. As he became more accepted and comfortable in our home he started to blossom at school, and at church where Mom took him every Sunday. By the time he passed away in 2000, he had touched so many lives that his funeral was standing room only. An entire community had learned a lesson about acceptance and love.

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Mom has always been a caretaker. It’s her calling, her gift, and she’s very good at making people feel better when they are ill. When my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October of 2006, we were all devastated, but we all knew that he was in the best hands. While the doctors may be prescribing the chemo and performing surgeries, and the nurses attending to vital stats, it was Mom that cared for him and fought for him. She was the one that kept him going, and made sure he kept his brain active, and held his hand through the emotional roller-coaster of dying.

My Dad was never a big talker, that just wasn’t his style, but Mom always made us talk on the phone together even if we didn’t think we had anything to say. Dad and I would sit there on the phone, sometimes it felt like forever, trying to think of something to say to each other. We talked a lot about baseball, we talked about mom, we talked about work – his and mine, we talked a little bit about the cancer and it’s side effects, we talked about the weather, but most importantly, we talked.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved my Dad. It’s just that both of us are introverts – and completely unskilled in the art of small-talk. The point is, I had conversations with my dad, about nothing and everything, that I hold dear in my heart, and I wouldn’t have had them if she hadn’t made us talk.

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She is the glue that holds our family together, and through the most difficult time of her life, she found ways to meet each of our needs.

In the six months since my father’s death, Mom packed up and moved to Seattle. Sure part of it was to be near me. But really she’s here because she’s taken over as the primary caretaker for my 97 year old grandmother. And she’s loving every minute of it, because helping people feel better is what she does, it’s her gift.

Happy Mothers Day, Mom. Thank you, and I love you.

Happy Mothers Day to the rest of you moms out there too.

Seattle writer, Judy Schwartz Haley, blogs about raising a toddler while battling cancer, finishing a degree, and fending off ninjas. Also, she needs more coffee.
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