A couple of weeks ago, I went to my doctor for a physical, which included an electrocardiogram (EKG) to measure the electrical activity in my heart. I’m diligent about getting this test because I have a family history of heart disease.
After pressing the various sensors onto my torso, the middle-aged nurse who ran the machine noticed she wasn’t getting a clear-cut reading. “There’s some kind of interference going on,” she said and asked whether my cellphone was nearby. It was, so I quickly handed it to her. As she walked my phone to a far corner of the exam room, she told me about an earlier patient who had refused to move his smartphone when the same problem occurred.
“I told him I’d put his phone in a spot where he could clearly see and hear it and would even pause the EKG machine if he needed to answer a call,” she said. “I couldn’t believe he was that attached to the phone and stubborn. I mean this guy had heart trouble. He was willing to come for the physical and pay for a test he needed yet wouldn’t do the simplest thing to make sure it would be accurate and useful.” She went on to say that the man’s wife got involved and convinced him to give her the phone.
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The story was fascinating to me because of what it said about our rampant addiction to tech devices and the multitude of ways, big and small, we thwart our own health. I’m also a constant email checker and found myself imagining the stress that stems from incessant email monitoring and the toll that must take on our well-being. I thought, too, about the contagion of this man’s stress — the way he needlessly “infected” his wife and the nurse with tension because of his phone addiction and his resistance to letting go. Stress and its repercussions quickly go viral.
A Surprising Antidote
“This incident happened toward the end of a really demanding day,” the nurse said. “I thought I was going to lose it for sure. So I did what I always do when I start to get stressed out. I thought about my mama’s face.”
Her comment brought a decades-old memory to mind. I recalled my younger sister repeatedly crying out for “blue,” the color of our mom’s eyes, after she split her lip open as a toddler.
“Can you explain what you mean by that?” I asked the nurse.
“Well, my mother was always there to talk things over with me and comfort me when I was confused or upset,” she said. “It wasn’t really so much what she said to me as her presence and just knowing that she really cared. That made things feel lighter. So now, whenever I’m feeling upset, I just picture her face and then I immediately calm down. I can get back to business.”
Her mother is still alive and supportive, the nurse told me, "but I don’t turn to her for advice that often these days or even replay old advice in my head — I just think about her face. That’s all it takes for me to figure things out on my own.”
This struck me as a really interesting (and easy!) approach to resolving stress and reconnecting with one’s self: Just picture the adoring, kind face of your mother and, in an instant, you'll snuff out negative energy and fill yourself up with a far better fuel.
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I told the nurse about a song I love, an Etta James classic, “My Mother’s Eyes.” She didn’t know it so I recited some of the lyrics:
God's gift sent from above
A real, real, real unselfish love
I found, I found in my mother's eyes
Just like a wandering sparrow
One lonely soul
I walk the straight and narrow
Just to reach my goal
Next Avenue has written about the lingering impact of parental guidance and the likelihood that we’ll continue to have "conversations" with our parents and avail ourselves of their advice and wisdom long after they’re gone.
But the nurse’s story, like the song’s lyric, underscores a more minimalist approach for me: in a moment of need and on the fly, we can connect to and nourish ourselves with a mother’s love just by envisioning her face. I suggested to the nurse that she might want to share her secret with other difficult patients.
I put this simple, nonverbal practice to my own test not long after my doctor visit, when I found myself grappling with a gnarly work issue. I mentally summoned up my mother’s eyes and her smile and immediately felt more relaxed. Another day, I pictured her hand in mine (when I visit, I tend to hold her hand when we walk on uneven ground because of the justifiable fear that she might fall) after a reckless driver nearly ran me over. And one night, when insomnia struck, I flashed on memories of her kissing my forehead, something she did often during my childhood.
These mental images helped ease my mind and ground me. They also got me thinking about ways I could enrich my grown sons’ storehouse of positive motherly memories — wordlessly.
I’ve decided to use the occasion of Mother’s Day to spearhead a renewed focus on being conscientious about making solid eye contact and listening to them with a smile, giving them hugs, pats on the back and a thumbs up.
While I'm fairly confident I’ve given my boys a lot of positive memories over the years, I can’t know if they’ll actually want or be able to summon them up, or which ones will prove helpful to them down the road. But the way I see it, the more happy and loving pictures of a mama’s face you have to draw on, the better.