mom to the rescue

I was a freshman in high school, playing in a weekend basketball tournament down in San Diego. It was the off-season and this was sort of like an extra-credit team, separate from the high school team. It was for those of us who wanted to improve and hone our skills before the real season started up again. My parents weren’t able to come to this tournament because my dad had to work and my younger brother had a track meet. My mom was president of the youth track club and had a million-and-one things to do at the meets—especially back then, in the days of dirt tracks and non-computer timing. Plans were made for me to drive down and stay in a hotel room with one of my new teammates and her mom. I didn’t know her very well, but she seemed nice. My parents made me promise to call between games and tell them how I did.

After the first two games, I felt close to tears. I had traveled all this way… just to sit on the bench. They weren’t even close games, but the coach didn’t put me in once. I felt embarrassed and unworthy. Like everyone was laughing at me behind my back. Why was I even on this team? I had busted my butt in practice, the same as everyone else. Why was I singled out as not good enough to get a chance in the game?

{Side note: at the time, I thought this was unfair, but I also felt to blame. Like there was something wrong with me and that was the reason I sat on the bench the whole game. Now that I’m older and can look back with some perspective, it makes me angry. This was a high school basketball summer league. This wasn’t even Varsity, but Junior Varsity. This was not the WNBA. These games were not life-and-death. If I was good enough to make the team, I should have been good enough to play in the games. Coaches of our youth need to remember the power and influence they hold. Sports are meant to build up the confidence and character of kids and teens—not tear them down. For a long time, basketball was something that tore me down and made me feel bad about myself. But that’s a post for another time…}

When I called during a break after our second game, my mom answered the phone. “Hi sweetie, how’d it go?” she asked.

“I didn’t play,” I reported numbly.

“What?” she said. “What do you mean?”

“I sat on the bench the whole time.” I bit my lip, trying to keep the shame from leaking out of my eyes. I wanted more than anything to teleport home, to my snuggly warm bed, where I could just pretend this weekend never happened.

“Sit tight,” my mom said. There was a firmness in her voice I recognized. My mom is the kindest woman I’ve ever met, yet she is also the fiercest. She has taught me, by example, that one should never mistake kindness for weakness. “Hang in there, Dal. I’m on my way.”

I’m on my way. When you are feeling sad and alone, are there any more beautiful words in the English language than those?

Never mind that my mom was exhausted from being on her feet, running around, leading the track meet all day. Never mind that it was a 3-hour drive to San Diego. Never mind that I would be home the next day. She knew I needed her right then. So she was coming, right then.

You know in books and movies, when a superhero will sweep down from the sky and save the day? That is how it felt in my little world when my mom arrived that evening. She swept me off to dinner, and suddenly I could breathe again. I was safe again. I could just be myself. I could cry if I wanted to. I could be angry if I wanted to. I could be anything I wanted to. My mom was there with me.

The tournament continued the next day, and even though a large part of me wanted to just quit and go home early, a larger part of me did not want to be a quitter. I wanted to stick it out. I was hopeful that maybe I would get game time the next day. Mom said not to worry, she would get a hotel room and I could stay with her. The next day, we would go to my games, and hopefully I would play. And then she would take me home.

Only… the hotel where our team was staying was booked up. “No problem,” Mom told me. “We’ll just go to a different hotel nearby.”

As we drove around, every hotel glared at us with NO VACANCY lit up in red fluorescent lights. Later, we would find out that there was a NASCAR event in the city that same weekend, and all the hotels were booked up for miles around.

We drove and drove and drove. Eventually, when we had almost given up hope, we found a motel with one room available. The person working the front desk excitedly informed us that it was the king-sized suite with the whirlpool jacuzzi tub. I don’t remember much about that room. I’m sure it was overpriced. I do remember we were both too scared to try the ancient jacuzzi tub. The bed was probably not very comfortable, but I slept like a baby because I was just so relieved to have my mom there with me.

That basketball tournament may not seem like a big deal, but it was for me then. I felt so lonely at the beginning of that weekend, but then my mom came and the rest of the weekend I felt so loved. Her presence turned everything around.

