On the day before what would have been her mother’s 104th birthday, my mother left this world. She didn’t want a service. If we would of had a service I would have felt drawn to express how I felt about her but if you know me well then you know I am not that good at speaking – especially when it comes to times where I am overwhelmed emotionally. I suffer from pretty debilitating performance anxiety and I’m not sure I would have been able to do it honestly.
I’m more comfortable with the written word but even that has been hard recently in my grief. The kind people at the funeral home helped us to compose her obituary but we put it together while I was still in shock and it is mostly just facts. This post is not going to be a very good obituary or eulogy since it is maybe more about me than about her but I have used public writing as a way of processing my thoughts for several years now, and in my grief I feel drawn to write about her and how she influenced me. I’ve committed this last third of my life to teaching and learning and dedicated this blog to the subject. So, reflecting on her as a teacher, as my teacher, seems appropriate for this public forum.
I want to say that mother is the first and most powerful teacher but I know that is not always the case. I want to believe that it is often the case; but I don’t know for sure that this is true either. I was lucky that it was the case for me. My mom, Elizabeth Rita Caines, (“Rheat” to her friends, and often “mom” to my friends) was by far my greatest champion and advocate. From the perspective in which we think of a teacher as a positive and supportive force who guides someone to discover for themselves rather than force ideas or processes, one who protects the learner from external and internal obstacles to learning – she has no rival in my life.
Her love and advocacy for me was so fierce. Well I mean she was ‘so fierce’ in general, and you didn’t want to cross her but you really didn’t want to cross her if it had anything to with me. She often attributed this to the fact that I was her only biological child. She said a psychic once told her that she would “never have children but that all children would be her’s”. She loved children and I know many nieces, nephews, and other children loved her dearly (‘Aunt Rheat’ was a force of her own who I only knew peripherally). But it wasn’t just the physic, doctors too told her she could never have children due to a childhood accident on a horse and so when she became pregnant with me it was a shock and a delight – and a point of much bragging by my father. Before discovering it was a pregnancy she was frightened, at first being told she might have a tumor but then an ultrasound revealed that she had a baby instead. She said there was a mailman coming up the stairs to the doctor’s office as she was leaving and she excitedly told him she was pregnant and did a little dance with him on the steps. On the way home she stopped at drive-in coney island type place and got a “baby root beer” and drank it for me – I still have the mug.
As a youth, when I expressed questions or an interest in things she would find resources for me and let me decide for myself – even if those were things that she did not understand or those that challenged her own beliefs or upbringing. We didn’t have a ton of books around the house but a medical encyclopedia and nature guide outlining plants and animals were often referenced to answer questions. When I expressed interest in music that was “controversial” in some way she would surprise me, buy the album, and we would listen to it together. As I entered high school and began to question the Catholic faith that she raised me in (though she always referred to herself as “one of those backsliding Catholics”), I was nervous in the bookstore to ask her to purchase Zen Mind; Beginners Mind and The Three Pillars of Zen but she did so without question – both of these were way over my head at that age (who am I kidding – they are still way over my head).
Formal schooling was a struggle for me from K-12 but she fought for me at every stage whether it was struggling to get me up in the morning (oh dear reader, how I fought it) or fighting with teachers and administrators who had all kinds of ideas about how I was different. It seemed they always knew something was not quite standard with my thinking but they were not really sure what it was. Early on, I attended a private Catholic school for just a few years and they thought that I was “gifted” but later transferring to public school they said I had a learning disability of some kind, put me in a “special education” room, and threatened to hold me back. She worked with me all summer, using flashcards and worksheets she obtained from the school and the educational sections of the bookstore, and even enlisted my brother to help, till I got to where they wanted me on their standardized measures.
She never graduated high school herself and my completing this milestone was important to her. I did so, but by the skin of my teeth. Eventually, higher education would be a place where I would thrive, but I tried a few different paths on my way and at one point my free spirit got brave enough to take on some extensive travel. We were always close and spoke nearly every day, but the 10 ½ hour time difference when I was going to spend nearly three months in India would make that difficult. I was traveling on a shoestring budget and didn’t even know how often I would be able to call – I wasn’t even sure where I would be sleeping. Public libraries had recently started to offer computing stations with internet and so before I left I took mom down to the Henry Ford Centennial Library and set her up with an email address. We would return several times before I left so that we could practice sending and receiving messages. During this time she often said that she, the teacher, had become the student but considering how and where I ended up it seems to me that she was perhaps preparing me for an occupation yet to come.
On the topic of death she was known to say “I’d have no problem with death, if it wasn’t just so damn permanent”. Now that she is gone the permanence of her absence, and the reminder of the brevity of our existence, weighs heavy on me. She was sick for a long time and throughout my life various doctors would tell her, and even tell me, that she was not going to live a year or two if she didn’t change her lifestyle, have an operation, or take some medicine. Sometimes she would listen, but often she would not. So, even though the nurse told me a few months before she passed that it was near, it still came as a surprise to me. She made it to 81. I am missing her every day.
She was more than my mom and there was more to her than being my teacher. Things were far from perfect between us, I suppose that is one of the risks with being the kind of teacher that let’s the student decide for themselves – you are not always going to agree. But she let me become my own person and I knew she would always love me no matter what. When I would tell her what a great mom she was, she would often say “all mothers are this way; I’m nothing special” but I know that was not true. I was lucky to have her as my mom.
Thinking of and collecting artifacts that I have of her (old pics, voicemails, text messages), I remembered that she appears very quickly at the end of a video I made to “un-introduce myself” for CLMOOC back in 2015 – it is one of the few bits of video I have of her and it seemed to fit in with the topic of this post too well to not share it.
Thank you mom for all you taught me and all I learned from you. I miss you.