I have lived my entire life under the stigma of "be careful." Growing up, my mom kept a close eye on her children. Whenever I left her side and ventured off into the world, my mother would utter: "Karen be careful -- watch both ways before you cross the street. Karen be careful -- walk don't run. Karen be careful -- it's getting dark." It wasn't until first grade that I realized "Karen be careful" wasn't my real name.
Did "be careful" serve as an invisible safety net surrounding me whenever I wasn't within my mom's physical or emotional reach? My mother, Mary, must have thought that "be careful" possessed some kind of medicinal powers, perhaps a notch below a "God bless you." Were those two little words as potent as holy water and capable of warding off evil spirits? Maybe my mom felt it counteracted her worried frame of mind and released her from the burden of responsibility if harm should come my way.
It started to get a little ridiculous when, as a teenager, my mother said, "Karen be careful" as I left the front stoop to retrieve the mail at the end of the driveway. But how could I complain when I returned seconds later without a scratch?
My mother needed to say those words because I was, in her own nice words, "quite active." For example, a nosy neighbor would call and inform my mom that she saw me throwing snowballs at passing cars, or riding my bicycle in traffic without any hands.
To this day, my mother won't reveal that neighbor's identity. But I have a hunch who tattletaled because that person's call backfired one evening: "Mary, I found your dog, filthy -- covered in mud -- I had to give him two baths."
"That's funny," my mom said, "because my dog is right here in the kitchen with me."
On my mom's 85th birthday, she revealed a secret about my first job. Some 30-plus years ago, I was a nurse in training and hired to work at a hospital during the summer in Cleveland, which was a three-hour trip. It might as well have been the end of the world, for my mother uttered "be careful" at least 20 times before she and my dad said their goodbyes.
My mom recently confessed that after they drove away, she had pleaded with my dad to turn around and take me back home.
"She'll be all right. Just leave her alone," were my father's words. Thinking back, I'm glad my father had so much confidence in me, or was it the gas mileage he was most concerned about?
Anyway, I survived and came back with new knowledge and a heightened dose of self-confidence. As a triage nurse in the emergency room, I had witnessed a patient suffer a heart attack before my very eyes and was able to institute the first steps of CPR by screaming, "Doctor -- help!" I even diagnosed a patient's rising and falling abdomen as a possible aneurysm about to rupture.
Little did I realize, until her birthday confession, that my mom was so distraught upon leaving me in a bad section of town that she had actually consulted her family physician.
In retrospect, I feel extremely guilty about sending a concocted letter accusing her of desertion, and blaming her for all of the unbearable living and working conditions that I had endured while away; especially since it was written on the hospital's child-abuse form. She kept the letter.
Sorry, mom, I'll be more careful in the near future.