No pain, no gain? Tis true for moms

My mother would have made a terrific spy. She couldn’t keep a secret to save her life, but she had a pain threshold so high she could have been a judge on “American Idol, Best of Sanjaya.”
When she crushed her fingers in the garage door, she waited three days before going to the hospital to have the broken bones set. Days after she had a King Kong-size bite taken out of her thigh when she collided with a dock while waterskiing, she limped onto the tennis court for a match in a club tournament — an achievement that would not be equaled in the eyes of her friends until many years later, when Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling won Game 6 of the American League championship series against the Yankees in 2004, despite a ruptured tendon in his right ankle and a leaking Magic Marker in his sock. (OK, Red Sox Nation, that was a joke. I know it was real blood.)
And when she was dying of lung cancer and enduring esophageal radiation and chemotherapy and some bizarre procedure in which she had acid injected into her lungs and then was turned on her bed as if she were a rotisserie chicken, she continued to insist her oncologist bring her cookies. Even near death, the woman never lost her interest in chocolate.
Now, my mother took enormous pride in her stoicism. She knew both that she was a rock and that the males who surrounded her — her husband and two sons — were complete weenies by comparison. When I was 6 years old and went flying over my bicycle and knocked out my front teeth, she observed, “Why couldn’t you have broken your arm? Blue Cross would have paid for that!” My brother and I usually had to have bone poking through skin before we were allowed to stay home from school.
But her remarkable pain threshold served us well, too. Certainly it helped me: It’s pretty likely that I would not have survived my childhood if she weren’t such a fierce mother lion and so reflexively fearless. The stories of the ways I inadvertently came close to killing myself as a kid are legion in my family, but they include the following moments:
When I was a toddler, I threw myself over the railing that separated the second floor of our house from the first — and from the stairway that descended down into the basement. My mother made a dive into that stairwell, so that instead of landing on the stairs a story and a half below me, I landed on her. She was in bed for a week.
When I was 3, I had one of those metal firetrucks in which small children can sit and pedal. One day, I decided to disregard the rule that I wasn’t supposed to drive down our steep driveway and into the street. I did. Or, to be precise, I tried. But my mother dove once again, grabbed the back of the truck, and pulled me to a stop feet before the truck would have reached the road and been mashed by an oncoming car. Her knees, I gather, could have been filmed for close-ups in a driver’s-ed movie after this little maneuver.
Now, do either of these tales suggest that my mother was in the slightest way unique as a mom? Actually, they don’t. My sense is that most mothers would have launched themselves headfirst to catch their children as they jumped from balconies or tried to pedal their firetrucks into oncoming traffic. Moreover, as extraordinary as my mother’s pain threshold was, it wasn’t unique among mothers. Let’s face it: To even wear the mantle of mom a woman has to go through that little rite of passage we call childbirth.
And that’s probably why a day like Mother’s Day matters. Yes, the premise is more than a little schmaltzy, and the rituals that surround it a little syrupy for my taste. But the reality is that there is nonetheless something completely remarkable about the selflessness of a mom.
Happy Mother’s Day.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on May 13, 2007.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.