Expressway: With Mom, the doorbell rings twice
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I've arranged to come see my mother for the first time in 10 years, but the doorbell is going unanswered. She's unable to hear the bell because spinal meningitis in infancy left her profoundly deaf. But the signal is being translated into lights flashing throughout her home.
It's a Saturday morning in April 2009, the sky blue, the sun bright. The birds surrounding her second-floor garden apartment in the northern New Jersey suburb where I grew up are chirping away as if in a Disney movie. I again press the button for the bell, only harder, but still nothing. The front door remains closed.
Ten years we've gone without our seeing each other. Maybe she's confused the date, I suspect, or simply decided to stand me up.
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But no. The front door opens, and there stands my mother, now 80. She's shorter than before, her hair all white, but still beautiful. We smile and say hello and hug. "You look good," I say. She reads my lips, as always. "You, too," she says. "My handsome son."
We go up the carpeted steps to her living room and sit on a sofa facing each other. I mention how I waited a while for her to come down. Oh, the doorbell is broken, my mother explains. Perfect, I think. Ten years we go incommunicado on each other and, on the cusp of reconnecting, the doorbell comes unwired.
I'd stopped calling her 10 years earlier because of a mutual falling out, and she'd stopped calling me, too. I'd decided enough was enough, and she'd apparently decided the same. We had no contact -- no visits, no letters, no messages delivered through third parties, much less a final confrontation.
We lost track of each other, too. I had no idea even whether she was still alive, and vice versa. Still, I never stopped wondering about her, about how she was doing and whether she ever thought about me. Almost every day I questioned my decision to cut myself off from her. Was it right or wrong? Did it help or hurt?
We fill each other in on our lives over the last 10 years, trying to catch up. Our conversation sticks to the basics: health, job, other family members. In a little while, we walk to a nearby diner and order lunch. There, in a booth under a skylight, near train tracks that fascinated me as a boy, I try to explain my sudden change of heart.
A few weeks earlier, I'd emailed my mother out of the blue. "I miss you," I wrote. "May we get together?" In a few days, she replied, "I need more time."
So it goes, I thought. Some time passed and I emailed her again. "We should see each other before it's too late," I wrote. "Enough is enough."
She agreed, and we scheduled a reunion.
"I came today so we could see each other -- nothing more, nothing less," I say at the diner. "And now we're sitting here, face to face, together again. That's all I care about. Nothing else matters."
"OK," my mother says. She pauses and reaches out across the table to pat my hand. "OK," she says again, louder now, nodding her head up and down.
It was all going according to plan. We were going to leave everything unspoken. All of it. It would be as if nothing bad had ever happened between us 10 years earlier, nor an estrangement that would last one-eighth of her life and almost one-sixth of mine. We would avoid the usual raised voices and finger-pointing and tears of apology and absolution. We were reconciled now, mother and son again. All would be forgotten and perhaps even forgiven. We would start fresh.
Except that my plan soon fell apart.
During another lunch at the diner about a month later, after we talk some more, my mother poses the question I most dread.
"Why did you stop calling me?" she asks. "What did I do wrong?"
I look at her without a word, my lips pressed tightly together, my breath caught in my throat. I might have known an attempt to make amends after a decade of alienation would never come so easy. A clean getaway was going to be impossible.
"Please tell me," she pleads.
"Are you sure you want to know?" I ask. "Yes," she answers.
I'd had my reasons for breaking away, of course. I'd had 10 years to catalog every one, examining it, testing its legitimacy, justifying its existence.
"All right," I say. "I'll tell you. But next time. Next time I'll tell you everything."
And the next time we see each other, a few weeks later, I make good on my promise. I tell my mother everything.
So might we all.
Bob Brody, an executive and essayist in Forest Hills, blogs at letterstomykids.org.