Life’s little Instruction booklet: #347
Growing up my mom had this tiny little coffee table book called “Life’s little instruction book”. It has about 500 different ‘rules to live by’ and my personal favorite since I was a kid, and my lifelong lucky number was 347. #347 means a lot to me this week as I got a card from my dear friend and triathlon guide Kirsten. Kirsten is an incredible woman with an even more incredible family. She’s one of 6 kids and her father is the person who has been the center of her universe since she was a little girl. Especially so since she lost her mom suddenly four years ago. Her dad was her co-worker and boss, her neighbor and triathlon idol all in one. He died very suddenly about a month ago. So today, when I got her note, thanking me for helping her through this loss, I thought of #347. #347 in Life’s little instruction book is, “never waste an opportunity to tell someone you love them.”
I just got off the phone with my mom. As always, we say, “I love you” before we hang up. Most of the times, honestly it’s habit. But being far away from family this year, and missing them every day and now realizing how lucky we are to have healthy family that loves and cares for us, and how rare that is in today’s age, really makes ‘I love you’ have real meaning for me again. There is strength and power and depth in those three words.
My mom turns 69 this year in a few short weeks. Honestly, it scares the living shit out of me. Hah- I’m sure she’d say the same; actually, no- knowing her it would be more PG….. But knowing she’s survived blood clots, some real scares with tick-related illness, and a couple nasty falls, I just can’t help but imagine what life would be like without her? I hope that’s decades away. But what if it’s like Kirsten’s dad, Dr. Winkler? He was simply out going for a bike ride and crashed. What if I don’t let her KNOW what she’s done for me and means to me?
Honestly, I suck at math. My sister, Cindy and I were debating back and forth whether or not she was turning 70 this year. I was panicked that she was turning 70 and I hadn’t planned a big party yet or had time to put my thoughts and feelings down on paper. Or to just tell her in some elaborate birthday speech I would prepare. Then I breathed a huge sigh of relief to know that our math sucked and she’s in fact 69 this year. But WHY am I even thinking of waiting until 70 to tell her these things? The only thing in life that’s guaranteed is today. So why am I waiting? Well, spoiler alert. I’m not.
After I posted yesterday on my blog about my variety of ailments caused by my autoimmune condition, from a GI disorder, to blindness, asthma, adrenalitis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and more……people began posting very kind comments stating things like, “I don’t know how you do it; or “you’re so strong, what is your secret?” or “You have such courage and determination in the face of adversity.” Well, that may be true to a point. But my courage, hard work, and tenacity didn’t come from nowhere. And it certainly pales in comparison to that of Cathy Dixon, my mom.
Mom grew up the middle sister in a blue-collar household. She was the peacekeeper, the chef, the maid, the ‘little mother’ from the time she was very young. She survived a terrible accident as an infant where she was crushed on the entire left side of her body, spending months in traction in a hospital bed. Mom married young, as women did back then, to a man who was mean, dangerous and unpredictable in his anger and behavior, my father. He would hit her and she would fight back. Despite her lean 115 pounds on a 5’9” body, she fought back. She defended herself and us kids fearlessly against his tirades, even once cracking a giant peppermill on his head while defending herself, as I watched around the corner as a 5 year old silently cheering for her as he backed off. When she was finally able to leave him safely, she managed to keep a roof over our heads even though he refused to pay child support. Was she tough? Yeah, damn right she was.
Mom was a housekeeper, a job that suited her strengths- perfectionism and a meticulous way of cleaning. She managed her hours around our bus schedules to and from school, and throughout elementary school, never missed a pickup despite working long hours in huge mansions of Westchester County. She loved creating and math and design and precision while working with her hands, so she put herself through the best Wallpapering School in the country, learning a new trade that she was proud of. She and her like-minded friends started a business together and were like the ‘Charlie’s Angels’ of the wallpaper world; beautiful, smart and talented craftswomen.
Growing up I was an active member of the local 4-H Club and owned a pony from the time I was basically 4. Despite her fear of these giant creatures, she devotedly got up with me each day, helping me with chores at the barn, chipping iced-over water buckets in the winter with a sledge hammer, rescuing horses from broken fences and barn doors, and loading 60 pound bales of hay up high into the barn loft up a tall rickety ladder in a snow storm at night. Yeah, she did all that and more.
