Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. She would have been 99 years old. We lost her in 2007 on her mother’s birthday, December 20. My brother died in winter, too just four and a half months ago.
4/5/11 was a great day for me: Students were uncannily generous, as if they knew I was sad, and colleagues were especially sweet. It’s hard sometimes knowing that it’s just me left now, all my immediate family members gone.
There’s cosmic irony in this situation since I was seen as the weak one in the family, the “identified patient” as one of my first lovers, who was in graduate school for social work, would tell me. Here I am though strong as ever—the one who weighed just four pounds at the time of my operation, the one Mom prayed hard for. She was my advocate. Could I have made it without her? I don’t think so.
Unfortunately, however, she never got over the trauma of my operation, complaining later that it took “ten years off my life just like that.” As I grew up, I listened to her various descriptions of me after surgery: “an alien from outer space, tubes coming out of every opening.” Thank goodness I have not heard those words for years. That’s the part I don’t miss about my mother. In my forties and fifties, I tried to get her to change the way she talked about my operation, but it was difficult; the needle had played in the same groove for so long.
Perhaps the same words spoken over and over located her, grounded her in some way. Saying them, she knew where she was; she recognized something about herself. What else do I recall her saying? That she would have been left “a lonely woman all her life” had I not lived.
I still remember her sadness when she told the story of the nurse who brought me from the recovery room into a special room on the hospital floor after my surgery. Not a word was spoken to my mother. No information was passed on to her. No good news or bad news. Silence. And, the bleak picture before her: me wrapped in all my “thick black hoses,” barely visible but for the technology. Me, whose eyes “were closed,” she told me later after I begged her for some recollection other than her standard “tubes in and out of every opening, even your head!”
My mother was traumatized by my surgery and by all the events surrounding it and never recovered. She suffered alone. I started to write that she suffered with my father, and to a certain extent this was true, but I think she shielded him. Later she would tell me of the despair she felt then: “When there’s an empty crib at home, you know that child is at death’s door.” How had she coped? To whom did she pray? Parents need so much during these times. She did finally speak with the surgeon right before I was discharged when he gave her instructions how to care for me. Interesting how it was the surgeon himself and not a nurse. In 1952, surgery for pyloric stenosis was not common.
I remember her telling me about the baby in the room across the hall that nobody visited. The baby that the nurses often gave up trying to feed because he fussed so much. The baby that had no one sitting vigil in the hall, watching him through the hallway window. Lucky for me, I had someone watching over me. I lived for her, I believe. Later, I had to learn to live for me.