Today I have the honor of sharing this beautiful Mother’s Day tribute by my dear friend Jessica Ryder-Khalil. Our relationships with our moms are full of complexities; it is often not until we are older (and until some of us become mothers ourselves) that we can see our moms more clearly for who they are, learn from them what they hoped to teach us, and love them even more than we thought we could. – Phoebe Farag Mikhail
by Jessica Ryder-Khalil
I never could have predicted that I, as a 38-year-old mother, would be sharing the story of my own mom with you in this way. Her name was Leslie and hers was a life ended too early by breast cancer, but a life that was lived in an honest, full-fledged pursuit of authenticity. Little did I know that my mom helped prepare me for my own quest 20 years ago, when she begged my begrudging teenage self to sing Lynryd Skynyrd’s Southern Rock anthem “Simple Man” with her in the car as we rolled down the Florida highway. We belted out together, “Forget your lust for the rich man’s gold. All that you need is in your soul… Be a simple kind of man. Be something you love and understand.” My mom’s energy and smile were contagious, but purposeful. She wanted me to remember to be myself and not to compromise my worth with vain pursuits.
We all come to those watershed moments, those times when one decision alters the trajectory of the rest of your life. My parents’ divorce is one of those instances. One decision impacted five generations of our family and it is not an understatement to say that the fact that I am safe, sane and healthy today is nothing short of a miraculous work of God.
It was an eye-opening moment for me to realize I’m now the same age that my mom was when she decided to divorce my father. It seemed that they had it all. A house in the suburbs. Two kids. Two cars. But there my mom was staring at her 40th birthday coming down the way and she couldn’t reconcile her younger, more spirited years with what she predicted would be in front of her as a middle-class wife in suburbia. Looking back at her life in full view has, in many ways, helped me be at peace with her decision.
My mom had spirit and zeal for life like I’ve never seen. As a child growing up in South Florida in the 1950s, she would drink from the water fountains marked Colored. “I’m pink,” she told the police officer as he shooed her away. As a teenager in the 1960s, she was sent home from a summer camp for music students because of the uproar she caused by agreeing to accompany a black vocalist on the piano. She explained, “Her voice was so beautiful. How could I say no?” My mom and dad got married on a Tuesday in the early 1970s, and her wedding dress was also pink.
Later, after the divorce, my mom found herself as an artisan of Native American crafts. Beadwork. Leatherwork. Historical reproductions. She made her living traveling to craft fairs and tribal gatherings all over the Southeast U.S., as well as running a storefront in Central Florida. She was never happier than when she was getting ready to go on the road, fleshing out her living as a rogue artist in a world that wasn’t her own. It was a matter of integrity for her that she never pretended to be of Native American descent, even though her peers and fellow craftspeople often were. She fervently took up the banner for their cause as if she was one of them though. Unemployment. Diabetes and alcoholism. The difficulties of life on the reservation. She wanted justice and opportunity for them as if her own family were at stake.
Then came the unthinkable. I was home from college on Christmas break. My mom took me aside and showed me the rash covering a large part her right breast. She asked me, “What do you think it is? I think I need to go to the doctor.” She must have been hoping every day that the redness would go away on its own, but when she went to the doctor 6 weeks later she finally got the diagnosis. Cancer. And she fought it for four years, holding a job and raising her kids amid chemo and radiation treatments. At one point when she was tired and in pain, she told me, “I think I don’t have a lot of time left, but I don’t want to go before you and your brother finish school.” It was my brother’s junior year of high school. I finished my bachelor’s degree in December and one month later I got the call that my mom was in the hospital with the flu. Her immune system was too weak to fight anymore. She slipped into a coma and passed away.
Here I sit 18 years later and I still grieve the loss of my mom Leslie. She’s never far from my mind, but when I have big life changes going on I always miss her more. I wonder what she would she think of my choices. The conversations that will never happen are the ones that intrigue me. How would I have explained to her that a marriage truly can develop simplicity of heart and mutual understanding in a husband and wife? I know she would be full of joy at the sight of her grandchildren. Nonetheless, there would be a lot to talk about. How is it that I chose for myself the life that she desperately struggled to escape?
As my good fortune would have it, I married an Egyptian man and when I married him I also joined the Coptic Orthodox Church. A decade has passed since my baptism, and my wedding day too, and it has been a time of constructing identity. Who am I as a wife? Who am I as a mother? Who am I as an Orthodox Christian? I did not see the parallel between my life and my mother’s until recently, but I share with her this lifestyle of living in a different culture than we were born into. For her, she was a Caucasian American woman who spent most of her work hours engaged with the art of Indigenous peoples and those Native American colleagues made up her social circle too. For me, I’m an American woman married to an Egyptian immigrant and we choose to be immersed in the liturgical and theological culture of the church. Dare I say it- I’ve become my mother, but in the best possible sense.
Especially as I’ve really, fully come into adulthood and I’m reaching the age she was when she had some of her darkest and some of her brightest times, I’m both starting to understand her choices better and recognize her greatest lesson to me was her unbridled authenticity. My mom embraced herself as one-of-a-kind and sought out that honest uniqueness in everyone. She held me to that same standard though it took me years to grow into it. She expected me to carry that flag of courage though I have often been fearful of myself and others. Her most urgent lessons to me, she always disguised with laughter, saying lightheartedly, “I don’t care if you become a ditch digger. Just dig the best ditches that anyone has ever seen.” Just be yourself, and live with joyful passion. Be a simple man.
My mom Leslie would be surprised to learn that it has been by embracing my marriage and my new family that I have grown into being myself. With confidence, I could tell her now I am a one of a kind creation born out of the baptismal waters into the arms of my new Mother, the Church. How amazing it would be to have the opportunity to tell her that the Good Shepherd pursued me until I heard His voice and followed it back to the safety of His pasture.
In the end, my mom’s struggle was never about the location. Suburbia or being on the road. That wasn’t the core of the matter. It was always about authenticity versus duplicity. It was always about purity of heart and singularity of purpose. When they are a little older, that’s what I’ll be telling her grandchildren, that their grandma Leslie lived brave and true and that she loves them very much.
Jessica Ryder-Khalil is a wife and mother of four children. When she is not homeschooling her brood she spends her days making Greek yogurt from scratch, reading aloud and jumping in puddles with them. She is also an independent ambassador through Plexus Worldwide. You can connect with her through her Facebook group Praxis with Plexus.
(c) Jessica Ryder-Khalil 2017
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