“Be Careful”

My mother has been saying to me a lot lately. Twice in one week.

“I’ve missed you,” Mom says. My husband works her out three times a week, from the other end of the country, by Skype. 30-45 minutes of leg lifty and twisty things that she can do seated in her wheelchair, without removing her oxygen tube. At the end of the workout, he turns the camera over to me and I spend a few minutes chatting with Mom: how was your day, what are you watching on TV lately, what’s for dinner? Small talk but it helps her to engage with someone aside from her caregivers and my local sister who drops by with groceries and to fix things or fill in when a caregiver calls out from a shift.

But recently I’ve been going into the office, where I am often the only person, because it is quiet and peaceful and uncluttered there. And so, if I am working late, I can’t just pop out of my home office to chat with her, and then pop back to my desk to finish what I was working on. (Usually at that time of night, my daily work journal entry, my way of letting go of the day.) Since my office is a 30-minute walk from my home, I’ve missed out on the post-workout conversations with Mom.

So, when I chatted with her over the weekend: “I’ve missed you.”

To assuage my guilt – to try to prove that I was justified in missing these conversations about nothing – I explained some of the challenges I’m facing at work: a project with a loose definition of “done;” the immaturity of the team, project-management wise; the personalities. And through it all, my own fear, greatest of which is being thought that I am not enough. A fear that I do not articulate to her. But…

“Be careful,” she says, with great importance.

“Mom,” I respond, “what are you warning me to be careful of?”

A pause. She can’t articulate her own fear. “They may blame you,” she finally answers.

“So they blame me. I have some share of that blame. But if they try to assign me more than my share, I can refuse to accept it.”

Pause with great meaning behind it.

“What’s the worst that can happen?” I ask. “I get fired? So I would find another job. It wouldn’t be as easy as I’d like” – mostly, I do not say, because then I’d have to face the fact that I’d have to make a decision, choose a fork in the road, maybe find something that might force me to act like an expert, that forces me to accept that I am enough already – “but I’d survive; and I might even end up in a better place than I am now.”

Pause.

“Just be careful,” she says, urging caution.

Being careful is something Mom has learned the hard way over the last few years, having fallen and ended up in the hospital, homebound, in a wheelchair, requiring 24/7 care, on oxygen. Before that, she was not careful. You could say that she courted danger.

When my parents divorced in the mid-80s, my stay-at-home mom went back to school, earned an accounting degree and a programming degree, and got a job. When she went bankrupt, my grandfather gifted her enough money to pay her bills and she bought a Porche instead, copper-colored to match her hair. She dated motorcyclists my age, slept with married men – the more emotionally dangerous, the better. She got her pilot’s license.

She ran away from home, moving to D.C. before my youngest sister had even graduated from high school. Then to Bangkok, where she befriended a young monk, bringing him – I think – home with her. Then to Ethiopia, where she traveled to the church where the holy grail is said to be kept, which happens to be near the Eritrean border, an area of war at the time. She had another affair, this one with a married coworker. Then she moved to Paris where the coworker showed up, unexpectedly having left his wife and wanting to move in with her. Yikes!

When she retired, she traveled through the middle east, going all the places she told herself she had wanted to go. She ended up in Egypt where she fell in love with her driver, a man who had never left Egypt, who was younger than I was. When 9/11 hit, she refused to come home, responding to my frantic emails that she was fine, I was overreacting to what had happened, that she had to go because they were leaving for a shopping trip in the souk.

Be careful? She was telling me to be careful?

She hadn’t told me to be careful when I journeyed to Antarctica. Or to the Galapagos. She hadn’t told me to be careful when I bought my first apartment or my second. She hadn’t told me to be careful when I lived (practically) under the Williamsburg bridge in a neighborhood where cops chased bad guys – our neighbors – down the fire escape outside my bedroom window; or drug addicts burnt down the shooting gallery next door. A neighborhood so bad that even now, the gentrification that has transformed Orchard Street and Delancey a few blocks away has not rubbed off on it. Had she told me to Be Careful then?

No.

But I realize now she has been saying it to me all my life. Be careful – about making people you think you know angry. You don’t know what they’ll do or say. Be careful – about breaking society’s rules. Be careful – about believing in yourself. Be careful – about what you say and do because you don’t want them to find out. To find out that you aren’t enough: you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, you’re not enough of what they want.

I hear it when my in-laws say it to my husband. In their 90’s, they’ve lost their short-term memory. Are you vaccinated? they ask again and again. My mother in law is the worst of the two, constantly telling my husband, Well, just be careful. Careful of what? She can’t say, so she just imports it with meaning, Well, just be careful, you never know… My father in law, the family patriarch, expresses the same sentiment by directing. You must always wear a mask. This is very important. Now you must promise me that you will social distance. You must get tested. Have you gotten tested? Your sister gets tested all the time. This despite the fact that my husband rarely leaves the house and avoids kissing me when I have an allergy attack, he is so paranoid about Covid.

I can hear it when they tell my husband to Be Careful because even after 22 years, I haven’t internalized their voices.

I couldn’t hear it when Mom said it because I had so internalized the voice.

Now that I have heard it, I can respond: I can make a decision. I can use my judgement. Do I want to Be Careful? Do I need to draw my horns in, keep my head down, don’t rock the boat, work harder, don’t share my fears or ask for advice? Is that an appropriate response to this situation?

Or is it time to Be NOT Careful? To risk making a mistake. To risk being thought a failure.

To risk change?

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