The Mothers We Share

It has been exactly one year since my mom died.

It has also been 1,507 days since my mom died.

Not many people can boast about the sheer amount they have been loved like I can. There’s nothing like a mother’s love, and that’s only compounded when you have two. Unfortunately, I didn’t have as much time with either of them as I thought I would. I’d like to tell you I treasured both my mother and stepmother as much as I should have, but I didn’t. I’d like to take the opportunity to change that.

I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do. My gift is my writing, and this one’s for the two of you.

Webster’s Dictionary defines a mother as — just kidding. A mother is someone who says things like, “I’m not mad; I’m just disappointed,” upon seeing your report card, knowing full and well what kind of punishment that is for a child. A mother is someone who accepts and loves you for you, no matter how much time you spend playing Halo 2. A mother is someone who will wait patiently and laugh politely as you flub your lines to your “hilarious parody” of a Red Hot Chili Peppers song.

Here’s a generic WikiHow illustration to start us off. You can pretend it’s me and my mom, I guess.

A mother is someone who quietly loathes your first girlfriend because they’re not as nice to you as you think they are. A mother is someone who stays up until 4am watching infomercials with you, and regularly quotes them to you years later (“Set it and forget it!” “Slice a tomato so thin, it only has one side!” “We promise this isn’t a total and complete waste of money!”). A mother is someone who will ride roller coasters with you — despite her debilitating back pain — because you’re too short to get on the ride yourself.

A mother is someone who embraces their son’s odd sense of humor and indulges his passions. My Papaw still wants me to be an engineer, but my Mothers always wanted me to be everything I wanted to be (read: not daily calculus). I’m sure some times I disappointed them, but they supported me through it all and coached me through bad decisions and worse hairstyles. A mother may not share your DNA or have had the pleasure of squeezing your fat baby head from her birth canal—no, you know a mother by her love.

And I had two.


Somewhere Over the Rainbow

My mother Terri and I at my high school graduation. That medal is for “Best Hair”, by the way.

My (birth)mother’s name is, or was — I’ve never been able to figure out which to use — Terri. My father’s name is also Terry. I’ll refer to them as Mom and Dad, respectively, seeing as this was one of the great sources of confusion in my childhood.

FADE IN:

INT. BREWER HOUSEHOLD — LIVING ROOM — DAY

Rrrrring. Rrrrring. Rrrrring.

Young Zack, sporting a fresh bowl-haircut, rushes to the phone.

“Hello, Brewer residence,” I answer politely and cutely.

“Hi there, may I speak with Terr(i/y)?” a voice on the other end of the phone confronts me with a dilemma.

“Wh-… which one?” I stammer.

“Brewer, Terr(i/y) Brewer.” There’s a subtle condescension in the voice that assumes I have to wear a helmet to school.

“Uh…” I struggle to answer the question. Though I had faced this question innumerable times, I had not the mental faculties nor foresight to prepare an answer — I spent a majority of my youth memorizing Weird Al lyrics and Kevin Garnett’s season averages, so I couldn’t come up with something more elegant than, “Mom or Dad?”

By this point, one of my parents had usually come to the phone and mercifully removed it from my hands, moments before I burst into tears. Not everyone can pinpoint the exact moment they developed Sudden-Onset Dialogue Anxiety (hereby referred to as SODA). I can.

FADE TO BLACK.

SPONSORED IMAGE — Go to http://www.socialskillskillssoda.com for more information.

My Mom was a teacher, primarily of the arts. The assignments for her grade-schoolers would often center around learning about other cultures or people groups. This meant mandatory listenings of The Celtic Women Tap-Dancing Choir’s entire discography and bonus points for dressing up as a pilgrim for Halloween.

