She was a force of nature. I wish I had a more descriptive way of describing my mother, but “force of nature” is about as good as I’ve ever been able to muster. Which is unfortunate because she really deserves my very best shot. Monica Cox taught me to love words and ideas, and I will never have a bigger cheerleader. She was, in all sense of the phrase, the greatest fan of my life. She lugged me around to libraries and bookstores, and even random “gifted” classes when I was a small child. She took me to countless ball practices and was not afraid to check me out of school early to take in an afternoon Delta State baseball game. She saved everything I ever wrote, and always encouraged me to dream big. People who never met her doubt me when I describe her as a lost Pat Conroy character, but it’s pretty damn accurate. Equal parts lady and tornado, my mother could outsmart the smartest in the room and out-charm the most charming. Case in point- Mom was born Doris Eleanor White, and hated her name. So she chose to be known as Monica at some point in her adulthood, and although she never had it legally changed, both the State of Mississippi and the Social Security Administration changed their official records to reflect her “new” name. A force of nature, I tell you.
I have written thousands of words about my father, and will probably write thousands more before I am done. But the real star of the family was Mom, and that’s not even a close race. To this day, I encounter far more people who mention Mom to me than I do Dad. She collected friends as if they were baseball cards, and she had that otherworldly ability to make anyone she talked with believe they were the only person in the room. She could remember names, faces and your life story after the first time she met you. She knew a little bit about everything, and was a voracious reader and writer who literally never met a stranger. I’ve read countless interviews with friends of President Bill Clinton, and everyone talks of his ability to put strangers at immediate ease with his charm. I’m certainly biased but Mom’s people skills would have made Clinton turn green with envy. People young and old flocked to her, and she returned the attention to each and every one of them. Before email and social media, Mom wrote letters every day to contacts near and far, and spent an average of 2 hours a day on the telephone. She joined more groups than I could ever list, and somehow led them all. Just thinking about the many groups and jobs makes me dizzy. At one time or another in her life, Mom was a court reporter, legal secretary, high school Latin teacher, head of the church Parish Council, ran the school basketball concession stand, community theater actress and director, Cub Scout Den Mother, savior to countless stray cats, chairman of the Friends of the Public Library, and volunteered at the local hospital. She was on the executive committee of the local Republican and Democratic committee at different times in her life. When I was in college, she walked into our living room holding two bottles of vodka and announced to my father and me her intention to join Alcoholic’s Anonymous. I am not exaggerating when I say Dad and I weren’t surprised in the least— we just figured it was the only group in town she hadn’t joined yet. True to form, she became the chair of AA within six months. At some point, she started calling in to a television shopping program, and she was so good on television that the home shopping network actually arranged times for her to call in as a regular caller. Mom was a comet hurtling through life, and sadly, the energy she brought to life ultimately led to her burning out way too soon.
Today is World Mental Health Day. I’m not sure if it is appropriate to “celebrate” a day like today, but we should definitely take notice of it and do our best to help those suffering from any mental illness. Mental illness is real, and my mother battled her demons throughout her life. My brother likes to jokingly say that I grew up once “it got crazy” around the house. I don’t know if crazy is the right description but it was definitely different. I have many funny stories, and I’m sure I will share many of them at some point. But not today. Today is for something else.
Mom had a tough life- she lost her own mother early, started college at 15, married with a child at 17, divorced with two children by 18, and a single mom for the better part of the 1960’s. Forced to be responsible when much of her generation had the freedom to be irresponsible, Mom’s will to survive pushed her forward as a career woman at a time when it wasn’t always the norm. That determination led her to Cleveland and into Ancil Cox’s law office. The rest, as they say, is history. Or I guess, my history.
Despite everything she accomplished, a dark cloud followed Mom for years until one day, it finally caught up with her. We should have seen it coming- the hot/cold friendships with some people, the icy glares, the intense bickering, and the quick mood swings. We had a family Christmas my senior year that ended with tears, people storming out of the house, and a Lite-Brite set in pieces in the living room. At some point towards the end of my high school days, Mom started missing more and more work claiming illness so she could stay in bed all day. (She had been diagnosed with lupus years earlier. Yes, she was on the board of directors for the Mississippi Lupus Foundation or something like that.) I was in the midst of negotiating with Dad about my college choice, and Mom began saying things like, “You could go to the college you want if I wasn’t around.” One night, after a particularly heated argument, Mom stopped in my room to tell me she “always loved me.” I might have been 17 years old, but I noticed the use of the past tense in those words immediately. The next day, Mom tried to commit suicide but was unsuccessful. The rest of her life was filled with numerous trips to the pharmacy, doctors, psychologists, more doctors, stays in the psychiatric ward on a couple Christmases, and even some electric shock treatments to her brain. That’s not to say she didn’t have many good days, but our world was definitely never the same. She still had a heart of gold, and still loved as fierce as ever. But part of her was forever broken.
I was not as patient and understanding with her as I should have been. I still beat myself up for that. I avoided her neverending phone calls whenever possible. I rolled my eyes at her stories and was, in hindsight, very rude to her at times. I was too immature and stupid to understand what had happened, and thought it all to be a bit of an annoyance. But no matter how much of an ass I was, Mom kept loving her baby boy to the end. She was easily the proudest member of my family when I graduated from law school, and she beamed with pride the cold December morning my oldest son John Christopher was born. He would be the only one of my three boys she would ever meet, and I wish she could’ve met them all. Or more importantly, I wish they could’ve met her. I think they all would’ve liked that a lot.
Ironically, Mom brought me a book as a late birthday present a couple days before she passed away. We talked about the book when she dropped it off, and true to form, I hurried her away so I wouldn’t be forced to sit through another long story. Two days later, she left this world. After 62 years, she was finally rid of those demons chasing her. She gave them one hell of a run for their money.
One last thing. The book she gave me? “The Survivor,” a book about Bill Clinton. The irony is not lost on me. I’m thinking of you, Mom. Today and every day.