I’ve heard the saying “Everyone deserves a second chance” about 13 million times over the course of my life. At one point it lost all meaning. This old adage suggests second chances are available to anyone whom might ask for one like they’re on reserve.
What I’ve come to learn is second chances are hard to come by and they rarely work out. Usually you make a decision and you live with it the rest of your life with either pride, regret, or indifference. I hadn’t realized how much impact one more chance can have on your life until this happened:
On a cold evening in March, I had just turned my back on my mother and stormed down to the basement to keep watching a DVD I’d bought earlier in the day. I’m pretty sure it was a copy of Hamlet, the Laurence Olivier version. I imagined her wide stare and sad eyes as I descended the basement staircase alone.
A couple hours earlier I’d promised to clean up some things around the house and forgot. She called me upstairs during the part when Olivier looks down at the waves crashing against the rocky Danish shoreline about to recite the famous soliloquy everyone knows the opening to.
Michelle, my mom, was wearing a puffy black vest with a black and white striped sweater underneath. My mother had on that “now remember what I asked you to do, Matt?” look, and for some reason I wasn’t having any of it. Well actually, the reason came from the frustration of working on what was supposed to be a simple math assignment; numbers don’t agree with me. I forget what I told her but it hurt her feelings, not with what I said, but the anger behind my words.
Back in high school, I suppose I was seen as a nice enough kid. That period in someone’s life can be strange and miserable but, a time you can look back and laugh at once you graduate or block out enough bad memories. Back then, I was selectively quiet with no real clue with what I was good at.
To my classmates I must have seemed like a quirky, strange yet pleasant 15 year-old with a skinny Gumby-like physique who was awkward around girls. That is what people saw of me but to be real, looking back, I was kind of a jackass.
Walking into high school I wanted to be myself, to be genuine for once. I took becoming a ninth grader as an opportunity for me to express who I really wanted to be, even if I didn’t know who I was yet. But, that optimism quickly fell apart in the first week.
No matter where I turned there were a bunch of people just trying to get by, trying to fit in, doing the same thing as everyone else was doing and I couldn’t stand it. Truth be told, I probably didn’t look for the genuine people hard enough and was content with being an angst-filled teen. My freshman year I covered myself in this fake happy-go-lucky attitude that said to himself ‘screw you.’
You know the guy who’s nice to your face but belittles you the minute you step out? I was sort of like that except I’d be talking to myself. I know that sounds strange. I’d appear to be genuine and have a broad stroke of pleasantness wrapped over my face. Like I was actually interested in what they were saying. My classmates probably thought I was decent enough. Not true. I used to think everyone was such a fake that my inner monologue would make Holden Caulfield stop listening.
That’s the nature of high school, you pretend to be someone until you find who you are. It’s understandable at that age, looking back now, but I wasn’t willing to accept that. I’d have such pent-up anger at everything because of how inauthentic people were, myself included. Most of the time, I’d bottle up this energy and use appropriate outlets like sports and academics but many times it would lash out at my parents.
These outbursts came out at random and ridiculous times over small things: did you take the dog out for a walk? did you turn in that form? did you write that thank you note to your aunt? First, I’d get fuming red in the face, let two or three minutes go by, and launch these venomous attacks at my mom and dad. And I’d say some especially mean things.
I’d talk down to them like I had some type of authority and they didn’t, or I’d be angrily indifferent to put the issue to rest. Smart-ass stuff like: if you knew what’s best for me you’d leave me alone, or do you really call yourselves parents?
My dad was good at hiding his emotions but I knew jabs like that got to him. That would sting them the most. Now my mom, she’d look visibly shaken in reacting to some of the things I said. Once I said them I’d look at her face and then, a few minutes later, apologize. Seeing her face made it look like a piece of her had gone with the breeze with every resentful spoken. They kept giving me chances to grow and learn but old habits are the hardest to kick.
I saw that same pained, teary-eyed expression on that chilly March evening as I raced down to the basement to watch Hamlet. After taking some unjustified shots at my parents’ character, I felt almost immediately like I was taking a part of my mother with every vicious word said and stomped on it in the middle of the street. I was chipping away at her by inches. After that night I came to realize that my parents, especially my mother, are the toughest and kindest people I have ever known.
During the scene where Hamlet holds Yorick’s skull. There was a loud thud from our living room upstairs. Then I heard a faint voice over that sounded like my father calling David, my younger brother. And he flew down to the living room to answer his call. About two seconds later David called me up and I slowly went upstairs half-expecting there to be some lecture about our behavior or something.
Walking into the living room I see my mother kneeling with her head bowed at my dad’s feet while he was sitting in the chair softly holding her hand. He said in the calmest tone I’d ever heard, “Guys, you’re mother isn’t feeling well. She has a terrible headache and I’ve just called an ambulance, I need you guys to clear anything in the foyer that could block the paramedics from getting your mom out of here, okay?”
