She showed me how to love, even when it hurts

My mom used to stick her hand in my mouth knowing I would bite her. That’s love.

When I was 12 we trekked all over the Charlotte area looking for the perfect orthodontist. My mom’s dad was a dentist and teeth have always been pretty important in our family. An orthodontist in Hickory offered free braces to all of my grandfather’s grandchildren as a courtesy to a colleague, which was a really great offer but Mom didn’t want to have to drive me 2 hours one-way for the monthly fittings. So we looked for a more local tooth-torturer.

The first doctor we met with decided my jaw was too small for braces. The solution was to pull four teeth to make room, and “hope” that my wisdom teeth later came in and replaced the missing ones. “Forget it,” Mom said. Too little chance of that happening (and she was right too. My wisdom teeth later started to grow in sideways and they had to be surgically cut out while they were still impacted. Moms know everything, even more than doctors sometimes.) I was upset because many of my friends went to this orthodontist and he had really fun neon T-shirts that all the kids at school got to wear (don’t let anyone ever tell you advertising doesn’t work.)

The orthodontist we settled on gave me the same diagnosis as the neon T-shirt guy, but with a different solution: He would give me a retainer to widen my jaw. For some reason this idea didn’t sound half bad and I even got to pick a fun color, blue. Why in the world I wanted my mouth to be blue I have no idea.

Then came the hard part: Twice a week mom had to reach her hand into my mouth and put a key in the retainer at the roof of my mouth – and turn. This turning of the key widened the retainer, thus, widening my jaw. If this sounds like torture it’s because it is. The pain was so bad I could not help but clamp down with my teeth – onto my mother’s loving hand. We both knew this would happen and I would do everything I could to not bite her. I would lay on the loveseat in the living room, head tilted back so she could use the overhead light to see what she was doing, and I would focus on anything but the pain. “Think about the dogs,” Mom always said and still says as a way to get our minds off of something terrible like shots at the doctor or TB tests.

I love dogs, but to this day that has never worked.

Mom reads this blog but she never comments. Sometimes I ask her why she doesn’t and she says “Because then people will know I’m reading and they might not say what they really want to say.” Moms have a way of making us shape up and behave, even on the Internet, and she knows that and doesn’t want to censor me or anyone else. Truth is, I know she hates my tattoos and piercings – she and Dad never mentioned my nose ring because they thought it was “politically correct” not to say anything (If you don’t have anything nice to say …)but she did tell me once she thought my tattoos were cute. Aha! There’s that Pink Floyd, Zeppelin-listenin 70s rock star, as she must’ve been known before she was known as “Mom.” I tell her to comment anyway, create some fun controversy, but she still never does.

She’s the reason I love to read and write. A former English teacher, she taught me how to read long before the schools ever tried, and they were so impressed with my aptitude at such a young age. (Yes, that did wear off later.)

Mom in 1972
Mom in 1972

She was invited to be a debutante and only smoked one cigarette her entire life, but when she met my dad she was dating “lots” of other guys, including one who pointed my dad to her dorm room at N.C. State when he came to visit her. She and Dad are perfectly made for each other – he was a rule-breaker and she was on the straight-and-narrow, and together they have been a great team – married for 36 years so far, with 3 great children (one in particular, if I do say so myself.)

And even when her job is to put her hand in a 12-year-old’s mouth and lovingly turn a key, she does that job with all the grace of someone that was made to be a caregiver. This is why I know she is excellent in her “real” job as a caregiver – used to be for kids whose parents didn’t want them or the courts said couldn’t have them, later for mentally disabled women, and now for children with autism. She is patient and loving and kind, and on this Mother’s Day all I can say is how proud I am that she’s mine.