Unspoken Understanding [Part IV]

By Haven Lindsey  in  blog  on  11.21.2022

I never wanted to have children. It wasn’t that I was particularly averse to babies and kids but I never, ever, felt even slightly compelled or pressured to have a child. I’ve always known why I felt the way I did but I’ve somewhat faked the reason to protect the truth. (Apparently, I’m over that now.)

My mother never wanted to have children either. She didn’t want to have me – something that I heard many times growing up. When she had my sister she somehow assumed she would have a boy because that’s what they wanted. When she delivered her second girl she was so devastated she burst into tears and escaped to the beach. She returned home from the hospital with her newborn only to drop the baby off with my grandparents, pack a bag and leave. Is there more to this story…god yes, but that’s not what this is about.

I had always been afraid I was going to be like her. She wasn’t like the mothers I saw on TV or at my friend’s houses. I watched my friend’s mother hug them or straighten their hair or express concern or worry. “What time will you be home?” they’d ask. “Don’t forget your coat.” There was always an undercurrent of love in other homes that was missing in mine. I loved my mother’s “shit-with-it” style. While other mothers would hover and show concern, mine didn’t want me in the way. I drove the family car a full year before getting my learner’s permit – my mother simply didn’t care, “shit-with-it you know what you’re doing.” It was her way of saying, go for it, jump off the high dive, be brave enough to find what you’re afraid of, and then embrace the fear. It was one of the biggest gifts anyone has ever given me – and I will be forever grateful to her for that.

I spent normal, nurturing summers with my grandparents who loved and nurtured me. We camped in Granddaddy’s Van, the one sitting in my garage today. When I wanted to waterski with my bigger, much older cousins my grandparents said no – I had to wait until my mother showed up and if she said okay, they would let me. I’m not sure it took five whole seconds – Granddaddy asked his daughter what she thought and my mother said, “sure, shit-with-it, she knows how to swim.” I was eight years old wearing my cousin’s life jacket that swallowed me, placing my feet in adult water skis, far too big for my adolescent feet, floating in the water with my cousin yelling from the boat – “don’t let go of the rope, let us pull you out of the water, just stand up.”  I had been watching my cousins waterski all week – they were good – barefoot skier good and I wanted to learn. They say I skied nearly a mile on my first attempt. I skied far out of sight of Grand and Granddaddy watching from the shore. When they turned the boat around to head back to where we started, I fell in the wake we had created. As the boat circled to get me, my cousins were cheering and clapping – thrilled that the youngest and smallest among them had just gotten up on skis on her first attempt. My mother, who they had waited on to give me permission, wasn’t there to watch. I’m not sure where she was.

It was two years after I graduated college and preparing to leave for a European vacation with a friend and co-worker when my mother hugged me for the first time. For no other reason than pure convenience and her willingness, she dropped us off at the airport. My friend’s mother was afraid to drive to Dulles Airport with all the traffic but no, not my mother. No fear, no limitations in that regard. Even today I’m not sure I could say what my mother was ever afraid of – other than being alone.

As we watched our luggage disappear at the ticket counter, my friend, like most young women who probably have nurturing mothers, turned to hug my mother a thank you and goodbye. After all, that’s what people do at airports. I remember distinctly watching Laura hug my mother and then notice as she turned and looked and motioned at me as if to say, ‘we need to head to the plane, aren’t you going to hug your mother goodbye?’ As if that was what mothers and daughters do – of course they do, but not in my family.

Laura and I were co-workers, and both of us had high-level medical sales jobs – we loved the work and all that we were learning. I had just given a presentation in front of nearly 100 physicians three days before but the nerves and uncertainty of approaching my mother to hug her as Laura just did was terrifying. But there, at Dulles Airport, at the age of 23, I hugged my mother for the first time that I could recall. We pretended we had done it before – funny how family dysfunction leads to its own unspoken language and expectations. It was like hugging a telephone pole or a tree trunk, there was nothing there to reciprocate. The woman who had never petted or touched any of our family pets had never touched me either.

A long flight and half a day later as we sat in a pub in London, Laura, steeped in her healthcare background and curious about human behavior, asked me if something was wrong with my mother. It was the first time anyone ever posed that question to me – but it would not be the last.

We all have baggage. Some of us stop the shit show, unload the bags, go through it, and then leave it to get on with our lives. Others choose to carry that weight around with them. I was decidedly the former which speaks to why I had chosen to live my life more than a dozen states and thousands of miles away from where I was raised. It was also why I was afraid to repeat the pattern in which I was raised – I didn’t want to do that to a kid. I didn’t want to bring a child up in that same dysfunction. I understood baggage. I understood shit shows inside an otherwise normal home. I understood neglect. I understood ridicule from the people who are supposed to love you the most. I understood feeling guarded in the place, your home, where you’re supposed to feel safe.

