Newton’s Law of Motion
The shrill of the nurse’s voice woke me from a daydream. I had worn myself out after an hour of nervously waiting to see my gastroenterologist, whom I fully expected would confirm my suspicion that I’d be dead from ass cancer before the end of the month. I had no legitimate reason to suspect I was dying of cancer, other than the fact that I suffered from severe hypochondria and I had previously failed on separate occasions to convince my family and friends that I was dying of lupus, mad cow disease, Radon poisoning, and Ebola. Besides, my health insurance covered colonoscopies in full after age thirty, so what did I have to lose? Thirty seconds after walking into my doctor’s office, I received my diagnosis: irritable bowel syndrome. I am convinced irritable bowel syndrome is the catch-all diagnosis that gastroenterologists dish out to patients who confess to having a nutty mother.
“Damn it!” I shouted.
“I thought you’d be relieved,” my doctor said.
I was relieved to learn I wasn’t dying, even though I knew the odds of it happening were infinitesimally small. I just wish I had known before I called my mother and offered to take her on a series of “good-bye” vacations before my being sent off to hospice, where a small group of dedicated volunteers would keep vigil at my bedside and read excerpts from Chicken Soup for the Terminally Ill. It’s shocking what you’ll do and say when you think you’re dying of ass cancer. After my mother reassured me that it was more plausible I would die at the hands of Pete, my partner of ten years, once he’s finally had enough of my histrionics, she accepted my invitation. What the hell was I thinking?
I describe my mother as a cross between Bea Arthur and Karen Walker from Will and Grace. She is notorious for bending the rules but more so for nursing a hefty glass of chardonnay all day. If my mother were a product, her tagline would be Proudly raising hell since 1945. She’s also the person my family turns to for honest feedback. Coincidentally, the feedback becomes more honest as the wine in her glass diminishes.
I often wondered how the universe brought the two of us together. The answer, surprisingly, is Newton’s Law of Motion. Anyone who has taken a basic physics class is familiar with the theory, which in part explains that for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. I tend to think of the theory as the science behind why people like me are born to mothers like mine. On the morning of June 21, 1970, when my mother sauntered into the local hospital, hurled her pregnant body onto the first available gurney, lit a Virginia Slims 100, and yelled, “Let’s get this over with. I have a pinochle tournament tonight” (the action), she sealed her fate by giving the universe permission to deliver someone like me into the world (the reaction).
Several years passed before my mother got a taste of the “equal reaction” part of the theory. Some children are fortunate enough to inherit large sums of money from their mother, while others acquire an uncanny ability to spell words like phenobarbital before age six or master the clarinet before they are fully potty trained. I got anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. While my childhood friends played whiffle ball and tag in the field down the street from my house, I hid under my bed, waiting for the Cold War to end. No wonder I was the target of bullies from shortly after birth through my late thirties.
Don’t get me wrong; my mother is the absolute sweetest woman you will ever meet. She’d give someone the shirt off her back, and she often has done so at dinner parties and other functions where this would be considered, at the very least, inappropriate. That’s why I love her. And she is fiercely protective. On the rare occasions when I allowed the bullying to affect me, my mother would attempt to comfort me by saying, “Remember, dear, you are the sperm that beat the others in the race. So the next time those kids bully you, turn around and run like hell.”
I give my mother a lot of credit for having four children. The concept of raising a child was foreign to Pete and me. We weren’t opposed to the idea of having a child; we simply couldn’t find anyone with an adequate answer to our question, “Who the hell is going to feed and clothe it for the first eighteen years?” We liked the idea of having children; we just didn’t want any of the responsibility and drama. Pete and I continue to leave open the opportunity that the proverbial stork might swoop in late on a Thursday night after American Idol and drop off at our doorstep a healthy, self-sufficient, and neutered eighteen-year-old who planned to leave for university, on a full scholarship, the following Tuesday.
I’ll admit that although I was the third child, it took some time for my mom to warm up to me. I don’t think she was fully prepared for a child who could go toe to toe with her so early. At age ten I learned an important lesson regarding the depth of my mother’s humor and just how far she was willing to go to pay me back for the continuous stress I placed her under.
One weekend day I caught a few minutes of the Jerry Lewis telethon, which was a wildly popular annual televised fundraiser that comedian Jerry Lewis hosted. In that telethon Jerry interviewed children who were battling illness, showed clips of their story, and periodically appealed to the viewing audience to give to “Jerry’s kids.” This signature phrase became part of America’s lexicon. So given that my own father’s name was Jerry, I devised a plan to canvas my neighborhood collecting money for none other than Jerry’s kids. I just neglected to tell my neighbors that it wasn’t Jerry Lewis’s kids I was collecting money for but rather my father’s kids, and more precisely me.
Well, I thought I had hit the jackpot until my mother found a large stash of candy in my bedroom and questioned how I had gotten it. I had no choice but to confess. My mother was not pleased, and she felt I owed each neighbor a face-to-face apology. I was embarrassed, to say the least, to be forced to retrace my steps to return the money I had collected. My mother walked me to each house and made me knock on the front door and apologize. The first visit didn’t go so well, because my apology fell well short of my mother’s expectations.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Johnson. Even though I still feel strongly that I technically didn’t lie, the collection tin should have clearly been labeled with Jerry Robert’s kids. I apologize for the confusion, and to set things right I’m returning your donation.”
My mother leaned on my shoulder and pushed me against Mrs. Johnson. I was immediately overpowered by the scent of patchouli and secondhand smoke. “Is that all, David?” I should have shut my mouth then, but I couldn’t help myself. Before my mother could whip me off Mrs. Johnson’s front steps, I was off and running.