“JESUS TAKE THE WHEEEELLLL. TAKE IT FROM MY HANDS. ’CAUSE I CAN’T DO THIS ON MY OWN.”
Catholic by birth but converted agnostic, Mom still managed to turn our car into the Church of Toyota Corolla, singing the part of lead soprano in the gospel choir, whenever Carrie Underwood’s song came on the radio. At the height of rush hour, the typical clutter of cars and pedestrian traffic was absent from our commute, so Mom pounded on the gas pedal and our car barreled down Nob Hill.
We had been talking about the future; Mom had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, but our conversation came to a halt as soon as the first note of the chorus blasted over the speakers. At the bridge of the song, Underwood — and Mom — belted, “I’M LETTING GO.” Perfectly on cue, she released her hands from their rightful place at ten and two on the wheel as the speedometer climbed from thirty to sixty. Her smile grew wider while my eyes focused on the elderly woman two blocks away, hobbling across the road. I glanced back at the speedometer: 52 mph. 57 mph. 59 mph. I looked at the old woman once more, now close enough to make out the word “Wilson” on the tennis balls at the base of her walker. I lunged for the wheel, praying to Carrie Underwood’s Jesus that “Reckless Mother and Daughter Flatten Elderly Woman in Fatal Car Accident,” wouldn’t be a headline on the Channel 41 news broadcast later that evening.
Before I could grasp the controls, Mom released her foot from the gas and resumed her steering position, expertly avoiding the elderly lady as if nothing unusual had happened. Noticing my lingering panic, Mom teased, “You’re no fun. I’m doing exactly what we’re supposed to do when there’s no traffic. I’m celebrating!” I spent the rest of the ride home searching for napkins in the glove compartment to wipe the pool of sweat from my seat. She continued to sing.
Mom never really stopped singing, to the point that she earned the nickname “Chirp Bird” in homage to the interminable warbles of the sparrows outside the kitchen window. When it wasn’t a country ballad, it was Whitney Houston, Cher, or Celine Dion. It should be noted, however, that despite her superb taste in music, vocally she was no diva. Her sound was an acquired taste, with some notes as pleasant as nails clawing at a chalkboard or teeth gritting the strings of a violin. Yet she dismissed these shortcomings as irrelevant, constantly taking on greater challenges like Barry Mann’s “Somewhere Out There” or the dramatic score of John Barry’s “Born Free.” Listening to her pitchy squeals and subsequent laughter that kept her from inhaling enough air to belt the C# of Barry’s chorus, I found it hard not to think of her as born free. She had the disarming humility of someone who doesn’t take themselves too seriously. She must have been hatched like this: relentlessly radiant, aggravatingly appealing, crushingly cheerful.
It’s true that she learned the virtue of positivity early. As a student in law school, many of her friends never thought she would be successful. “She just wasn’t neurotic enough for the career,” one of her classmates explained. When I tell people of her profession, many balk, envisioning the appellate briefs soaked in red ink, the impending doom of court deadlines and the headlines describing depression as an epidemic among lawyers. Yet while some of her peers were hospitalized because of nervous breakdowns leading up to the Bar Examination, Mom sat with her textbook by the edge of a pool, reading one chapter, taking a few laps for cogitation, then reading the next section. “It was so relaxing,” she would often reminisce as if describing a weekend getaway to the spa and not the test that determined her future. Dad would sigh (he embraced a similar “no pain, no gain” approach as mom’s classmates). He hinted at Mom’s apathy in her youth. She chuckled at this suggestion, arguing that she certainly cared, she just didn’t want to kill herself over one test.
Mom never tried to be anyone but herself, confessing once, “Sometimes I pretend to be normal, but it gets boring, so I go back to being me.” This just made her better at her job. Colleagues sought her counsel, clients adored her and she rose to leadership as an unstoppable force. At a partner retreat for her firm, she graced a dinner wearing a denim dress, the outfit completed by Lucite boots with 3-inch heels. Although her ensemble looked more appropriate for the Met Gala, she clomped across the lobby of the hotel with confidence. Her group of law partners, sporting the sullen whites, blacks, and blues of Wall Street, immediately noticed her getup. “What are those things?” I imagine the fossilized partners asking, squinting at the translucent boots. “Going to the ball, Cinderella?”
A peacock in a flock of vultures, mom did a twirl to show off her shoes. She had called me before the meeting to ask if I thought they would be, “too much?” I said yes, she should stick to flats. I don’t know why she bothered calling.
During dinner, the event’s photographer motioned for all 300 lawyers to line up for a picture. When mom spotted a celebrity reading a novel in the corner of the bar, she said to her partners, “I’m going to see if he wants to be in our picture.” They scoffed. She, a total stranger, certainly wouldn’t just walk up to him. “I absolutely will,” Mom replied, “and while I’m at it, I’m going to see if he likes my shoes.” He did, and he agreed to be in the picture.
In addition to her legal triumphs, Mom wrote her own lexicon. One of her favorite words could be heard every night at dinner as she put a meal on the table. “Violà!” she would exclaim, butchering the French phonetics as she pronounced it “VI-ola” instead of “(v)wa’la.” I once tried to remind her of the many semesters of French she took in college while explaining that a “VI-ola” is a violet flower, not a “Presto!” or “Look here.” She jokingly replied that I sounded as stuck up as the French and I should focus on the food. “Mangia,” she would say, Italian for “eat,” but she slaughtered that pronunciation as well, adding an alphabet soup of extra letters and an emphasis on the wrong syllable, just to see if I paid attention.
A friend once asked me if anything bad had ever happened to her. I felt flustered by the directness of the question but he explained, “She’s just so happy… like, all the time. I don’t know how she does it.” His remark held a truth – she did always seem content. But she also wasn’t a stranger to life’s challenges. The first word she learned was “no” – it was all her mother ever said to her at the grocery store while struggling to feed a family of five with a weekly budget of fifteen dollars. She gave her first eulogy for Larry, her best friend, who died of an aneurysm at the age of 28, just weeks before her father passed away from brain cancer. She cared for her mother for 10 years as the older woman slipped into the insatiable, interminable grasp of Alzheimer’s Disease. She tended to another loved one struggling with anxiety and depression on a daily basis. Yes, she knew grief of cinematic proportions. Yet she still smiled. She still loved deeply. She still remained optimistic.
In the lexicon of life, “joy” or “happiness” was never really the closest synonym to Mom, but this word, “optimism,” that best defines her presence. At first glance, her optimism appeared so effortless — almost reckless. But there was an intense deliberateness to her outlook on life. She consciously chose to smile at the world because she trusted that the world would eventually smile back. She reminded herself daily that pleasure is fleeting, but so is pain. She embodied optimism because she knew it doesn’t mean that you’ll accomplish a desired goal or follow a desired path. Instead, Mom gained her power from the resilience implied by the three-syllable word: the ability to re-evaluate the situation each moment, to acknowledge, accept and even choose to embrace the possibilities inherent in unexpected situations and results. Her special brand of deliberate optimism enabled a fearlessness, a confidence, and a gratitude for even the darkest moments of life.
I think back to the car ride across the city a decade ago, back to the moment before the speakers were blasting and the car was shooting down the hill, and back to my mother’s questions about my future.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Mom asked me.