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I could lose you forever

When I’m an old lady, this is the story I will tell about my mother.

​“​I knew that if I let you go, I could lose you forever​,​”​ Elizabeth Salaam’s mother told her.
​“​I knew that if I let you go, I could lose you forever​,​”​ Elizabeth Salaam’s mother told her.

When I am an old woman who repeats the same stories over and over again, the one I will tell of my mother will not be about the bread she baked some Saturday mornings, or the quilts she’s made over the years, or how we read side-by-side in her bed every night until I could no longer be held to a given bedtime.

The story I will tell repeatedly from my rocking chair will be about a winter night in the driveway of our house on Scenic Drive.

First, though, let me fill in some details about her. My mother had dinner on the table every night at 5:30. And every single January 8 of my childhood until I left home, she told the story of driving eight hours through below-zero weather to adopt me. When I went away to college, she wrote me a letter once every week. She called me every other week at a given time we’d set at the end of each call. And although I worked in the campus writing center for the money I needed for books, beer, and cigarettes, she mailed a check for rent, groceries, and utilities that arrived before the first of every month.

My mother is a study in consistency and discipline. She took up jogging at around age 33, starting with two miles a few times a week, and she ran her first marathon in 1980. Since then, she has run 30-plus half-marathons and 10Ks. The medals hang in the wall of her sewing room. She has tripped and fallen over the tree roots that buckle her running path, only to return two days later, bandaged and scabbed because it’s her “running day.”

Along with her running, she has gone to the gym every other day for the past 20 years. And before that, she practiced tai chi twice a week for 15 years. She climbed to 19,000 feet in the Himalayas at age 49, and at 68, she cycled a 350-mile pilgrimage through Spain.

My mother is reliable and constant, sinewy and intense. And when I was 13, I had no idea how strong she was. I don’t remember how the fight started, only that I ran out of the house and into the darkness of an early winter evening. During that time I burned with rage all the time, but that night was the first time I’d slammed out of the house screaming. I don’t think my mom ever screamed back, but I do know for sure she was silent that night as she ran out after me. She grabbed me by both arms before I was halfway down the driveway. She’d never put her hands on me before, no matter how much I’d slammed doors or screamed or called her hideous names no mother should ever hear. I screeched with indignation, disturbing the suburban night air, and clawed at her. I tore at her, kicked, scratched, spit, and cursed myself hoarse. She kept hold of my arms with both hands. She dug her heels in, lowered her center of gravity, and held her grip as I struggled maniacally to tear myself away from her.

Until then, I held the subconscious belief that my rage made me stronger and that I would be able to bite and claw my way out of any situation. But my mom proved stronger than me that night. Without one word, she held her ground in the driveway until I had spent up all my energy and collapsed against her in tears. In the morning, shame overcame me when I saw that I had dug long scratches into her upper arms, the skin torn and raw. But I felt awe, too, because even in my muddled teenage brain, somehow I knew she’d endured that pain because she loved me.

Years later, I asked her about that night. She said, “I knew that if I let you go, I could lose you forever.”

When I’m an old lady, this is the story I will tell about my mother. It’s probably uglier than what a Mother’s Day story should be, but for me, it’s the one that matters the most. Even at my worst, my ugliest, she kept me.

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​“​I knew that if I let you go, I could lose you forever​,​”​ Elizabeth Salaam’s mother told her.
​“​I knew that if I let you go, I could lose you forever​,​”​ Elizabeth Salaam’s mother told her.

When I am an old woman who repeats the same stories over and over again, the one I will tell of my mother will not be about the bread she baked some Saturday mornings, or the quilts she’s made over the years, or how we read side-by-side in her bed every night until I could no longer be held to a given bedtime.

The story I will tell repeatedly from my rocking chair will be about a winter night in the driveway of our house on Scenic Drive.

First, though, let me fill in some details about her. My mother had dinner on the table every night at 5:30. And every single January 8 of my childhood until I left home, she told the story of driving eight hours through below-zero weather to adopt me. When I went away to college, she wrote me a letter once every week. She called me every other week at a given time we’d set at the end of each call. And although I worked in the campus writing center for the money I needed for books, beer, and cigarettes, she mailed a check for rent, groceries, and utilities that arrived before the first of every month.

My mother is a study in consistency and discipline. She took up jogging at around age 33, starting with two miles a few times a week, and she ran her first marathon in 1980. Since then, she has run 30-plus half-marathons and 10Ks. The medals hang in the wall of her sewing room. She has tripped and fallen over the tree roots that buckle her running path, only to return two days later, bandaged and scabbed because it’s her “running day.”

Along with her running, she has gone to the gym every other day for the past 20 years. And before that, she practiced tai chi twice a week for 15 years. She climbed to 19,000 feet in the Himalayas at age 49, and at 68, she cycled a 350-mile pilgrimage through Spain.

My mother is reliable and constant, sinewy and intense. And when I was 13, I had no idea how strong she was. I don’t remember how the fight started, only that I ran out of the house and into the darkness of an early winter evening. During that time I burned with rage all the time, but that night was the first time I’d slammed out of the house screaming. I don’t think my mom ever screamed back, but I do know for sure she was silent that night as she ran out after me. She grabbed me by both arms before I was halfway down the driveway. She’d never put her hands on me before, no matter how much I’d slammed doors or screamed or called her hideous names no mother should ever hear. I screeched with indignation, disturbing the suburban night air, and clawed at her. I tore at her, kicked, scratched, spit, and cursed myself hoarse. She kept hold of my arms with both hands. She dug her heels in, lowered her center of gravity, and held her grip as I struggled maniacally to tear myself away from her.

Until then, I held the subconscious belief that my rage made me stronger and that I would be able to bite and claw my way out of any situation. But my mom proved stronger than me that night. Without one word, she held her ground in the driveway until I had spent up all my energy and collapsed against her in tears. In the morning, shame overcame me when I saw that I had dug long scratches into her upper arms, the skin torn and raw. But I felt awe, too, because even in my muddled teenage brain, somehow I knew she’d endured that pain because she loved me.

Years later, I asked her about that night. She said, “I knew that if I let you go, I could lose you forever.”

When I’m an old lady, this is the story I will tell about my mother. It’s probably uglier than what a Mother’s Day story should be, but for me, it’s the one that matters the most. Even at my worst, my ugliest, she kept me.

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