We all have that one time we didn’t listen to our mother. Mine was 11:30 on a school night in late October. I had finally gotten my 2 very energetic boys to sleep and the phone rings.
My husband Chris brilliantly pointed out “Seriously?! It’s your mother?!”
‘Hey Mom! What’s Up? You Ok?”
“I’m fine. What are you up too?”
I could tell from her speech that the drugs were kicking in, so I spoke slower and more deliberately.
“It’s 11:30 mom. I’m not doing anything...why are you calling so late? You scared me.”
...”Can you bring me a sandwich?”
“An italian sandwich. No onions or peppers with oil AND mayo...”
“You want me to bring you a sandwich, now?”
I could tell by the look on Chris’ face that there was no way he was going to support a midnight sandwich run...so I replied the way I knew I should.
“Mom!! It’s ELEVEN THIRTY! The kids are in bed...its LATE...I’m not bringing you a sandwich.”
“ALL I WANT IS A F*CKING SANDWICH!!!”
...Clearly Mom was not happy with my answer.
Now I’m trying not to make eye contact with Chris who is giving me the “cut it off” signal while I’m telling my crying mother that I will NOT be bringing her a sandwich. Knowing she wouldn’t remember our conversation in the morning, I told her to get some sleep and I hung up feeling guilty, but knowing I’d make it up to her.
As soon as I was off the phone, Chris was all over me. “Seriously? She called this late to ask for FOOD?!”
“She’s sick, Chris! She probably just wanted to talk. Maybe I should have just let her talk?”
“You talk to her EVERY DAY!”
And then the truth hit me. I really didn’t anymore.
We used to have our morning coffee together over the phone every morning even though she only lived less than a mile down the road. It was a running joke to see who could stay in their PJ’s the longest and not have to leave the house while still looking “productive”.
We were on the phone when my water broke with my first son, when the first plane hit the world trade center and when the man in the suit brought my brother’s ashes to her house after his funeral. We shared more over a phone than anyone I know, but now - 6 months after moving to a new home nearly an hour away - she had to call me at 11:30 at night asking for a damn sandwich just to get me to talk to her.
I realized I was staring at my tantruming husband then I began to daydream of what a normal, happy, TV sitcom version of this would look like.
The compassionate, adoring husband would take his wife’s hand and say something brilliantly soothing like “Let’s talk about this sandwich.” He’d MAKE the sandwich and wrap in the butcher paper I had the kids decorate. Then while I talked with my mother, he’d read stories to the children, wash and fold the laundry and groom the dogs.
but that was not our reality.
Ever since I moved away and mom got sick, I had been trying to visit everyday. I set the intention, and in the beginning I did go...but after a while, it became too complicated.
The new house needed work. The kids were a handful. And because I was the only one going to see her...no one realized how sick mom really was...so they fought me.
I remember the day I tried to end the fight. I had spent “too much time” with her, again, and came home to an angry house. I stood firm and announced that I was ‘putting a stake in the ground!” Even when I’m there, I’m not there there! I’m constantly worrying about you and the kids and how mad you’ll be or what I “should” be doing...and I’m not going to let you should on me anymore! This is something I need to do and it takes NOTHING away from you! I’m done punching a time clock with my mom. And that’s that.
The next day, I went to see mom completely present and free from guilt...I even took my 80 year old grandmother with me. We were laughing and chatting away when my phone rang...it was Chris!
“How much longer will you be?”
OH HEELLL NO! You did NOT just do this!!! I was about to go full on Lewis Black on that man when he said “Please don’t be mad...it’s just that the rain...it’s really bad...I need you...it’s really bad.”
When I got to the top of my driveway, I looked down at my new house in the middle of a lake that used to be my yard and the only thought I could muster was “I let my family down.”
That flood washed my stake right out of the ground and I spent the next 5 months finding excuses to not go to see my mom.
And then, I got the sandwich call.
That next morning I was getting dressed to go to the hospital when the doctor called.
“Tara, I’m so sorry...your mom stopped breathing early this morning and we had to intubate her. We would have loved to give you a chance to talk with her first, but there was no time. She is sedated now, but you can still see her.”
And I did go to see her, every. single. day. I talked to her about everything that came into my head...and I must have apologized for that sandwich a thousand times. I kept promising her that if she just woke up, I’d have a sandwich bar set up in her room! I talked until I was empty and then held vigil by her bedside while the Leukemia took her away.
Chris did come in to see mom, to say goodbye. And I guess I could have played that guilt card for a long time. But that wasn’t the legacy I wanted to carry for mom. After all, he would need me to support him in his own sandwich moments when his dad got sick a few years later.
The lesson from Mom’s sandwich isn’t about anger or guilt. It’s not even about food. It’s about never again allowing myself to give in to the “shoulds” of others. To not sacrifice my own intuition to be a people pleaser. And in those situations where I’m tempted to ignore my gut or passion out of concern over someone else’s reaction, to stop and ask myself; “Is this a sandwich moment?”