I want to thank Sherri Frank Mazzotta for pinch hitting this week. I’ll be back doing my thing next Monday. Enjoy her post!!! Zach
Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my mother in doctors’ offices and hospitals. “You’re my only kid that doesn’t tell me anything,” she says, apropos of nothing, as we sit in the ophthalmologist’s waiting room. “It makes me feel like I’ve done something wrong as a parent.”
For a moment, I feel guilty. My sisters tell my mother everything. I have friends who are close to their mothers. But I’ve never volunteered much about my relationships, jobs, or health. I’m not sure why. Here, in the waiting room, all I can do is shrug. “Guy doesn’t tell you anything either,” I remind her, referring to my brother. She agrees, and thankfully, moves on to another subject.
There’s no sense in sharing my thoughts now, at 47. Is there?
It means my mother doesn’t really know me. And I suppose, I don’t really know her. But how do you change patterns of communication that have lasted a lifetime?
To be honest, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it. I’ve never been one of those women who needed to write about her angst-filled relationship with her mother. It isn’t angst-filled. We have a good relationship, meaning we spend holidays and birthdays together. We talk on the phone. But expressing emotions has never come easy to my family.
Maybe it’s due to age, but suddenly my mother is pondering such issues and asking me to ponder them with her. It makes me uncomfortable. I’m not prepared.
When she was having heart palpitations, she waited all night before calling. “I didn’t want to bother you,” she says.
In the emergency room, I help her change into a johnney. The nurse puts electrodes on her chest, and I watch the numbers on the EKG climb higher and higher. Mom’s 73 and has mostly been in good health. But as I look at her thin arms and exposed back, I wonder if this is the beginning of tests and pills and appointments with specialists.
After the nurse leaves, my mother makes a face and whispers, “She touched my tits.”
“No she didn’t, she was just putting the disks on your chest.”
She shakes her head. “She didn’t have to touch me there.”
This is the mother I’m used to. The one who worries about people staring at her on the bus; people eavesdropping on her conversations; and whether the nurse is a lesbian. Not the mother who’s worried about me keeping things from her.
After her heart rate comes down, they admit her to the hospital for more tests. I’m afraid she’ll be nervous having a male nurse do the intake, but when he steps out for a minute, she says, “He’s handsome, isn’t he?” I’m married, so it’s not me she wants to fix up.
The nurse has a long list of questions. “Do you follow any special diet?”
“No,” she says, thinking hard. “But I want to try Nutri-System. I’ve heard it’s better than Weight Watchers.”
I laugh. “Mom, that’s not what he’s asking.” This is also the mother I know: The one with a quirky sense of humor.
The nurse asks if she feels safe at home, and the question confuses her. “Safe? Yes, I live with my daughter. I couldn’t have done that if my husband was still alive. Not that I wanted him to die,” she says. “That didn’t come out right.”
She lives with one of my sisters. My father died nearly 20 years ago, and I’d always hoped she’d find male companionship again. From her admiring comments about the nurse and other men over the years, I think she wanted that too. Yet she never pursued it.
“He was my one and only,” she tells the nurse.
When I was growing up, I watched my mother apply lipstick each night before Dad came home from work. “I still get excited when I hear his voice on the phone,” she’d say. She got up early to make us breakfast. Made sure we lived in a clean house and had clean clothes to wear. Was waiting for us after school. But I remember thinking that I didn’t want to be anything like her: Tending to husband, house, and children.
That thought astounds me now. Makes me ashamed because it overlooks the generosity, compassion, and selflessness that were imbued in everything she did for our family–qualities that I aspire to.
We spend two days together in the hospital. During that time, we talk about my father, my husband, aunts, and cousins. It’s mostly my mother talking and me listening. Despite my silence, she says, “I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t here, Sherri.” I wish I could offer more in the way of comfort. Wish I could share more of myself. But instead, I focus on practicalities like helping her walk to the restroom. Bringing food when she’s hungry. Making sure she’s not alone when they wheel her downstairs for the echo test.
For now–because it’s always been this way–that’s all I can give.
Recently she said, “We never say ‘I love you’ in our family, but we know we love each other. Right?” Once again, I didn’t know how to respond. This is a new way of talking. A new kind of courage. Maybe someday I’ll have that courage too. But it won’t be like a Lifetime movie, where one traumatic event suddenly brings us closer together; makes us spill our emotions like a sticky syrup. It will happen–if it happens at all–gradually. Clumsily. One moment at a time.
At the end of that first day in the hospital, after yet another nurse had examined her, my mother looked at me and said, “Everybody’s playing with my tits today, I don’t know what it is.”
“They must be a hell of a pair,” I said, and we both laughed.
It was one moment. One brief moment out of thousands more to come.