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Photo by Travis Jensen
That’s when things start to get good for me. There’s plenty I’m angry about, and at the top of my list is my mother. I love her so much that it makes me angry. Not because of something she has done to me, but because of what has been done to her—what this life has pushed and pulled her through, leaving her body wracked with inescapable pain from arthritis and fibromyalgia.
I will never be able to fully understand my mother’s pain because I don’t feel it myself. I don’t wake up in the morning feeling like a cement truck has driven into my body at full force, dragging me under its wheels and leaving me on the side of the road. I don’t play hide and seek with grandchildren who are fifty-four years younger than me despite the sensation that my spine is being shattered. I don’t question the value of my life because my health prevents me from taking a job to bring extra money home.
But I am connected to that pain—my life was created inside that body, after all.
That body brought me to term and braved the trauma of childbirth. That body nourished and protected me when I was hungry, defenseless, and new to this world. The mind in that body was wise enough to recognize that my stubborn nature was a blessing and a curse, and, instead of kneading me into thoughtless obedience, nurtured independence and curiosity. The heart in that body taught me what true love looks like. The soul in that body showed me the value of honesty and selflessness.
In the three years since I moved to Los Angeles to build a new a new career for myself—one that has often felt more like a vocation than anything else—that emphasis on selflessness has been on my mind more than ever. It has felt at odds with the independence my mother cultivated within me, especially when we talk over the phone on days she’s particularly struggling. It’s hard to hear the pain in her voice or the ways in which she tries to hide it or not dwell on it in conversation. It’s harder to know there is nothing I can do to take it away. And for me, it’s harder still to be roughly 1,400 miles away knowing that decisions I have made for myself mean that I cannot even swing by the house and cook dinner for her and my dad, take her to a doctor appointment when she feels too weak to drive, or simply sit and have tea and watch a few episodes of Roseanne to keep her company.
Instead, I spend my days navigating a cutthroat, half-trillion dollar industry with the hope that in the future I will be in a position to do nice things for my parents. I’ll pay off whatever debt they have, take them on vacations, buy them a beach house.
I’LL HAPPILY LIVE WITH LESS SO THAT THEY CAN HAVE MORE.
The distance is justifiable for this reason—ultimately what I’m doing is for them, for her.
And then my phone lights up with an incoming call and one of my favorite photos of Mom, a photo she wasn’t entirely aware that I was taking and protests over concern about “the bags” under her eyes when she sees it. It’s only been about an hour since we last spoke. It was a brief chat—I’m on a project and jet lagged and she’s grandkid lagged after spending several days helping my sister out. How are you doing? Did you have fun with the kids? Sounds like you did a lot—make sure you allow your body to rest. I pick up the second phone call figuring she’s forgotten to tell me something funny that one of the kids did, and I could use a good laugh.
But her mood has changed from upbeat to downtrodden. She tells me that she thinks what I’ve been telling her is accurate—that exercise is good for her fibromyalgia. “When I’m with the kids, they’ve got me moving all around and I take less hydro,” which is her nickname for that notorious, semi-synthetic opioid she’s come to rely on to keep her going from day to day. I assure her that while more exercise isn’t going to cure her, it could certainly help her feel a little better. That’s not why she’s called, though. She is remembering how her grandson held on tight when she left, sad and crying because Grandma had to go. Now that she’s in their big house alone, it’s too quiet, and the silence tends to amplify the pain. That’s not really why she’s called either—these things have all led her to think about me and how much she misses me and wishes I could be there, too.
As quickly as I had justified my pursuit of something greater, I’m back to doubting it. The reality of her suffering puts the reality of my professional pursuits into perspective and sometimes to shame.
When I contemplate this on the phone with her, I get exactly the response one would expect from a superior mother: “I want you to be happy and use your talent in a fulfilling and meaningful way.”
The truth is that I am in Los Angeles because of my mother and her pain, which has gradually revealed a whole other world to me: the world of the oppressed. My mother is my gateway into this world. I see the effects of the various abuses she has suffered, and it leads me to ask questions. How many other women are there like her, struggling under constant, often invisible and socially and culturally justified forces trying to exert power over others? What other types of people are subject to these abuses? How have they impacted me? Where do these abuses originate, and what can we do to stop them?
The search for answers to these questions, particularly that last one, has led me from small towns to big cities, from a small college to a major university, from the East Coast to the Cape of Good Hope and then back to the West Coast. When I left my rural New York hometown for college and career in Boston, I found myself a victim and a perpetrator of abuses associated with conservative Christianity. As I moved from undergraduate work in media studies to a graduate degree in film and television, I developed a humanistic perspective on media, mindful of the cultural and social impact of the act of creation. And by traveling from Boston to South Africa to study apartheid, finding beautiful people living in both poverty and disease, but also flourishing wealth, all within a remarkably beautiful landscape—a reality now mirrored almost identically for me in Los Angeles—I came to understand that we all play a role in making the world we inhabit. Ultimately I arrived at the conclusion that the best way to fight against these abuses is to tell stories.
However, despite my strong will, I have recently felt as if I’ve reached a potential breaking point, a moment where it might be time to throw in the towel due to the often discouraging and not very lucrative process of finding and telling those stories. This is what has brought me to my small boxing gym tucked away in an alley off Melrose Ave.
And so when my six-foot-five, New York-accented boxing teacher slides the pads onto his hands and asks me what I’m angry about, I think of my mother.
I jab and cross and think about the reasons such a beautiful life must be subjected to such a hostile host. I think of the father who marked her as tainted goods, levying myriad abuses due to his Catholic faith’s belief that having her outside of marriage was an impropriety. Then I think of how that faith could deem immoral the act of doing such a godly thing as creating a life so precious as hers.
I throw hook after hook after hook after hook, and I imagine the moment when, at eighteen years old, she was tossed out of her home with little concern for what might happen to her. I think of the people who told her she wasn’t good enough or smart enough to pursue a career she knew would bring her joy.
I throw an uppercut when I imagine the man who barged into her apartment with the intent of raping her. I slip to the right when I consider how the accumulation of these experiences has robbed her of a life many other women her age take for granted.
AND BEFORE LONG, I’M FIGHTING.
I’m fighting because I know that if my mother—strong and resilient in the face of a lifetime of pain—can do it, so can I. I’m fighting because I know that if I dig deep enough and let out enough bold and wild swings, I can do well and do good. I can make a difference like she has—because she has. I’m fighting because I know that should I too find myself with fibromyalgia and arthritis in the coming years, I will have to find the same strength and resiliency. I’m fighting because I hope that should my body suffer the same fate, I am able to leave the kind of mark in the lives of others as she has left on mine.
I’m fighting for my mother. I’m fighting for myself.