When I was four and a half, my appendix burst. The story of my appendix bursting wouldn’t be much of a story if it hadn’t burst during biblical weather — the Blizzard of 1967 — but it did, and because of it I arrived, bundled up in blankets in a police car with chains on its tires, at Children’s Hospital in Boston with only an hour to spare before I would have died. My mother, having already lost one daughter two years earlier, had insisted they take me downtown to the best hospital and not a mile away to the local one, which meant that the Newton Police officers said the words “Hey Lady!” at least twenty times before they finally relented and loaded me onto a stretcher and into their cruiser.
Because my appendix had actually burst, and because there was no such thing as “managed care” back then, I was on the children’s ward for three weeks — three weeks! — while my incision healed and while the toxins from my burst appendix were drained into a big glass jug on the floor. For some reason I remember watching “The Green Hornet” cartoon on the television that hung from the wall every day while I waited for my mother to show up for visiting hours. I don’t know why I was watching “The Green Hornet” since it was never a show I’d watched before — like “Rocky and Bullwinkle” or “Lost in Space” or “Mr. Magoo” — and I don’t think I had a bossy roommate controlling the remote (were remotes even invented then?). But for some reason it was on during those long dark winter afternoons while I waited for my mother to make her way from the school where she taught third grade. I’d look up at the TV, then at the tube coming out of the sheet and going into the big jar on the floor, and then at the nurses in their old-school white dresses and white caps and white shoes delivering the dinner trays, always a bowl of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and a hotdog and a little carton of milk and a dish of jiggling green Jello. All the other mothers would get there the minute visiting hours started at noon, but it would be well after four o’clock before my mother finally arrived, frazzled and harried and guilty-looking. Some times she brought me a present – a coloring book, crayons, a crazy-haired marble-eyed plastic troll – and some days she didn’t bring me anything. But she always stayed until visiting hours were over, long after all the other mothers had gone home.
When you’re four, time and space and having a job and getting through traffic means nothing. The only thing that matters when you’re four is What did you bring me? and What took you so long? “All the other mothers were here earlier!” I’d wail the minute she got there — words that must have produced a surgical strike of guilt with the precision of a laser-guided beam since for the rest of my life, and hers, she’d joke about and mimic my All the other mothers! complaint. Then she’d remind me that even though she was always the last to arrive, she was also always the last to leave.
Yesterday would have been my parents’ 55th wedding anniversary, the first anniversary my father would be spending alone, so I took Ben to the pool at their condo so we could keep him company and provide some distraction. It was a gorgeous August day — the kind that lingers in the memory of every New Englander and makes us weep in mid-February — and the kind my mother used to refer to as a “perfect beach day.” She loved the beach, and so do I, but instead of shlepping through traffic on a Friday when half of Boston would be headed to the Cape or to the North Shore or to the South Shore, the pool seemed an easier option, even with its impossible and ridiculous Seinfeld-ian rules and Senior-culture. As we stuck to one corner of the pool and talked about XBox and Vans sneakers, I realized that all the other elderly mothers were there, with their floating “noodles” and their jiggly bubbe-arms and their giant sunglasses.
Up until the end, my mother and I were never really close. We were different in big and basic and fundamental ways, and in stupid little dealbreaking ways that made having an easy relationship impossible for both of us. Yet we were also similar in some ways: I got to her late, too. All the other daughters may have come earlier, but I was the last to leave, just like she was. One of the final mornings in hospice, my sister and I, exhausted, didn’t come until almost noon. We’d showered, blown out our hair, stopped for coffee. Sitting up in bed, drinking a milkshake, she looked happy and sad and confused and relieved when she saw us. Where have you been? I thought you were coming earlier! she managed to say through the haze of Fentanyl and morphine. But I know what she was thinking because I was thinking the same thing, too: then, and all those years ago from my little bed in the children’s ward:
Better late than never.
Better late than never.