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2019-2020 Season

My Story: Growing up with a Disabled Mom

by Samm Madsen, dramaturg

by Samm Madsen, dramaturg

When I was three, my mom dropped a soup can on her foot. That would have been a big deal for anyone, but my mom had another factor going for her: she has M.S. (Multiple Sclerosis), a disease that makes her white blood cells attack her nerves, causing them to misfire and a whole heap of troubling symptoms. When the soup fell on her foot, her nerves misfired and it hurt so badly that she fell to the floor and sat there, unable to speak or move. Although I can’t remember this, she describes what happened next in the following way, “As I sat there, paralyzed, you toddled in, put your baby blanket on me and picked up the phone to call your dad at work. Everyone you talked to thought they were talking to an adult because you sounded so grown up!”

Despite having M.S., my mom is similar to other moms in that she likes to brag about her kids. She especially likes to brag about her kids while her kids are around, a technique she calls, “Behind the back, in front of the face”. Because of this, I’ve grown up hearing her say to Nancy-Next-Door, “Samm is so good at talking to adults, she just has a natural confidence and maturity.” Or to Dan-The-Door-Salesman, “My daughter is so nurturing, she takes care of me all the time. Oh, hi Samm, didn’t see you there!”

Looking back, I don’t know if it was my mom’s physical condition or her mental one that sparked the attributes she saw in me. Was I responsible because she needed me to make dinner or because she trusted me to use the oven? Did I feel comfortable talking to adults because of all those ambulance drivers I had to talk to in the middle of the night, or because she made sure to be awake when I came home from school to hear my “Sammonlogue” (as she calls it). Am I nurturing because I had to take care of her or because I watched her take in strangers who needed a place to stay, even when we lived on disability income in two bedroom duplex? I think her disability may have given me the opportunity to fly, but it was her love and optimism that gave me wings.

That love was put to the test as I started investigating the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Similar to how the Mom in the play has left the community of flying humans because of past traumatic experiences, The Church for my mom was a community associated with painful memories of exclusion and isolation, a community she chose to leave in order to explore her Christian faith elsewhere. True to my mom’s nature, though, we consistently had a stream of hungry missionaries through the door that my mom would feed and care for, which led to me taking the missionary discussions at a young age. As I watch the end of With Two Wings I find heart aching parallels between the decision the Mom makes in the show and the decision my mom had to make in allowing me to follow my heart and be baptized.

Now a mother myself, I remember thinking after finishing the play for the first time, “How could a mother possibly have the strength to make a decision like that?” It really has nothing to do with her physical disability, but with her disabling fear. How can a mother overcome disabling fear and let their children fly? Instantly, my mind flashed back to a scene in my house, about five years ago: I am sitting on my bed, just minutes before being set apart as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My mom walks into the room, we both have walls in our eyes, but there is also anxiety in my eyes. She sits tentatively down on the edge of the bed and asks if I am okay. I, a bit defiantly, tell her that I know what I am doing is right… but then I tear up and admit I am a little overwhelmed. I can see her wrestling with her own fears, insecurities and defiant thoughts, and then I see her set aside the wall in her eyes and she scoots across the bed and pulls me into the hug. We put our fears to bed and she just holds me.

I still don’t know how my mom, and Mom in With Two Wings have the strength they have, but think I can agree that the challenges they have experienced, from the physical challenges to the social and emotional challenges, are a big part of why they have the power of love that they do. I’m grateful that my mom never clipped my wings. After passing through these trials together, like Lyf I can easily say, “Whether I fly high in the sky or to the ocean below, I will always remember the one that loved me the most.”

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