She baked cookies for Girl Scouts, brownies for local horse shows. She sat poolside on endless Saturday mornings cheering me on as I swam my heart out for the local swim team. She was my constant cheerleader and supporter in any athletic or academic endeavor. She believed in my abilities no matter what and made me feel like I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. And bless her heart, I set my mind to a lot of things- and still do 😉.
There were bills, and cars that broke down and taxes to pay. There was food to buy and put on the table. All on as little as $20,000 per year. Sometimes less. But we never wanted for a thing. For Halloween she would religiously get out her sewing machine and make us costumes. The local school play? She was ready with a needle and thread. New curtains for our bedrooms? We could pick out the fabric, save for weeks to afford the fabric, and voila, she would make them. We never wanted for anything. And she worked hard- damn hard.
There were those hard times after the divorce that we would find her crying, or her girlfriends would be over at the house and she would be a mess. But never once did she have a negative thing to say about the monster who terrorized her, and she only referred to our dad as one would imagine Switzerland would introduce a dictator- with class and neutrality. She never once swayed us in one direction or the other if we wanted visitation with him, and smiled through tears when we would find her like this, assuring us that everything would be ok.
Watching her surround herself with good strong women who supported her through these years was something I took note of and do now for myself. I know in times of crisis, it’s not how well you weather the storm, it’s the village that you surround yourself with that helps you get through it. There’s no way in hell I would have survived this loss of vision and independence and my career if I hadn’t been shown the way by her and these amazing ladies.
Later, as adults, when my sister was diagnosed with Lupus, and myself with Uveitis, she became our rock. Fearful herself and often mistrusting of doctors, she listened, counseled, asked questions on our behalf, helped fight with insurance and bad doctors, deal with postop complications, and come to our homes and clean and prepare meal after meal. She took on the role of nanny to both of my nieces when they were little so Cindy could keep her job. She, a self-employed wallpaper hanger cut her time in more than half so that those girls never ever knew anything but family. The financial burden was felt by her for years, but she did it willingly and without question or hesitation.
And now, as I have entered a new chapter in my life, she is back to being my cheerleader. She’s happy for me when I succeed and have good news, and angry or sad for me when things don’t go my way. When Rio didn’t happen, I’m not sure who was going through more emotions- me or her. Sometimes I’m pretty sure it was her. She was strong enough for us both. When I had to put my wine career on hold for chemo to save my sight, and had to give up my drivers’ license for a guide dog, she didn’t hesitate to remind me of all the things I still COULD do, rather than focus on the things that I can’t.
And she somehow survives loss and loneliness, losing her sister, her best friend and her parents all within a few years of each other. She showed me that moving forward is the only direction to go when you lose someone or something dear, and the importance of remembering them and honoring them in their absence.
And finally in her choice of partner, my step-dad Rick. She’s shown me that the single most important trait you can have in a partner is that they HAVE to make you laugh every single day and also, be your cheerleader and teammate.
So when I think of this woman, my mother ever leaving us, I can’t imagine how life would be the same. And I feel compelled for everyone to meet her and really KNOW her- the woman who has mowed her own lawn for more than 50 years. The woman who lifts scaffold and ladders and buckets of joint compound for a living, all so she can create beautiful designs and make someone’s life more beautiful. The woman who sends hand-written cards for every and all occasions and flowers on every holiday. The woman who spent months looking for my favorite designer’s coffee mug pattern all over the country. The woman who never misses following a race, a horse show, a soccer game or a tennis match and makes me want to get back out there every time and be better and try harder. The person you want taking care of you when you’re sick. The person who spends her Sunday meticulously polishing the wheels on her used old Saab station wagon because it’s a sense of pride. The woman who makes every holiday special with gifts wrapped in painstaking detail, with real ribbon and lavish papers. The woman who yes, uses a toothbrush to clean crevices in the kitchen. And the woman who taught me to stand up to bullies. To never accept feeling ‘less than’. To never settle, and always, always always you can get what you want if you’re willing to work hard and be patient for it. This is the woman who is helping me see my dream of Tokyo in 2020 as a blind 42 year old woman with a debilitating disease. This is my mom. This is the woman who showed me how to be tough, proactive, and stay positive in the face of overwhelming odds. My badass, tough and sweet and kind and loving, protective beautiful mom. #347 to you mom, and a one year ‘early happy 70th!” lol. #347………