That was just one of many times my mom has come to my rescue. When I broke up with my first real boyfriend, I flew from Los Angeles to the Bay Area because we were long-distance and I wanted to do it in person. Then I had to fly back home. I am usually a nervous flyer, but I was not nervous on that flight because I was too overwhelmed and sad. My mom picked me up from the Burbank airport with a chai tea latte from Starbucks and a great big hug, and seeing her made me feel just a little bit better. Four years later, she would be the one boarding a plane, this time to Indiana, to come to my rescue in the aftermath of the second big break-up of my life. She helped me pack up my belongings, sell my car and all my furniture, and tie up all the loose ends of that chapter of my life. I remember eating cheese and crackers and drinking wine, binge-watching Friday Night Lights together. I remember her neat lists of tasks that brought order to the days and made me feel less unmoored. I remember laughing with her about some childhood memory, and feeling for the first time like I would be more than okay—that I would not just survive, but thrive, without him. My mom has always made me feel stronger than I feel by myself.

I know that Mother’s Day has come and gone, and this post might seem a little belated. But for some reason, the memory of that hotel with the whirlpool jacuzzi tub popped into my head this morning, and it made me think about my mom, and all the times she has dropped everything without a second thought to come to my aid. As a child, it is easy to take that sort of thing for granted. Now, as an adult, I feel suffused with gratitude that I somehow got so lucky to have her as my mother.

Sometimes, when I am feeling discouraged, I think of driving with my mom down that nighttime freeway towards the next exit, searching for a hotel room in the midst of all of those NO VACANCY signs. At times, that can feel like a metaphor for life. At times, it can seem like there will never be a room that is meant for you. But, I promise, there will be. You just need to keep driving long enough to find it.

When I get discouraged, I try to remind myself of that night. Because it was not an experience of despair. In fact, I don’t even remember feeling very worried. I felt sure that, eventually, we would find what we were looking for. And I was content, in the meantime, to be in the passenger seat, my mom behind the wheel, Bonnie Raitt singing on the radio. I looked out the window at the lights of San Diego, dotting the hillsides like fallen stars. I knew everything was going to be okay. After all, I had Mom by my side.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and use these questions as jumping-off points for some “free-writing” of your own:

  • What are some memories your treasure with your mom?
  • When has someone come to your rescue? When have you come to the rescue of others?
  • If you ever feel lost or discouraged, what gentle words might inspire you to keep going?

dear amber rubarth

Hi. I’m one of the people who came up to you after your concert in San Francisco this past Saturday night and asked you to sign my copy of your CD. I was nervous, and I don’t think I even remembered to tell you my name. I did tell you that I first saw you play at Zoey’s in Ventura years and years ago, and that your music has meant a lot to me. But it is impossible in a one-minute conversation to feel like one is able to say anything that really goes below the surface. I just felt like any other fan, asking to get a picture with you. You were so kind. And then it was the next person in line’s turn and I said goodbye and Allyn and I walked out into the night. And I felt buzzing with happiness at what a wonderful evening it had been, but I also felt a keen layer of frustration beneath my skin. Because I didn’t feel like I expressed myself clearly to you in that one-minute conversation as you signed my CD.

amber rubarth concert sign

Here is what I wanted to tell you.

When I first saw you play, at Zoey’s Cafe in Ventura, I was feeling a little lost and uncertain. I had just graduated college and moved back in with my parents after my grad school and fellowship plans had ended in nothing but rejections. For my entire life up until that period, my identity had been built on structure and over-achievement. Suddenly, I was floundering. I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know how to build a career out of it. I felt like everyone else I knew had “real jobs” and paychecks and responsibilities and exciting lives in new cities. Meanwhile, I was back in time, living once again in my childhood bedroom, unsure what the future held. And I had broken up with my college boyfriend, someone I had loved very much but had realized was not the love of my life. I felt confident it was the right decision, but I missed him. And part of me worried no one else would ever love me again.

I went to your concert at Zoey’s as part of my attempt to get out more and meet people. Zoey’s owners, Polly and Steve, had always been kind to me — they had even hosted a book signing for me back when I was in high school and released a collection of short stories — and I would check their website often for live music shows. Usually, I would go by myself. I went by myself to your show, and sat at the bar because there were no other seats available, and tried not to feel like a loser amidst the crowd of couples and families. Was I the only one there alone? But as soon as you started singing, I forgot to feel self-conscious. I felt myself in your songs. I felt understood. I listened to your beautiful, fragile, strong voice sing bravely and vulnerably about love and hope and healing, and for the first time in quite some time I felt excited to fall in love again. I felt like the world was indeed a wondrous place and that there was magic out in the future waiting for me.

That night, I went up to you after your show and bought both of your CDs and listened to them on repeat for months, driving around in my car, trying to find myself again. I particularly remember listening to You Will Love This Song on repeat and repeat and repeat. The details felt so true. Your song helped me get over my ex, while still remembering with bittersweet fondness the love we had shared, and taking in what it had taught me, and what I was looking for in a future love.