I hardly looked at my dad, I stared at my collapsed mother. She almost shook with how much pain she was in but she remained silent. I wasn’t thinking anything except for oh shit oh shit oh shit, she’s having a panic attack, did I do this, no, couldn’t do this, oh shit.
As I was moving about the house doing what my dad asked, I heard nothing, just familiar movements and muscle memory. I felt like I was on some horrible auto-pilot and I couldn’t flip the switch back to manual. Then, I put myself in a state where I kept saying to myself: Mom, You’re going to be alright, you’re going to be alright, you have to be alright. I played it back over and over again. I saw tears dripping from her face but I didn’t want to touch her in case that would hurt her more. My dad looked collected but his eyes flashed confused horror. She didn’t say a word until the paramedics arrived where she started crying and moaning. “Oh this hurts so bad. What’s happening?”
The paramedics got her onto the stretcher quickly and rolled her out to the ambulance parked in our driveway. Our whole neighborhood was watching and looked just as confused as we were. We didn’t know what was going on. Before she got put into the ambulance she called to me and David.
“Boys, boys. You listen to your father and try not to worry, okay? I love you both so much.” And then she told us she loved us in sign language. She used to do that to us when we were little when she would drop us off from school. Mom would point to herself (I), cross her chest with her arms in an X-shape (Love), and then she would point to us (You). David and I would give the sign right back to her. At this moment I was so confused and shocked that I couldn’t feel a thing. All I did was walk through the motions with the same loop going over in my head, mom’s going to be fine, mom’s going to be fine.
This is a serious head trauma where 15% don’t make it to the hospital, 40% don’t survive surgery, and over half of the victims have serious cognitive and/or neurological defects following the surgery. We have a family history with this sort of thing but this came as a total shock to my family and our community.
My mother has been active in our in Northern Virginia neighborhood for as long as I can remember. She volunteered driving elderly people to run errands if they didn’t have a car. If someone she knew was sick, she would cook meals for their entire family. She would even volunteer as a CCD teacher on the weekends in our local parish. When news spread that she was sick, an outpouring of support and help came our way from extended family, friends, and neighbors.
Meals were cooked for us, we were driven to school when our dad was visiting her in the hospital, we were given words of encouragement and even casual visits from people we were either close with or hardly knew at all. If they knew Michelle in some way they came by. Even my teachers and classmates would come up to me and send their thoughts our way or they’d simply pat me on the back and smile. It was overwhelming.
Throughout this whole period of going to school, visiting her in the hospital, doing homework in the hospital cafeteria, or taking nips from the liquor cabinet to help me sleep, I had to keep thinking that mom was going to be alright, she just had to. This all showed me how my mother was viewed as this beaconing light of kindness, charity, and respect.
After only three weeks in the hospital and eleven coils in her head my mother was back home on her 50th birthday with no complications. She’s a tough one. I’d say that’s the best gift she’s ever gotten. I remember her feebly getting out of my dad’s car with a portion of her hair shaved off where they made the incision and looked up to see my brother and me standing in the driveway. She started crying she was so happy to be back home with her family. She walked into her foyer for the first time in nearly a month and said, “My beautiful home…”
We continued taking care of her until she got her strength back. After about two weeks with her back home the shock finally wore off and I realized this was the greatest blessing my life has received thus far. I had been given a second chance to be a better son.
Whether it was God, the Universe, Fate or whatever you want to call this ethereal thing that governs the pathways of our lives, it had given me a chance to treat my mother more like the person she deserves to be treated. I noticed then that I had been given an opportunity to be a person who empathizes and relates with his mother and not to push her or my dad away when they hold out their hands to me. But, with old habits being the hardest to kick that “feeling of the second chance” started wearing off as my mother was getting better by the day.
Now, I’ll admit, I was overall kinder to my parents because that’s just the natural thing to do when a family goes through something like that. But, I still took their presence for granted.
I still acted like a prick to other people and my mind went to some angry places. I’d act out in the middle of class, turned in assignments half-way done and a day late because I felt like it, I’d openly talk back to the teachers, and when people asked about my mom I’d say it wasn’t their business.
With the exception of treating my parents slightly better, I was still the same jerk of a 15 year old only I was acting out more. I got better as I got older and eventually that pent-up anger sort went with the breeze. But not, until about a month ago, nearly a decade since this incident occurred have I come to grasp the importance of this second chance.
I don’t think someone can be selectively nice to certain people and still be called a kind person. I’ve finally come to terms with, as a senior in college, the fact I’ve been given an opportunity to lead a better life because life is what you do for others. How you treat others is just as important as anything else you’ll do with your life.
Second chances are a rare commodity to come by and when they show up, more times than not they’re squandered. While I’m not calling myself a great guy or even a decent person: I can still behave like a belligerent asshole.
While I’m not the authority on being a good person I guess what I’d say to you all would be to never let any second chance go by the way-side because with every chance you get, you have the rare opportunity to learn something about yourself and you are the only one who can make yourself better. I’ve learnt that and I’m still learning that.