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Mom always keeps up, like it or not

A loving son strikes out on his own, except for his constant companion. Hi, Mom.

Published November 10, 2006

[Family photo]
Michael Mohammed celebrates his graduation from Harvard University with his mom, Susan Lane.

I went to my favorite dive, the Tiny Tap, with some friends last week, and my mom was there as I drank beer and played foosball.

She was in the car with me as I drove to the scene of my first big crime story.

And she interrupted me while my roommate and I watched the season premiere of Lost.

Plenty of young people talk to their mothers constantly. Many of my college friends carried their cell phones around with them like umbilical cords.

My mother, who is deaf, had a harder time keeping tabs on me. She could e-mail me, but the chaos of my freshman year excused my sparse responses. She could type messages over a laborious TTY relay service. A telephone operator would speak her typed words to me and then type my responses back to her. But the process was awkward.

Meanwhile, my father, from whom I inherited my laissez-faire attitude, would call no more than once a week.

And so I was blissfully free of the daily nagging that my friends endured.

Then the gates of umbilical cord hell opened. Two gadgets were born, and my party was over.

The first was a Sidekick, a mutant cell phone with a little keyboard. Until then, my mom had never been able to use a cell phone. My own phone began to beep and buzz with daily text messages.

"Hello mikey I miss u how are u doing?"

I refused to respond using my phone's nine tiny keys, so I would make a mental note to respond by e-mail when I got back to my dorm room. Since I always forgot, she would keep texting me during class until I could find a computer kiosk to dash off a confirmation that I was, in fact, alive.

Then came a videophone, a camera-equipped device that sits on top of my mother's television and uses a broadband Internet connection. Through it, she could sign directly to her deaf brother and deaf friends. No typing required. TTY was left in the dust.

Set free by video relay service, she could admonish me with record speed. Even worse, er, better, federal grants paid for the whole setup.

Thank you, federal government, I thought. Now my mother can nag me on the public dole.

And oh, did she ever. It works like this: She sits in front of the camera and signs. Workers at a relay service would convert her messages into spoken word, in real time. I started to get voice mail from alien male and female voices, each one claiming to be from my mother.

"Mikey, this is your mother," some deep-throated male would begin. "Why haven't you responded to my text message? Call me back."

"Mikey, this is Mom," a grandmotherly voice would say. "You haven't told me when you're coming home for Christmas."

The flood eventually tapered off, but only in the face of my stubborn resistance. Soon, the calls were coming only weekly, though the e-mails and text messages remained steady.

Then I graduated and got a job, which seemed to trigger her maternal panic button again. It didn't help that my only sibling, a brother, had left for college, leaving her nest empty.

Over a couple of particularly busy workdays, I received several messages. Through our intermediary, a friendly young woman, I told my mom to lay off and not to call during work hours.

Then she started to yell at me in sign language. The young woman in the middle attempted to voice my mother's anger with stagey inflection.

This experience was even weirder than it sounds.

As the argument progressed, I started to forget about the interpreter and thought of her as the disembodied speaking voice my mother never had.

Eventually, I said I had to go, and my mother said goodbye and hung up. I was stranded awkwardly on the line with the unfortunate conduit for my tantrum.

"Uhhh . . . thanks. Bye," I said.

"You're welcome. Have a nice day."

Her voice was probably neutral and professional, but I detected a hint of admonishment.

During the next few days, something seemed off. My mom hadn't texted, e-mailed or called me since our argument.

I mentioned this to my editor, and told her I enjoyed the respite.

She smiled gently, and mentioned that both her parents had passed away and that she'd give anything for the chance to talk to them again.

Geeeeeeeez, I thought, feeling like a jerk.

That evening, for the first time, I used the toll-free video relay service number to talk to my mom about nothing in particular. We chatted for about 15 or 20 lovely minutes, and my earlier behavior was instantly forgiven.

Recently, my dad called me to tell me our neighbor Fred had passed away. Fred, 80, used to take breaks from gardening to tell me stories about the women he met in France while fighting in World War II.

My mother was one of his closest friends. Reading his lips, she talked to him over the fence almost every day, and brought him food.

So I called Mom over the videophone, and we talked about Fred.

Staff writer Michael A. Mohammed, who is 22, can be reached at or 813 226-3404.

[Last modified November 9, 2006, 06:55:29]

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