A Mother's Journey


The boys know every dip and twist of this route. Their mother, who is blind in one eye, knows it even better.

"C'mon, Mom, you're driving so slow," says Ben. "I could drive this in my sleep!"

But Martha Spice just keeps singing with the radio and lightly pulsing the accelerator.

"Look, Ben," she says, "there's a hawk on that telephone line."

She tells them about the day she recovered a lost goat on this road, then points to a line of geese disappearing on the horizon. The boys don't notice how easily she diverts them from her dallying. Mom knows lots of tricks.

At 48, Martha is a thin, thin woman with chestnut eyes and a Joan-of-Arc haircut. She's logged enough mothering miles to have earned the well-worn manner of the domestic sage. She wears blue jeans, cusses and drives a Dodge Neon.

These two boys of hers, 15-year-old Ben and 13-year-old Adam, are geniuses. The route Martha drives from their home in Madonna to Harford Community College is one she mapped 60,000 miles ago when their brother, Loren, became the youngest person ever to enter the college as a freshman. He was 12 at the time. Today, at 19, he attends the University of Chicago on a full scholarship, pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics. Professors predict Loren will become a luminary in the field some day.

The story of the Spice boys is one of those oddities local newspapers feature from time to time. Editors call them "Hey, Martha" stories because they like to think a man sitting down at breakfast will pick up the newspaper and yell to his wife, "Hey, Martha, didja see this story about the brainiacs?"

But what if the real "Hey, Martha" story was Martha herself? What if the man at the breakfast table actually put down his newspaper and looked up at the woman who drives the kids to school, tends house, teaches, cooks, eats and breathes the mystically selfless process of motherhood? What if he could see what she sees? What if he suddenly understood her sacrifice?

Hey, Martha?

At 8:53, she pulls up to a curb at the college and commands: "Go to school!" (Mom knows how to squeeze another drop of juice out of the clock.) "What time do you want to be picked up?"

"Eight post meridian," Adam replies.

"OK," she sighs, dodging his little word game. "Well, be careful crossing the road."

"And if I'm not?" he says.

She cocks a finger and points it unambiguously at his head -- quite the motherly gesture. He scrambles off to class.

At one time, Martha felt like a greyhound stretched at full pace: belly to the ground, rounding the track. For 29 years she had been maestro of adolescence, driver on a mission, teacher, baker, nurse, good wife. She had promised to nurture an extraordinary gift.

But those days have nearly ended.

Martha turns the car around and clicks off the radio. Even though the 16-mile return trip home is a familiar comfort, she winces at the ache under her ribs where the catheter has slipped. Her kidneys have given way almost completely now. She doesn't let the boys know, but today silence makes good company.

She never expected to be a mother. She never expected geniuses. She never expected to get sick. For some women, life just unfolds in odd moments of grace and revelation. Then, at the heart of middle age, they realize their complicated, rambling lives have been a great saga all along.

Martha's saga began in 1970, when she flunked out her freshman year at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. Wild and bookish, smart but always out of sync, she had to leave her life to make sense of it. She escaped her Harford County roots, a miniskirted teen-ager, and headed for Paris and untold adventures at the Sorbonne. A year later, she found herself married to a poor English sculptor, lying on a bed surrounded by Greek midwives on the Mediterranean island of Paros, gasping, "Baby!"

Her first moment of revelation came in that gasp. "Baby!" she cried during the delivery. "Baby!" Within weeks, she was washing daughter Taz's diapers in well water and hanging them to dry from the roof. Suddenly, everything seemed just right.

By 1981, she was back in Harford County, remarried, this time to an American computer systems designer, and mother of two. One day, while she was loading the dishwasher, their 2-year-old boy, Loren, brought her a book and asked her to read.

"I can't now, honey," she said.

"Do you want me to read it to you?" he asked, then blazed through the pages. Mom came undone. How had he learned to do that?

"At night when there's light from the hallway," he said. "I figured out how to turn letters into words."

Which is more remarkable: to realize in the instant of childbirth that the one thing you never anticipated or desired -- motherhood -- would become your life's true mission, or that your toddler has taught himself to read? And now, beyond the moments of revelation and grace, how do you come to understand the rest of your life without children to rear and the promise of another miracle?

When she returns from dropping the boys at school, Martha begins a ritual that has come to represent the next mystery. In the bedroom, standing by the window, she slips a sterile mask over her mouth and nose and unbuttons her jeans. A thin plastic tube snaking out of her abdomen attaches to a five-pound bag of solution that hangs from an IV pole.

Sometimes she says having kidney disease -- end-stage renal disease -- has made her feel like she's been "dipped in tar and drug through misery" (though she doesn't say "tar," preferring a more profane expression). But a full year has passed since the diagnosis and she says she's finished with that strangling sort of grief.