And, before all the words and conversations that would come, the laughter and tears, the struggles with school and learning to study, and games of football and all that was destined for us as he waded through his family dysfunction, I understood Justin. I understood his sullen stare at the ground. I understood his contradictory feelings of being happy and full of life yet feeling stuck. I didn’t know it at the time, I wouldn’t really understand for years – but there wasn’t that much difference between Justin and me.

I was moved by how happy he was to make the hot chocolate for Keely, goofy and silly placing the marshmallows on top, “so it looks like a cup of marshmallows,” he said. I was moved too because he didn’t just deliver his cup of hot chocolate to her and come back to make his own – he sat in the front office and visited with her while she drank it – the same kid who an hour before could barely grunt “Hey” when introduced to her.  I knew Keely well enough to know she would drink it and be gracious but I also knew she was ambitious and it wasn’t her job to entertain this kid who was now in our office.

I walked out with my tea in hand and asked him if he was ready for his. Keely nodded at me but something in her expression has softened – the kid had a heart as big as the state and Keely’s eyes told me all I needed to know, “we gotta help this kid.”

Justin was filling his mug, putting the single marshmallow on top when I walked into the breakroom. “I think you and I need to talk about why you aren’t in school. If you’re up for talking about that, come back into my office, okay?”

And I left it like that and walked back to my office.

Would he walk out and return to the tossing the football in the air routine? What was this kid thinking? What was I thinking? But, as I already shared, I’m not the most patient person. I wasn’t a mother or a teacher or a counselor and I had to draw my own line and let him decide what would happen next.

I sat down at my desk, finally warm from the time spent outside, and watched as the steam created cloud-like designs above my teacup. It was my first day back at work after the holiday break. In my true fashion, I had checklists and those checklists had checklists. I had a lot of work to do. I had also just invited a kid into our space completely disrupting my well-intentioned plans.

Willing myself to focus on my job at hand, I pulled out a presentation I was due to give in a few days. I had a unique business in the state of Maine – the only one of its type – and the Chamber of Commerce and its members wanted to learn more. I was reviewing my notes when Justin walked in. He didn’t sit down. He didn’t look at the fish tank. Instead, he stood there awkwardly and said, “I dropped out of school but maybe I should go back. I don’t know.”

I credit the shit-with-it attitude I learned from my mother. Her actions and detachment from the normal positioned her (and me) for the limitless. I heard myself saying words I couldn’t believe – they were so hardcore, straight out of her mouth, not mine.

“Well, first, didn’t we make a deal that you weren’t going to say, I don’t know anymore?”

The boy dropped his head. My heart sank to my feet. This was so hard. Why was this so hard, I thought. How can my heart take this? Every part of my being wanted to take him into my arms and hug him. But I held my stance and sat in silence.

“Yeah,” Justin uttered.

“Okay. I get the ball then, right?”


He handed me the ball which had been lying on the chair he wasn’t sitting on. I noticed his fingers were still red but this time I think it was from holding the hot drink.

“Okay. So we squared up our deal. What do you think?”



The nothing was so loud it was adorable. We both knew he wanted to say, “I don’t know” but he didn’t.

I’m sure it was no more than 30 seconds but it felt interminably long. I glanced at the fish tank and watched the angel fish turn sort of sideways and then flip again. It. Was. So. Quiet.

Finally, he looked up and we smiled. He was refusing to say I don’t know – he wasn’t going to keep letting me win at this game. His guard was down, and for whatever reason he trusted me. He still hadn’t said a word.

“You want to go back to school don’t you, Kiddo?”

“I think I should.”

“Okay. First, take this ball, it’s in my way. We need to get your butt back in class.”  Justin took the football but in a serious way – he knew what I had done. I had just shown him that I trusted him to make his decisions. I still wasn’t sure why the football was so important but I wasn’t going to mess with that. I treated the football as if it was sacred. Perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn’t.

It was at that moment when I realized I didn’t have to have all the answers. Oprah would probably call it an ‘ah ha’ moment. I’m not sure if that’s what it was but I was aware that this wasn’t about me. It was about something bigger than me that I had welcomed when I walked out into the street and intercepted the ball. I knew I wasn’t a mother but in an instant, I knew without a doubt I was motherly. I had not received a lot of nurturing but instinctively I knew how to be nurturing.

I cared about this kid and I didn’t need to know why. I didn’t need to explain it. He sat down and I took the pile of papers and presentation notes and moved them to the side of my desk. I had a kid sitting in front of me who, for whatever reason, had dropped out of school. He was underfed and needed a winter coat. He was awful at eye contact yet his own were alive and full of light. He had just told me he wanted to go back to school.

Well, clearly, I had a real job to do.

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