By Francie Arenson Dickman
When I walk into my parent’s apartment, my mother is in her bedroom, hunched on hands and knees.
Half an hour earlier, I’d gotten a call. “You need to get here quick,” my mother said. Her voice was a weak, worried whisper. “I’m not sure I’m gonna make it.”
A day earlier, my mother returned from the hospital following routine back surgery which, due to a bad reaction to anesthesia, spiraled into a four day stay. Her doctor let her go after she proved she could handle solids—solids defined as a cup of Jello, not the Big Mac that my father got her on the way home from the hospital on the archaic premise that a little grease would absorb the excess drugs in her system. My parents decided to call the Big Mac their little secret, until the next morning when I got the phone call from my mother, who spoke to me from her toilet, blocked up and bowled over in pain.
She directed me to bring Miralax and Ducolax, as suggested by the doctor. She didn’t tell him about the Big Mac, but she did tell me.
“Get here fast,” she pleaded. “I’m gonna to die and the cleaning people are going to be here in thirty minutes.”
I arrived in twenty, having called off the cleaning crew and having cleaned the Walgreen’s shelves of any digestive product ending in “ax” to find her hunched on her hands and knees. It’s at this point that I drop the drugs and rush towards her, my mind going towards worse case scenarios, my fingers on my phone towards 911.
I am my parent’s only daughter. My father is 81. He had heart surgery last year, prostate cancer the year before that. He can’t see or stand up straight. He doesn’t hear, and he won’t listen, wear a seat belt or carry a cell phone so we never know, when he’s disappeared for hours, whether he’s at the Lexis dealership or dead. My mother has a bad back, bad reflux and a bad habit of denying reality, so it’s hard for me to tell when it’s “nothing” and when it’s not. All I can do is hold my breath with regard to my parents and their accumulating ailments no different than with my daughters and their imminent adolescence. I’m in that precious and precarious middle place, where being a mother and being mothered meet. Signs of everyone’s impending age appear daily. But I’m often unsure what to make of them—when do I call the doctor and when do I pray to God?
The other night, my 11-year-old daughter came into my room with a boob. Just one. A tiny mound, barely perceptible except to me and perhaps to her, though I didn’t ask. Instead, I shot up in bed and asked her to come closer.
She gave me an annoyed, “What’s the matter?”
I said, “Nothing.”
But I posed that very question to the pediatrician the next morning after my daughter woke up with both the attitude and the boob gone, and I stood in the kitchen wondering if my sighting, like a UFO, had been a figment of my imagination. The doctor assured me that I had indeed seen a breast bud. “Puberty is gradual” she told me, “its signs come and go but it can seem to sneak up on you if you’re not paying attention.
And even if you are, I thought, because I didn’t see a boob coming and as both a daughter and a mother, I’ve been paying attention for the better part of my life. So sure I was, when I was ten and my father in his late forties, that he was going to have a heart attack playing football with the other, much younger fathers, that I watched the game clinging to the chain link fence, praying to God and holding my breath. Figuratively, I’ve been holding my breath for decades waiting for the other shoe to drop and now literally, as I race to my mother’s bedroom, convinced that it actually had.
“Are you okay?” I sputter.
“That was quick, I hope you didn’t speed,” she says casually, as if she’d invited me for tea. “C’mon in.” She holds her hand out for me to help her to a standing position.
“What’s going on?” I ask, as if I’d wandered into the wrong apartment.
She directs me to look down the back of her bathrobe. “Can you see that?”
I peak down her neck. Her backside is angry and bruised, blood vessels broken from mid spine down.
“That doesn’t look good,” I tell her. “I think we should call the doctor.”
She waves off the suggestion. “I called you instead.” As she settles back onto her hands and knees she says she’d thought about calling the paramedics from the toilet, but decided she’d rather die than have strange men looking at her bottom. “Luckily, I was able to relieve myself,” she explains as she directs my eye to an array of jewelry buried within the pile carpet. “But next time, who knows? So,” she continues, “you need to be able to tell what’s real, what’s sort of real and what’s not.”
My mother collects jewelry of all kinds. Her collection is organized meticulously into categories by color, type and quality. She stores it in a dresser, though in between her death-defying bowel experience and my arrival, she managed to move the entire stash to the floor.
I sit and she begins. “The best stuff is in the top drawer.”
I nod, though this is not news. I’ve gotten the jewelry talk before, after every narrow dodging of death—from the actual, like a clean biopsy of a tumor, to the perceived, like an unduly turbulent air flight. I know the ambers, the turquoises, the rose golds, the brushed golds, the strands of beads, the bulbous rings, and her beloved bangles. I can picture the pieces before I look at them, but even after all these years, I cannot tell you what’s real and what’s fake. On some deeper level, I assume I don’t want to know. As if to absorb the lesson will put my mother in a position to depart. And the truth is, it’s all my mother’s and, genuine or not, that is all that matters.
As she speaks and goes through the piles, she doles out some of it to me. The stuff she never wears, the mistakes, the very fake amber to which she believes she is allergic, the pieces that are now too small and that might fit my daughters.”
With the larger, more recently acquired bangles, she is more thorough. “It takes a fine eye to tell the gems from the junk,” she repeats. Her greatest fear is that her daughter-in-law (who shares my mother’s fine eye as well as her wide wrists) will one day wind up with the good stuff. All because her real daughter wasn’t paying attention.
“I’m listening,” I promise (though I’m not), and I put on a piece of allergic amber. “How does it look?”
“Better on you than on me,” she says. We laugh, we reload her dresser and we do, in fact, have tea.
When I leave her apartment, after my father rolls in from the Lexis dealership, I am bedecked in jewelry and armed with instructions to wear it now, while she is still alive.
I promise her I will (though I won’t). I ask her if she’s feeling better.
She says she is (thought she isn’t). She thanks me for coming. I thank her for a lovely morning and head to my car, where I take a breathe of relief and thank God for the bangles, the boobs and the gift of another day.
Francie Arenson Dickman’s essays have appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.