Whatever self-deprecatory thing I might have said (I’m sure there were many, but I don’t recall this particular one), my mother responded in her strongest voice, “Ira, you can do anything you set your mind to do.”
I was snooty and literal even at 11 years old, which is when I believe this happened, so I said to her, “I can never fly.”
I remember my mom’s response better than if it were yesterday. She bent down, gazed directly into my eyes, and said, “If you wanted to badly enough, you could fly.”
If I had any doubt that my mom was crazy, it ended right then. But the line between crazy and brilliant is fuzzy, and sometimes not even there at all.
My mom spoke volumes with those few words, and it took me about 50 years to figure out what the hell she was talking about. She was, in her typical way, telling me that reality shouldn’t necessarily get in the way of my thinking. I don’t think it got much in the way of her own thinking, although I never fully understood what motivated her, and how she thought. I thought I might better understand her by asking her about her childhood, but she always refused to talk about it. When out of frustration I once asked her why, she simply said: “It was too painful.” Other than vague impressions, I suppose that is all I was meant to know.
My mother had a way of looking deeply into your eyes and finding something residing there that you couldn’t see yourself. She was many people’s confidante, although it was always a one-way street. That was the way she wanted it.
I am convinced, perhaps in my hokey way, that she could see into your soul, so when she gave advice it was pretty damn good. And getting down on her knees to my eye level and looking straight into my eyes was a damn good trick, which is, perhaps, why I wanted so much to believe that she was right and that if I only wanted to badly enough, I could fly.
I wanted to believe it because I thought she believed it. It wasn’t that I was worried about disappointing her; it was more about the fact that I trusted her. At that point, I had the problem of figuring out how to make sense of her willingness to suspend belief in the empirical, to reside with one foot in this world and another, well, somewhere else.
Whatever was in that magic potion of hers, it worked. I am particularly intrigued whenever someone says to me that something can’t be done. And particularly challenged when they suggest that I am not the one to do it.
That is perhaps why I continue to imagine that one day I will finish that novel I wanted to write since I was 23, or that I can successfully translate a book into English from a language I haven’t begun to master. (I will learn it as I go!) I am, however, still encumbered by enough of a dose of reality that when told that I can somehow lick the cancer that constantly threatens to invade, displace and destroy the healthier cells in my body, I quickly retreat. Denial has its place in one’s armamentarium, but it is not the best instrument of courage.
My mother may not have known what she was doing, but I think she did. She saw in front of her a frightened teenager, a friendless, self-hating, dispirited child who sucked his thumb until he was 11 and hid behind the couch whenever the doorbell rang. She saw in front of her a child who believed he was incapable of mastering anything because the realities of living in the real world was just too daunting. So she instilled in him a belief in magic, a belief that anything is possible.
When I think back, wittingly or unwittingly, I have drunk often from her magic potion. It helped me cope with the many failures, big and small, on the path to each success. The list of failures is long, and the list of successes is short, but they are—to my mind, big ones. One of the smaller but significant ones is that it allowed me to eventually find my way into the cockpit of an airplane, fire up the ignition, and—dare I say, to fly.