She bought me my first camera. She laughed at all the dumb stories I would write, and then hang them up on the fridge. She watched Saturday Night Live and Arrested Development with me and explained the jokes I didn’t get (and ignored the adult ones by half-sighing / half-laughing, “oh gosh”). She played Dorothy in a community theatre performance of The Wizard of Oz. She was also Prom Queen, Homecoming Queen, Dairy Queen and Miss Gingerbread Festival ’85 (my memory is a little fuzzy, but I know at least three of those are true). She was a devout (if admittedly flawed) Christian and an incredible teacher. She helped me fall in love with storytelling, and fall in hate with Marshalls department stores.

She also starred in this local commercial, which I’m sure she wouldn’t be angry about me showing:

ALLERGY SHOT (1999). Drama/Thriller. An ailing teacher seeks out a cure, conquering homework in the process.

My Mom was also very sick. Not in the asthmatic way, but in the bipolar disorder way (again, not in the “haha I’m so bipolar because I get mad some times” way). She had three states through which she would fluctuate, sometimes within the same day:

  1. Manic episodes of cleaning the garage, re-organizing furniture, planning school field trips, and exercising for hours on end. These were the times when her productive and creative energies burst forth and she would stay up for twenty straight hours because she decided we needed a garden.
  2. Seeping depression that would slowly latch onto her, warping her perception of the entire world. Her side of the family has a history with mental illness (an illness that would play a big part in my Uncle Tim taking his own life in 2009), and they all talk about having the same feeling: one’s brain incorrectly interpreting and relaying information from the real world — being lied to by your own consciousness. These were the darkest episodes for her, not knowing who to believe: her own instincts, or her friends and family who said they cared for her? These sessions involved threats of suicide, laments that her children hated her, kicking and screaming.
  3. Regular Mom. Almost all of my favorite memories were from this side of my mother. This is the Mom who, after I asked what “reptile dysfunction” was after a particularly confusing TV advertisement, replied “ask your grandfather.” This is the Mom who called days before she passed away to heap (undeserved) praises onto me, not knowing it would be the last conversation we would ever have. This is the Mom who was an inspiration to thousands of kids — me most of all.

Quel Repos Céleste

Pictured here are me, my sister Madison, our Mom, and our grandparents: two plastic trees.

March 15, 2012. I had spent a majority of the previous night dancing around in a warm, tropical thunderstorm outside our facility in Haiti. It was the perfect contrast to the day ahead: a brutally hot and dusty morning spent digging, smashing concrete, and laying the foundation for a small home.

Some 1,500 miles away, my mother fell asleep at the wheel and was killed in a crash. The same medication that kept her in balance had also zapped her energy and frequently kept her in a state of drowsiness. The very thing that had kept her brain from lying to her had betrayed her body. There’s a metaphor in here somewhere.

My Dad, who had been divorced from my Mom for five-or-so years, was the one to deliver the news. I remember collapsing into a heap of dust and dropping the phone into an anthill. After the call concluded, it didn’t take long for a group to gather around me and offer their hugs and prayers and a profound silence — a silence during which an ant made its way onto my hand, maneuvering through my fingers and up past my elbow. It was an insignificant moment, but one I remember vividly all the same.

After a while (it could have been an hour or five minutes), there were Haitian children and families that had taken notice and also joined in. I spent the rest of the day shellshocked — trapped in a cage away from my family and many of my friends — before being able to fly out the next morning. When I landed back in the States, I received a voicemail from my Mom from a few nights before. I can’t remember what she said, but I do remember crying in a Chili’s because of it.

I had just gotten into journaling the previous month and made a conscious decision not create an entry for that March 15th. It’s one of my greatest regrets in life that I don’t have those words to look back on. I am writing this at least partially because I didn’t want to hide my thoughts away any more, if even from myself. Many of her friends and family have done the same, sharing memories and thoughts — in the months and years since, her Facebook page has accumulated hundreds of kind words from acquaintances, co-workers, friends, family and former students. Here are some things they had to say:

