Monthly Archives: August 2010

All the Other Mothers

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.

Losing a Pole

When I was in junior high school, my best friend and I used to take the bus into Harvard Square almost every Saturday. We’d go to the Coop’s sidewalk sale to look at records and Indian print t-shirts, ogle the long-sleeved striped Marimekko t-shirts at Design Research, then make good use of our fake IDs until we had to head home. For all our desperate bohemianism — our $3 used suede jackets from Oona’s that smelled of perspiration and patchouli, our ridiculous love of pantomime, our feministically-correct unplucked unibrows — we were suburban kids, in for the day on public transportation.

In my memory it’s always fall — bright and windy on the way in and dark and clear and cold on the way home — and it’s always just my friend and me on the shitty bus, heaving and bumping and shlepping its way down Mount Auburn Street, past all the Armenian grocery stores and the two story houses and the neighborhood people walking their dogs and mailing letters and going into pizza places for big greasy slices. In my memory we’re always counting our money and talking about boys and giddy knowing that we’re just about to arrive in a place where we finally feel like we fit in and no one thinks we’re weird — unless, of course, they think we’re weird in a good way. And we’re always waiting for the strange guy to get on and sit right up by the driver and ask the same question over and over and over:

Didja evah lose a pole down by the stah mahket?

I’m not sure how many trips it took for us to understand exactly what he was asking the driver — a Boston accent is hard enough to understand without the overlay of a mentally-challenged twang — but eventually we figured out that the question had something to do with the two poles on top of the bus that connected it to the network of electrical wires that powered it and with the supermarket we passed right before crossing the Watertown line into Cambridge.  While we got the obvious meaning of the Didja evah lose a pole down by the Stah Mahket? question and all its compulsive Seussian variations — Didja evah lose a pole down by the Stah Mahket in the rain? Didja evah lose a pole down by the Stah Mahket in the snow? Didja evah lose a pole down by the Stah Mahket when it’s hot? Didja evah lose a pole down by the Stah Mahket when it’s cold? — I’m not sure we ever understood the larger question: why he was so fixated on and fascinated by losing a pole.

I was thinking about the question a few weeks ago when I drove through Watertown to Harvard Square on a perfect summer day–right behind a bus heaving and bumping and shlepping its way down Mount Auburn Street, past all the Armenian grocery stores and two story houses and people walking their dogs and mailing letters and going into pizza places for big greasy slices. Ben was in the backseat and we were looking to kill a few hours and take advantage of one of the few humidity-free days we’d had all summer. It had been almost two months since my mother had died and that afternoon I was feeling the way I’ve always felt: like I had one foot in the present, and one foot in the past, and that I was straddling the great divide of nothingness that came from never having a true foothold in the present.

Part of me that day was parallel parking and walking and talking, while the other part of me was thinking about how I’d watched the person who gave birth to me take her very last breath right in front of me and how every time I walk into my parents’ apartment now to visit my father I feel an overwhelming gasp of astonishment because her absence is so incomprehensible, it’s almost an abstraction. What happened? Where did she go? How can it feel like she was never even here? I was thinking about the dramatic trajectory of her illness; about the silence and stillness of her room and her last moments in it before she was taken out to hospice; about how pissed she’d be if she knew that Ben hadn’t touched the Taj Mahal Lego set she got him the week before she died and how in some perverse way she’d understand and even be flattered because she’d know it meant he missed her too much to play with it.

And I was thinking about how I’d lost a pole down by the Star Market.

Loss is big and vast and incomprehensible and abstract; loss is also small and close and tiny and real. Loss is knowing you’ll never hear someone’s voice again, never see their feet in their slippers, someday have to empty their closets and give away their eyeglasses. Loss is not knowing what to do with their driver’s license and their handbag and their lipstick, and not knowing what you’ll do when the next person dies. Loss is death and loss is also life. I lost a pole but I’m still here. Maybe even more here now that I’m only connected by one pole. Lose a kidney and the spare takes on a whole new meaning; lose one pole and the one remaining becomes a lifeline.  My one pole is my present, my life, my everything. I am the pole and the pole is me. It’s all I have and it’s all I’ll ever have and now I know what losing a pole really means. It means you can still keep going. It means you can still make it past the Star Market and into Harvard Square. It means that one pole is all you get so you better fucking grab it and hang onto it and let the electricity of your life and those you love run through you. So that’s what I’m doing.  I’m hanging on to my pole. I’m hanging on and I’m not letting go.