In some ways, she thinks, the discovery that her kidneys had all but shut down actually might be a gift. It came, after all, just two days after she officially closed the Academy, the home school she conducted so her boys could skip public school before going to college. That was another one of those moments, something like grace, when Adam finished the Academy on Dec. 14, 1999, and two days later she went to see the doctor. He told her she had only 15 percent of her kidney function left. Though it was painfully sad, she also saw the good news: Adam had graduated just in time. "Serendipity rules!" she would say.

Martha pulls up a chair to her desk by the window. Her husband, Ralph, bought her a little laptop computer so she could surf the Internet while the fluid drips. Most days, she corresponds in an online support group with other people who use peritoneal dialysis. Even in the virtual world, she still sounds like Mom.

Don't give up, she writes. You'll start a new chapter in your life. ... Let the tears flow and then make up your mind to be happy.

The responses sing with childlike enthusiasm: Martha always makes me feel so much better ... Martha, you make us believe that good things come to those who make them happen ... Martha allowed me to realize for the first time that my life was not ending, just beginning a new phase.

Her guidance is so practical and well-informed that the company making the medical equipment, Baxter Healthcare, invites her to speak to patients. Peritoneal dialysis is great, she says, because people can conduct their own treatments at home. A busy mother can stagger four fluid exchanges through the day and still keep up the family's routine -- like shopping for groceries, taking the 15-year-old to get his hair cut or driving a 13-year-old to college.

"It's good medicine if you need it," she says.

She hesitates to mention complications, though. Like right now, the exchange is not going well. Her stomach aches. Somehow the catheter inside her body has come loose and slipped into her ribs.

She goes to the kitchen and calls the doctor; he schedules an X-ray. They both anticipate another surgery, this time to re-anchor the catheter. But at the moment, she thinks, the kitchen feels cozy and life is good, so she will just have to fix herself a cup of coffee first. Priorities, you know.

There's nothing normal about being the mother of highly intelligent children. Even as babies, the Spice children had tempestuous personalities and extreme appetites. When they laughed, they laughed hard. When they argued, they argued hard. When they were unhappy, they were so unhappy.

Martha called them "Sunflower People." Whopping sunflowers in a field of daisies. An explosion of genetic material teetering under their own birthright.

Typical of exceptional children, they were often sick. While Loren struggled with high fevers, asthma and collapsed lungs, Ben had ear infections, chronic diarrhea, intestinal bleeding. They all had terrible allergies. By the time infant Adam came along, Martha subsisted on a diet of chicken, bananas and water so she could breast-feed and not pass along anything to aggravate their illnesses. At 5-foot-8, she weighed less than 90 pounds. She went long stretches with three hours of sleep at night, if she slept at all.

Those were the years Ralph was overseas, traveling as a consultant building computer systems. Those were the years the septic tank would crash or the car would break down. People around town would see Martha talking to a mechanic with a baby in one arm, two toddlers pulling at her skirts and an adolescent whining to go home. One day the veterinarian found her asleep in his lobby. She had managed to keep the appointment, but forgot to bring the dog. "I guess I needed some sleep," she said.

She did her best to meet unusual challenges. At 4, Loren would grab a couple of encyclopedias to read every time he went to the bathroom. Poor little Ben couldn't keep a healthy weight and felt so constricted by school that he would bite his fingernails to a nub. One day, at 18 months, little Adam looked up at Martha while she was bathing him in the tub and said, "There are four nines in 36." The boys wrote poetry about subjects that should have been unfathomable to children -- about sex and death and sacrifice. Once Adam wrote poetry for 32 days straight and produced a book he titled "What of the Inspirational Uprise of Knowledge?" Martha would read the poems and wonder, "How does he know this? He's not old enough to know this!"

Certainly, other people didn't understand. The Spice children seemed odd, socially awkward, either immature or too advanced. Other children teased them. Adults were offended when the boys talked circles around them. It was not unusual to misunderstand these exceptionally bright boys and very easy to envy their gifts.

"If you don't walk in her shoes, you don't have any idea what she went through as a mother," says a neighbor, Eleanor Mason. "I have a child with learning disabilities, and it's amazing the similarities -- the educational task, the problems, the concerns. She didn't have an easy job with those boys."

When Martha asked for special attention, school authorities brushed her off as a doting mother. Occasionally, some teachers acted hostile. The boys came home nervous, sick, sad and, increasingly, ashamed.

"Am I an insane person?" Martha would ask Ralph. The children seemed exceptional, but teachers were the experts, not her. Weren't they?