I got into grad school for fiction writing and moved halfway across the country, from my native California to a small college town in Indiana. If I thought I had felt lonely and uncertain before, I was on a whole new barometer of loneliness now. For the first time, I lived in a one-bedroom apartment by myself. I missed my family with aching fierceness. I felt overwhelmed with my new responsibilities and making friends had never seemed more difficult. I wondered if there was something wrong with me. I dreaded Fridays because it meant an endless weekend stretched before me; sometimes, a trip to the grocery store was my entire social interaction. It snowed and snowed. I wrote epically long emails to my friend Holly. I read and read and tried to write, authentically, for myself, even though criticism from my peers in workshop resounded loudly in my head. I went on a couple of unsuccessful blind dates and developed one or two hopeless crushes and listened to your song 23. I learned to cook for one. I listened to your CDs as I drove around in my same old car in this unfamiliar new town. Your songs made me feel a little bit less alone, a little bit braver. Especially Chrysanthemum Song.

I eventually met a guy, and we were together for a little while, and I was so grateful to have someone that I lost a lot of myself in the relationship. When everything fell apart, suddenly and irrevocably, I found myself again in the rubble. My brother came out to Indiana to help me regain my footing that first week, and he is also a fan of yours and he would put on your music. When I was sad, I listened to In The Creases and cried. But I simultaneously felt washed anew in a bright, sure happiness. That summer, I listened to your song The Edge and felt like you were speaking directly to me, to what I was feeling, to this new life that I was standing on the crest of, looking out across the landscape.

I moved back to California, this time to the Bay Area. I fit the pieces of myself back together again, trying on some new pieces too: zumba, yoga, green smoothies, long hikes, online dating. I met my sweetie in late January and falling in love with him was like nothing I had ever felt before: swift and yet not rushed at all; patient and trusting yet filled with surprises; gentle and passionate and balanced and consuming, all at once. As you sing in When It Fits, when it fits just right, it takes no time to know.

We spent that summer apart because he moved to New Orleans for three months for an internship. I went out to visit him and we spent three glorious weeks together, eating beignets and walking around the French Quarter and snapping photos of alligators during a swamp tour. The morning I left, I gave him a mix CD I had made for him. We listened to it as he drove me to the airport. I remember rolling down the window and breathing in the cool morning air — it was still dark out and the streets were deserted — as your Song to Thank the Stars played from his car stereo. The rest of the summer, whenever I was missing him too much, I would listen to that song and the ache inside me would ease a little into gratitude.

When one of my best friends died in a car accident, music and books were two of the only things that brought me any sort of comfort. The first six months, I was in a daze. I felt like I was living underwater. I remember listening to your song Pilot. The lyrics from that song run still through my head sometimes, on days when I feel in need of a spark.

Five months ago, my love proposed by serenading me with a Jason Mraz song on the guitar: Quiet. It seems fitting that one of my favorite duets is a song by Jason Mraz and you, which also makes me think of my sweetheart; I’ve been listening to it on repeat lately, as I plan our wedding.

A couple months ago, Amber, when I saw you were going to play a concert in San Francisco, I was so excited. I told Allyn that was all I wanted for my birthday: to go to your concert. So he bought tickets, and I circled the date on my calendar, and we went. When you came out onstage and began to sing, I felt transported back to that night six years ago at Zoey’s cafe. So much was different then. So much has changed. I think back to that shy, nervous, uncertain girl I was, and she seems so young and far away. And yet — hearing you sing your older songs made me feel connected to my previous selves. Sitting in that concert beside Allyn made me feel like I got to share those memories with him, in some osmosis sort of way.

Your concert was beautiful. Your joy was contagious. The audience adored you and we cheered and cheered until you came back out and played us an encore. My breath caught in my throat when your final song was A Song To Thank The Stars. I held Allyn’s hand and felt filled to the brim with grace and love. When you signed my CD, I told you how happy I was that you played that song. You confided that it was the only song you performed that was not on your set list, that you felt compelled to play it at the end of the night for some reason. “You must have been sending lots of mental vibes for me to play it!” you said, laughing. The song felt even more like a gift after hearing that.

me and amber rubarth 2

I guess what I’m trying to say with all of this, Amber, is that your music matters. You don’t even know my name, but your music has mattered immensely in my life. It has helped me feel less alone in my lonely times, and more grateful in my joyful times, and it has made me think and made me feel and helped me to be braver and kinder and more attuned to the tiny details of the world around me.

Thank you for your music. I hope you always keep making music. I am so excited to hear what you create next.

Love,
Dallas