I can still remember our Speech class under Mrs. Silliman our freshman year in college. The first speech we had to give was an introduction of ourselves. You stepped up to the podium and threw confetti in the air, shouting “Happy New Year!!!”
Never has anyone believed in their students the way she did or made going to school everyday so much fun. I was truly blessed to have this woman as my 5th grade teacher and so is everyone who ever met her.
All my best stories start with, “One time me and Terri…”
Terri, I just hope you know how much you meant to the children whose lives you not only touched, but changed. You were by far one of the best teachers a parent could ask for their child to have. You always cared for my [son] so much, as well as every child that entered your life, there is no way for me to say “Thank you” enough for the way you made [him] believe in himself.
No one could compare to the way you loved everyone of the children in your classroom. No matter how bad of a rep they had, you never once treated anyone better or worse than the next kid. All of us were one in the same when it came to treatment. But your eyes were open enough to see the creativity in all of us, you brought out and inspired what I am today.
I’ll never forget the time you took me to see The Wizard of Oz at the Jenny Wiley Theatre. I remember a winged monkey came down the aisle and tried to scare me with a creepy dance, then I turned to you and said, deadpan, “Thanks, Mom.” Well, I don’t actually remember this, but you told me this story a million times, and I definitely remember that.

Okay, you caught me. That last one was from me.


Come On Up to the House

My family points at a small, digitally-inserted (read: nonexistent) raptor that for some reason my sister is afraid of.

I’m sorry to say that I don’t have as many memories of my Stepmom, Leslei. She didn’t come into my life until ten years ago, which — unfortunately for her — was right around the time I began the sulking, angsty, locked-in-the-bedroom-watching-Food-Network-game-shows phase that we all go through. I didn’t always treat her like I should have treated my mother, but she always treated me like a son.

She was an avid University of Kentucky sports fan. From women’s volleyball to men’s basketball (the only sport that actually matters in the entire Commonwealth, besides of course horse-gambling and competitive coal-mining), she was True Blue™ to the end. Les would have taken up an interest in curling if UK had a program for it (though we all know the University of Wisconsin has the game on lock.) And yet she always supported me in my dreams of pursuing a career in media, rather than one in the NBA.

Les told it how it was. She laughed at my jokes and told me when I was being an idiot. She came to my football games and cheered me on; she celebrated my good grades and helped me apply for scholarships; she cooked all the time, and played no small part in me ballooning past 250 lbs in high school; she loved her dogs and children, no matter how yippy they may be. She and my Mom were both my biggest cheerleaders, which is what made it so difficult when their relationship (or lack thereof) brought conflict into our lives.

My father Terry and stepmother Leslei, seen here not observing proper lifejacket safety protocol.

My Dad married Les shortly after my parents’ divorce. It was a rocky family situation, to say the least. Over the next few years, I only saw Dad and Les on select days of the week — and they were often wasted by me spending my time on the computer or asleep (as depressed high schoolers are wont to do). I missed out on so much time, with all three of them. What’s that saying about youth being wasted on the young? Oh, right. That is the saying.

When my Mom’s brother took his own life, there was a moment at the funeral, after the pallbearers (among them me and my Dad, whom my uncle had always looked up to) placed his coffin in the hearse, that my mother broke. My Dad took me in his arms, and Leslei took my Mom in hers. I cried as hard because of the reconciliation as I had for my uncle. It may have only been a silver-lining to a huge cloud, but the line was silver nonetheless. The cold war between them reached a ceasefire, and I respected both of them all the more for it.

There had been bumps along the way, but our family unit(s) had both solidified and become more dynamic. Mom and Les didn’t become best friends over night (or at all, really), but at least my mother stopped talking about Les behind her back, and at least me and my sisters could simply be with family, and not have to worry about who is jealous or upset.

It was this simple gesture by Leslei that created a paradigm shift for my family, and it is how I will always remember her. No, I didn’t clock as many hours with her as my mother, but she was there with me through just as much. No one was more supportive in the wake of Mom’s death than Les, and, if the tables were turned, I think I could say the same for my mother.

Quiet; Big Boys Don’t Cry

Leslei and my (step)sister Tayler. What do you think the rest of Les’s shirt says? “Za”? “Kentu”? “Fu”? [Editor’s Note: My sources have confirmed this as a “Kid Rock” shirt.]