Crazy days gave way to stressful evenings. Late one night when the kids were asleep, for a laugh, she called a local psychic whose card she'd found at the cleaners. Before she could introduce herself, the woman's voice changed.

You have four children who you met between lives, the woman said. They are very old spirits who have not incarnated to the earth for a very long time. The air they breathe and the food they eat is poison to them. You agreed to help them in any way you could. You agreed to sacrifice yourself, and you agreed the best way you could do that was to be their mother. You're doing what you're supposed to do.

Martha laughed. The woman seemed like a quack. But then she felt a subtle shift of energy.

Although Martha never could explain the psychic's strangely helpful message, she knew something good had occurred. Even in this life of genius and fatigue, there was always the comfort of some whimsical mystery, something she began to call "the whirls and swirls of the universe." When the inexplicable happened, when only the absurd felt logical, she was learning, the proper response was gratitude. Life was often wacky, exhausting and chaotic in the Spice household, but on another level, Martha knew the family was nestled in the crucible of some greater wisdom.

She resolved to dig deeper, and brought greater respect to the extraordinary gift of her vocation.

Today on the 16-mile return trip to pick up Ben and Adam, Martha looks to see whose flowers have come up. She savors these curvy mill roads, rambling farms and biscuit-colored pastures. She likes knowing she raised her brood in the same house for the last 22 years. She enjoys the idea that she and Ralph have plots in the local cemetery. She can't wait for summer's bracing sunlight and the feel of garden dirt in her fingers.

A sudden pain shoots up her leg.

"What's the problem, Mom?" Adam asks, when he climbs into the car and notices her rubbing her thigh.

"Just a little cramp," she says.

"Stop whining!" he orders.

"That's right," Ben chimes in from the back seat. "All you do is complain."

"You better be nice to me, I have kidney disease," Martha says.

"Oh, well, too bad," says Ben.

"There she goes, wanting sympathy for that again," Adam groans.

They banter as if nothing has changed. Of course, they know the other reality: Women Martha's age with end-stage renal disease live an average of seven years.

Naturally, Martha expects to live at least 20. But the truth is, she's already come close to dying.

One night last June, Ben found her unconscious outside the bathroom. Her eyes had rolled up. He called his dad out of bed and lifted her into a chair. Adam held her head and tried to comfort her until the ambulance arrived.

All day Ralph had asked her if she wanted to go to the hospital. Neighbors who saw her thought she was almost gone. Martha wouldn't have it. What kind of wife had she become? she wondered. She told Ralph he couldn't possibly care for the boys alone. She wasn't that sick.

Several times Martha regained consciousness and tried to lift herself out of the chair. By the time emergency technicians arrived, they couldn't find a pulse.

Adam still feels ashamed by his thoughts at the time. "I know it's selfish, but my first reaction was to wonder what would I do if something fatal happened to my mom. Then I wondered what would happen to Ben and Dad. Finally, I wondered what would happen to Mom."

Ben recalls only that after his dad left the house with her, he and Adam played computer games and waited for news. Even Ralph, who has always been so steady, positive and supportive through his wife's ordeal, doesn't recall any details. "I have a way of forgetting things that are unpleasant," he confesses.

In fact, not one of them could imagine a life without her.

"The kids had never lost anyone or felt how ruthless death could be," Martha says. "There's an innocence in not knowing that. When I came home, I could tell their innocence was gone."

So they always laugh and tease on these rides home. Really, life is good, very good -- just as she would have it.

She awakens early one morning, pulls a sweater over her nightgown and stumbles into the kitchen to make coffee. There is a hole in her slipper, which she doesn't notice until she absently sloshes coffee on her foot. Suddenly startled, she realizes what she must look like: weary and old, just plain worn-out.

In the half-light, shadows dance across the kitchen wall. She nods them along, greeting the face of everyone she has ever been, then takes up a pen to record their passing.

A maiden, a mother, my selves from the past, confront now this ancient goodwife; I hold out my hands so that time becomes tide and we join in the dance ...

Sometimes she wonders about that ancient goodwife. Who is this woman, both sick and cheerful? Had she always inhabited two realms of existence separated by a thicket of denial? As a miniskirted teen-ager of the '60s, Martha felt out of place. Cross-eyed until she was 17, hobbled by a racing, intuitive intellect that made her feel inept or foolish or simply bored by traditional ways of learning, she never did well in school. She ended up on social probation her first year of college, then flunked out.

As a mother, life was never easy. By the time Loren turned 12, in 1993, the children were miserable. She was on the verge of collapse. An acupuncturist told her if she didn't slow down, she would deplete a core source of energy known in Eastern medicine as jing. Without jing, she was warned, her kidneys would fail.

But with four children and a husband that travels, how do you slow down?

