Matt Francis is a filmmaker/media designer out of Virginia Beach and the drummer for Feral Conservatives, an indie rock band.

From Nest to Death

We learn a myriad of lessons from moms in our youth, like how to potty train to nutrition to egg-driven metaphors about death

Kroes Street. Rockford, Michigan, on the edge of Pinewood Forest. I was at once an explorer, an animal tamer, a superhero, a soldier, a stuntman and a cowboy. I couldn’t have been more than four.

We had a huge yard which seemed like a small country to a kid my size (who was also never tasked to mow it), divided into sectors: the weeping willow sector; the above-ground pool sector; the forest sector where we found our cat dead; the backyard swing-set sector where I pushed my brother’s friend off the top and right to the ER; and the dirt mounds where the trolls lived. There was a lot to explore.

Naturally, after crossing and exploring the many lands over the course of a day, I would bring back gifts from my travels and present them to my mother. I once brought her dandelions, the rare and beautiful, bright yellow treasure of a flower. My mom would kindly put them in a plastic cup with water and place them in the window over the sink; she was allergic. I could do better.

On my next odyssey, I found something truly magnificent: bright, blue pastel eggs a little larger than a jelly bean, sitting in a hollowed out bed of twigs. This was a great find, and I was sure my mom would love the color. I even knocked on the door (to my own house!) to more dramatically present her my gift. She opened the door and graciously took the eggs, but that’s when things got weird.

She explained the eggs were those of a robin, and there were babies inside. Since I touched the eggs, they now had the scent of a human, so when the mother returned to roost, she would now reject the eggs, a death sentence for the baby robins. That was my mom, ever gracious and wise, and this was her way of first educating me on life and death.

Since I touched the eggs, they now had the scent of a human, so when the mother returned to roost, she would now reject the eggs, a death sentence for the baby robins. That was my mom, ever gracious and wise, and this was her way of first educating me on life and death.

I always associate autumn in Michigan with long minivan rides and a girl named Leesha. I never met Leesha personally, and I can’t vouch for the authenticity of my mom’s retelling of her tragedy. My Internet fact-checking session has turned up little about the song from 1989, corroborated only from broader deductions from the lyrics.

I was four or five years old. My mom, mostly, carted my siblings and I around — to school and church and home, the only real destinations I knew from birth until 17 years old. The soundtrack on those drives was Michael W. Smith. I’m sure there were an equal number of other adult contemporary Christian musicians, but Mr. W. Smith left the greatest impression because he was so amazingly sad. He was a piano based, mid-tempo pop artist, but when he wasn’t singing about finding his place in this world, he was writing the most depressing song ever about a girl named Leesha.

“I Hear Leesha,” from Smith’s half-million selling i 2 (EYE), matches The Land Before Time as the most soul-wrenching stories of my entire formative years. I finally asked my mom what the words to the song meant.

I hear Leesha
Singing in heaven tonight
And in between the sadness
I hear Leesha
Telling me that she’s alright

I had to lift my chin to fix my view out the van window, watching the barren trees pass by on the side of the road like still monuments. “Leesha was a young girl who didn’t want to live anymore, so she swallowed pills to kill herself.”

A thick dread filled the minivan. I felt like I should have asked more questions, but I know for some reason I didn’t. I had the awareness, even at that age, to know when you didn’t pry further into that kind of sensitive territory, leaving the brief story to swirl around my head, an uneasy contrast in bed with my innocence. My mom’s despondent retelling struck me like a firsthand account, like Leesha was a mutual friend of hers and Michael’s. And, truthfully, I couldn’t comprehend that taking pills could kill anyone. I took pills like Tylenol and survived.

Why didn’t this girl want to live? Why did we drive around listening to these melancholy reflections? My mom was knowingly giving me back door exposure to life-ending depression through a pop artist. Leesha’s story ended up being something I would contemplate yearly from my teens on. From then on, every time that track made an appearance, there was a respectful, uncomfortable silence.

My mom was always helping people. She volunteered at our church, hosted the Wednesday evening kid’s program. Her willingness to give and her great sense of empathy are two of her best qualities. My mom offered to give Bible lessons to a home for handicapped kids, where most suffered from various cognitive handicaps, but some of them were also confined to wheelchairs or beds. She brought me along, explaining to me how they were different from me, but also similar. I was in first or second grade at the time. My mom had me put together puzzles with a higher functioning boy on the floor. On the edge of the living room, you could hear the artificial breath of a life support machine, pumping up and down, a soft metallic click when it reached its peak. For some reason, I knew I wasn’t supposed to look at it so I stole glances from the corner of my eye. There was a boy a little older than I was attached to tubes and wires running up around his nose and wrist. He had a worn-out blanket printed with The Empire Strikes Back. He didn’t seem aware of his surroundings, and certainly didn’t comprehend how cool his blanket was.

About a week later, my mom would sit me down to tell me we wouldn’t be going over to the home anymore. She told me the boy I did the puzzle with turned off the life support, killing the boy with the Star Wars blanket. It was an accident in that the perpetrator couldn’t comprehend the consequences of his intentional actions, but my mom told me all of this with the gravity of losing my best friend. I was left to process the consequences for much longer and contemplate some sense of the fragility of life, right along with something as senseless as murder.

Back at my first home on Kroes Street, we once received a knock from three teenage girls we had never seen before. They explained how they were back in town after many years and wanted to revisit where they had first grown up. Like me, we shared a childhood fortress. My parents politely allowed the girls to walk through the house as I hung out on the sidelines. Two planes of existence crashed in the humble single-family home. I was watching from the fringe, walls secured in architecture, as these girls saw the place as moments: losing teeth, Muppet babies, where a high-chair was angled from the dining room table. For a second, squinting and hearing their gleeful reminiscing, I thought I could see it, too.

I think of memories like a stain-glassed window, where each hand-painted fragment gives perspective to a chapter in someone’s history. I’m not sure why, for instance, I can picture my brother’s rock tumbler in clear focus, while other moments are oblique or lost to time. But through the individual pieces of the beautiful window, I can see my mother’s hand guiding me through the inevitable pain and loss in life. So to my mom, happy Mother’s Day. Please open the gift I sent right away. Those dandelions are thirsty.