April of 2015 was the most difficult month of my (and much of my family’s) life. Only a few days after Easter, Les was admitted to the ICU at the University of Kentucky (fate kept bringing the two together). She was brought in incoherent and almost unconscious, while I slept on my then-fiancée’s couch only a few minutes away. Again, it was my Dad who called me and broke the news. It was only days prior when I had last seen Les — she was sick, more than she realized, but wouldn’t see a doctor no matter how much we protested. A sinking inevitability had been creeping over me ever since.

What proceeded was the emotional equivalent of being tied to a railroad track and helplessly watching as a freight train barreled down on you — or, rather, someone you loved. The ride began with a doctor telling us about percentages in similar cases to Les’s — her liver had failed and kidneys were well on their way out — and about the chance of her “succumbing” to her illness in the next month (a number that was over 90%, as I recall). I wish I could tell you that I yelled, “Never tell me the odds!” before slapping the clipboard out of the doctor’s hands, and then rushing to Les’s bedside and telling her to “fight,” but I didn’t. What actually happened was me and my Dad, the only two people in the room at the time, began crying.

For three-and-a-half weeks, we watched the train inch closer and closer. I missed out on my best friend’s wedding (and he missed out on an amazing best man speech), telling myself I had to be there day in, day out. I was able to watch the entirety of the NBA playoffs in the downtime, however — so that’s something, I guess. Dad and I bonded over an incredible Spurs-Clippers matchup and an unreal comeback by the Warriors. My now-Wife and I played card games and tried to narrow down our wedding playlist. (Believe it or not, there isn’t a whole lot to do in ICU waiting rooms.) Anything to take our mind off the train horn blaring in the distance.

There were times when it seemed like she might just pull through, like she could be a part of that rare percentage who gets to look back and say, “I won.” We prayed for her, but it didn’t get us any more time with Les. Neither could any doctors, nor nurses, nor procedures nor surgeries. It was a bleeding that no tourniquet could slow, a waterfall that no dam could stop. She passed away on April 30, surrounded by friends and family. I never once called her “Mom” until then, the last time I spoke to her.

I hope she heard.


The Sound of Silence

My sisters (neither Angel nor Aeropostale, respectively) stand with Leslei.

We were only two weeks away from performing the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie when my Mom passed away. I had lines (in another language, by the way) to re-memorize after a traumatic Spring break, choreography to learn, and — on top of that — I had to become an actual, decent singer. There was a lot to do in the days following her passing. It kept me busy, and it kept me sane.

Once the show was over, however, and I no longer had an excuse to see my friends every evening for five hours at a time, the silence became deafening. Our last show was on a Saturday evening, and the following night — a night before a new, mother- and Millie-less week began — I had a panic attack, the first one in my life. I lay in bed, wanting to scream, to leave my own skin. The silence and stillness of a dark bedroom left me with nothing other than my thoughts, and I couldn’t bear it. I left campus and stayed at a friend’s house, where I stayed up all night watching 30 for 30 documentaries. This went on for a month before school ended, and it took even longer for the nightmare of being alone to subside.

It’s the same story as when Les was in the hospital. Driving to the parking garage every day, taking the ticket, making the walk to the ICU. Then driving back at 4am because there’s just no way I can fall asleep in a hospital chair, no matter how far back it may recline. It was in these moments, in this silence that I thought about how my Mom never got to meet my wife, and the possibility that neither she nor Les would be at my wedding — a possibility that came true. I thought about life without the two of them. I thought about Batman and how he lost his parents. I thought about all the Disney characters who suffered the same fate. I wondered if I would be just another sad story, or someone who made it through it all.

