I delighted in seeing Michael Phelps’ mother during the Olympic Games. Debbie Phelps appears to be one of those wonderfully centered women whose simple enthusiastic presence and clear empathy have made all the difference in Michael’s world. She reminds me of my mother.
Today my mother Mary would have been 91. I can’t picture how frail she would have been at that age, but I’ll bet she would have been as mentally sharp as ever. I miss her presence in the world even though she died in 1999, one day after the 20th anniversary of my ordination, after battling lymphoma. I don’t mean this post to be a maudlin tribute to her as much as a reflection on the importance of mothers to their sons in that they indelibly stamp on the hearts of their sons a dominating paradigm (for good or ill) that they will often follow in seeking their life partner.
The main element I miss about my mother is that she was the one person in the world who loved me unconditionally. Despite her personal limitations and emotional wounds, she was a woman who fought to move beyond where she found herself in life. In many ways she was her own life coach and spent a lot of her spare time coaching others.
I guess that’s where I received my fierce independence and my inspiration to help others. So strong is this conviction to assist that my life’s purpose revolves around it. And so did my mother’s. Coming home from school I would often find my mother on the phone listening to friends, asking powerful questions, and challenging their status quo. She helped solve a lot of people’s problems simply by using her deep empathy and intelligence.
She was not perfect nor was able to penetrate the core sadness and loneliness she often saw evident in me most of my life. This was partly because in my generation it was not typical to come out to one’s parents as gay, a reality I wasn’t aware of until my mid-twenties. Yet later I sensed that she understood who I was and gave me a wide berth to find my own answers. Knowing she was there and wanting me to do better and feel better made all the difference, and still does. We should all have such a life coach.
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