Going ‘all in’

What it means to be present in life

The author is a writer working on a poetry manuscript and a collection of essays. She teaches English at Chico State University, where she is managing editor of the literary journal Watershed Review. She also serves on the board of the 1078 Gallery, where she curates literary collaborations, readings and workshops.

My mother, Wendy O’Malley, recently worked her last day as a supervisor for the Butte Community Employment Center after a career in social work for the last 28 years.

I was 7 years old and my brother was a tow-headed infant on her hip when my mom graduated from Chico State with a degree in social work and gerontology. I remember her saying, “Because I love elderly people,” when I inquired about her choice of profession. But what really led her there was her grandmother, whom she helped care for before her death. It was her love for Grossi that first revealed her calling.

As the years went on, her career became crucial to our family’s survival; she became a single mother and raised us solely on her income. We didn’t have the newest, brightest or best things, but we never went without. After a grueling day at work, Mom would come home, take a power nap, get up and make us a well-balanced dinner. She anchored us, adored us and helped us through the times in our lives when we suffered most.

This, I assume, was a version of what she performed each day at work. Exuding an undeniable light and energy, my mother has a gift for making people feel seen and heard. She always looks for what’s possible in a situation, for some corner of hope. For those who have nothing and can’t see a way out of their hardship, having someone who can be present and take on some of the burden has life-saving potential.

Even as the hum of the bureaucratic machine grows deafening in these years of ruthless cuts to assistance and services, my mom has maintained the belief that the most important element of this work is the people they serve. My mom, and those who worked alongside her, work tirelessly to change the lives of those whom many of us disregard.

The wounded, traumatized, abused, impoverished, unemployed, addicted, unprotected—these are the ones my mother gave her working life to.

She chose to retire now so she can be closer to my grandfather, who needs her light and hope as he is treated for cancer. What I know from my mother’s example is this: Love is exponential in the measure that it is given. She has gone “all in”—a gamble worthy of imitation and celebration.