It was difficult—torturous, even—to be in this silence, but it’s only when you’re there that you have time to dialogue with yourself. It’s when you discover who you are. So when I ignored the silence and drowned myself in music and podcasts and basketball, it was pushing off pain and discovery and internal conversation until tomorrow. The sound of silence was deafening because it was the sound of me. As such, I have to re-learn every day the importance of quiet time; for me, it’s the only prescription (really struggling here not to make a bad cowbell joke) capable of the kind of healing I required. “Hello, conscience, my old friend.”

Wish You Were Here

This is getting really dark, so here’s a picture of a dog birthday party. Look at these lil guys! Happy Barkday.

Two days ago, in the frozen food aisle of a grocery store, I passed by a woman who looked like Leslei. This had happened plenty of times with my Mom, but for some reason never with Les. It was one of the more sobering and tragic moments I’ve had while browsing pizzas. It felt so strange to feel like I saw her again, that I could be tricked so easily into thinking she was back.

A few weeks ago, after closing a deal on my first commercial production, my first instinct was to call Mom and Les. This, too, had never happened before. Sure, it happens all the time in movies, but never to me. I had always been able to turn off the part of my brain that “forgot” they were gone. But in this moment, I couldn’t. I hoped so hard for them to be on the other end of the line.

It’s been hard. As the months have gone by, the scars fade slightly — only to be ripped back open by birthdays and anniversaries and Christmases and milestones and Mother’s Day. I wish they were here. I wish they were here to laugh at my idiocy and to watch TV with and to yell at me for being a jerk, for anything and everything.

But I have to remind myself one thing: this gets better. I have to remember that there is much to look forward to. I have to intentionally choose to carry on, to not stress, to not be anxious about what tomorrow could potentially hold. And even if tomorrow is bad — even if it’s the most terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day ever — there still will be good.

That musical I mentioned earlier? I met my wife during it; we were in the show together as love interests. We became friends mostly because I’m so darn cute, but at least partially because she felt God tugging at her to be by my side. She knew I needed help, but didn’t know how to give it.

My uncle’s funeral? The circumstances were horrific, but it resulted in a renewed family, two mothers reconciling for their own good and for the good of their children.

I still don’t know what good will come from Les’s death. But something will. It’s on the horizon. Death, taxes and a 50-win Spurs team may be inevitable, but so is good. Something good will come from this, and I can’t wait to see what it is.

Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me

Dad standing before a Florida sunset. Photo by Leslei Brewer. [INSERT INSPIRATIONAL QUOTE HERE.]

Perhaps the good is simply that I have the opportunity to thank my Dad, who has been there for me through it all. He’s a quietly great father (to continue the sports metaphors, he’s the Tim Duncan of dads) and a fantastic police officer. He’s supportive and proud of me even when I’m at my worst (often), and never once made fun of me to my face for crying over a Timberwolves loss (also often).

When we were younger, my Dad attempted to have an interest in trading cards while I attempted to have an interest in hunting. The results: during our second theatrical viewing of Pokémon: The First Movie, I began sobbing during the climax, only to turn to my father who was fast asleep (and was promptly yelled at); and me waking up at 4am, washing myself with a special, unscented soap, being driven miles out into the country, and falling asleep in the back of my Dad’s truck as deer nonchalantly walked by (thankfully, I was not yelled at).

Yeah, the more I describe myself as a kid, the more I realize how patient and loving my family was and continues to be.

I love my parents very much. None of them are perfect, but — and you may want to sit down for this — neither am I. None of us are. They have hurt me over the years, but I have hurt them right back. I’ve never been particularly grateful to my parents, and I wanted to change that, even if just a little.

If we are what we pass down, if our existence is defined by our legacy, then my parents have led fantastic (if relatively brief) lives. Their impact on me and my family has been incredible, if not immaculate. What I pass on to the world will be, by and large, a testament to how I was raised and what values were instilled in me by my parents. The collective foundation for the entire world (and worldview) we’re building has been laid by our mothers, by our fathers. All of our parents have played a part in getting us to where we are, and who we are—I just wanted to thank mine in particular.

Love,
Zack
Another WikiHow illustration. Wow, look at me and my family! Isn’t this a nice image to end on?