She felt so stupid. She caved in to teachers. Then one day, a guidance counselor suggested that 12-year-old Loren take a Scholastic Aptitude Test. She sat with him in the living room when he opened his near-perfect score. He was mildly pleased; she was heartsick. "Martha," she told herself, "this is every bit as bad as you think it is."

Imagine, she would say, seeing a child running faster than you've seen a horse gallop or a car drive. You might think, this can't be right. But if it's your own child and you've always wanted him to be an athlete, you might think you're crazy. Don't you see? Everybody wants a smart child, don't they? Then imagine the child is bright beyond all your imaginings. The thought terrified her.

As Martha learned more about profoundly gifted children, she discovered how easily teachers misjudge the cognitive style of "spatial learners." In a classroom they may seem undisciplined, skip details, abhor drill and repetition. Like her boys, she discovered that she, too, had been a "spatial learner" as a child. She could orchestrate large amounts of information and quickly abstract disconnected pieces into complex patterns of meaning. But like other gifted children who go unidentified, as a child Martha had learned very early to submerge her talents, to distrust her teachers, devalue her own instincts. She had always thought she was simply peculiar.

The education of motherhood comes in stages, no less for the mother of extraordinary children than for any other. With a growing self-awareness, Martha pressed into action.

She and Ralph met with the community college president and together forged a plan for the school's first 12-year-old freshman. Loren excelled immediately. No longer confined, he could learn four years of French in a few months, knock off two semesters of mathematics in seven weeks, score perfect grades in philosophy and literature and every other subject he attempted. His asthma attacks subsided.

Martha felt even worse. She knew her daughter, Taz, had never gotten the attention she deserved and had left home without the support Loren now had. It would take time for Taz to forgive her. But with Ben and Adam still at home, she had to do more. "I don't need to depend on someone else's competence," she thought. "I can do this myself."

She and Ralph took Adam out of second grade, Ben out of fifth, and opened the Academy, the Spice family home school. She would drive Loren to college in the morning, then spend the day teaching languages, philosophy, math and science to his brothers. Within five years, Ben had graduated from the community college and Adam, at 11, was accepted as a freshman. Martha was finally done, fulfilled and simply worn out.

But that's OK, she would say, it's really appropriate.

"Motherhood is a gift when it's not peripheral," she tells people. "If you do it wholeheartedly, it's a great endeavor. I'm just so glad that I made it."

At last, she had become what she believes she was meant to be -- satisfied, happy, that ancient goodwife.

It's morning again -- months later. As everyone gets ready for the drive to college, Adam hugs her from behind in the kitchen.

"Hey," he says.


"How are you?"

"Good," she says. As always.

Their brother Loren likes to say the "Will of Mom" is immutable and irresistible, something they had all come to understand like a fundamental law of nature. But a piece of that has changed now. A third surgery to re-anchor the catheter left Martha bedridden for days; doctors are searching for an underlying disease that may have caused the kidney failure.

She could be worried. Or sad. But experience suggests something else: Rewards will come; pain gives way to blessings; hope has the last word; count your blessings, not your troubles. Little truths, learned from motherhood, will serve you well.

In fact, Ralph and the boys are ready for her to relinquish the mantle, a new challenge in learning how to live, another way of surrendering to her life.

So Ben washes the dishes. Adam carries the laundry. Ralph shops for groceries. Sometimes during her dialysis in the bedroom, one of them will join her. Adam brushes her hair.

They will be the mom if she lets them.

As her son hugs her, she can see a cross-stitch hanging from a cabinet that says "If I'm a Mother at home why am I always in my car?" On another wall a poster says, "This kitchen is spiced with love." By the sink, Adam has left her a poem:

To My Mom, the best person in the world

Is it possible you have niceness yet unfurled?

No, it can't be,

For you are the source of

Ten thousand niceties

In the world.

In another frame over the counter, her niece has written: "There are always rainbows on the ceiling and walls of Aunt Martha's kitchen. You can slow down and breathe. If you close your eyes you can almost hear cats purring."

The Spice family is complete within itself, Martha will say. Extremely intense. Lifted by laughter. When Ben or Adam tell her, "I love my life," she cannot imagine anything better.

But she still insists on driving; they have miles to go.

"You guys ready to hit the road?" she says.

"Not literally," says Ben.

"OK, people, in the car!"

So they're off again, Martha wheeling her boys down Harford County roads, stopping for a dog that runs into the street, gasping at a burst of sparrows that flashes across the sky, pointing to the site where their grandfather is buried. She talks and listens intensely, pointing out all those wonderful things that are and aren't easily seen, gently prodding her funny, brilliant little geniuses to look and see them, too.

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