We Both Got Sick, But I Didn’t Die
By Jennifer Moses
You can’t pee lying down on your back, which is something I’d never thought about before until, recently, I found myself marooned atop a bed pan unable to produce a single drop despite my bloated and distended bladder. I’d just had a hip replacement, and had someone come along and offered me a quick, painless way out of this life, I’m not sure I would have refused. I was on the young side for a hip replacement—and otherwise healthy and fit, and yet couldn’t fathom how I could survive the pain.
During those three post-surgical days in the hospital, I gobbled Vicodin, Percocet, Dilaudid, Tylenol. I peed and pooped in pans and pots, sometimes with only my elderly, Italian-speaking roommate in the audience, and other times—who knew? There was a whole world of orderlies and nursing assistants and cafeteria workers out there, in the hallway, just beyond the open door.
I was born pigeon-toed, and spent my first year or so in a metal brace designed to give me a more dignified gate. What followed were the usual childhood illnesses—flu, mumps, chicken pox, and many episodes of what my mother called “the whoops,” as in: whoops, gotta puke. And it was during this time that I realized—because it was glaringly obvious—that illness had its upside. In my case, it meant not only avoiding the terrors of school, but also being fussed over by my mother on the one hand, and our housekeeper, Mae Carter, on the other. I’d lie in bed while first one and then the other brought me Jello and soup, read out-loud to me, and best yet, let me listen to story-records on the family record player that they’d schlepp to my room. Danny Kaye. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Bill Cosby doing Fat Albert. Later the record-player was upgraded to the portable TV, and I’d idle my mornings away with an endless lineup of sit-com reruns. And it would be like that, all day long, until, sometime in the late afternoon, paradise was shattered by the return, first, of my three siblings, and a few hours afterwards, by Dad.
Who said: “You’re looking better already! You’ll definitely be able to go back to school tomorrow!”
“But I’m sick. I have a temperature.”
Ignoring me, he’d continue: “You know what Brave Mister Buckingham would say, don’t you?” Of course I knew what Brave Mister Buckingham would say. I, along with my siblings, had been raised on Brave Mister Buckingham, a truly monstrous fable of said Mr. Buckingham who, as he goes about his day, suffers one physical calamity after another, until, by the end of the book of which he is the titular character, he appears to have lost most of his limbs. Nonetheless, after each attack on his person, he looks up and says: “THAT didn’t hurt!”
“THAT didn’t hurt!” my father would say. “You’re fine.”
And maybe I was, but that was hardly the point, now was it? Because the point, and something I felt that my father could never understand, was that I didn’t really belong out there in that rough-and-tumble world where Brave Mister Buckingham gets conked on the head by a falling safe and nevertheless bounces back up with a shit-eating, can-do grin. I did not belong in the world I was in; where swift, blonde athletic children routinely terrorized and humiliated slower, darker, non-athletic ones; where the prizes went to those who mastered their multiplication tables and fathers routinely disappeared to work not to be seen again until bath-time, or perhaps even later.
I liked it at home, in the sun, with my fairy-stories, my stuffed animals, and my mother.
There were any number of differences between the way my mother and the way my father saw and reckoned with the world, but the one that, I think, had the biggest impact on me and my siblings was that Mom believed that we could and would get sick, and that doctors could be useful in resolving matters of illness; whereas Dad didn’t. He’d lie for hours, flat on his back in the garage with spasm, rather than admit that perhaps he needed help or that something was wrong. And that’s because those with backbone, those with grit, didn’t succumb to something as trivial as illness or injury.
I have a fair number of friends who tell stories about going to school with 101 degree fevers, or taking out the garbage with a broken wrist, but on the whole these stories come from people who grew up in a home with either two working parents, or a single mom. A sick kid meant a missed paycheck. Then there are those whose parents just didn’t want to deal with the whining and sweat-soaked sheets. But it was a little different in our family, because in our version being sick didn’t mean missing a paycheck and didn’t pose an inconvenience. It meant a day home with our mother, who was fully up to the job of tending to a sick child. Because if ever there had been a woman who was born to take care of her children, it was mine.
Despite my inchoate longing to get something serious enough to merit sympathy, or even better, admiration—how I envied those lucky kids who came home from skiing vacations with a broken leg!—I never managed any real illness at all. Until, in the sixth grade, I did. I got an ulcer, and once it was identified as such, the rewards began to flow: unlike all the other kids, I got to choose my lunch from the teachers, lunch table, where they had such sophisticated offerings as cottage cheese and endless amounts of canned fruit cocktail; kids who’d formerly tormented me for my lack of athletic derring-do tiptoed around me, as if in silent communion; and at home, not only did my mother go around telling me how stupid she’d been not to have initially taken my complaints seriously (until she did, and took me to the doctor) but even Dad, I thought, felt contrite. At least he stopped talking about Brave Mister Buckingham.
Then, nothing. For years and years, I enjoyed blissfully good health. True, my first pregnancy was a drag, with morning sickness and full-bodied queasiness, bloating, and bouts of panicked terror as I contemplated the ridiculous fact that I, who was wholly unready for it, was soon to be someone’s mother. But the kid popped out all perfect and within a few months I was perfect too. So it wasn’t really until my second pregnancy, with my twins, that I got to be sick again, and that was because their idea of growing into healthy fetuses involved sending me into spasms of nausea and vomiting so violent that, towards the end of my first trimester, I landed in the hospital, badly dehydrated. Still, by the time I was allowed to return home, Mom had once again come to the rescue, providing me not only with help in the form of a woman named Cheryl whom she’d hired to look after me and three-year-old Sam during the long days when my husband, like my father, disappeared into Downtown Washington Lawyer World (when I say “hired” I mean “hired and paid for,”) but also with the treats of my childhood sickbed: chicken and dumplings; chocolate pudding; decorating magazines; and most of all, herself—Mom, in all her wonderful, glorious Momness. She simply knew how to nurture, how to say the exact right thing or keep silent or just look at me in the way that made me know that everything was okay. Night, night. Sleep tight.
Whereas several months later when I was eight months pregnant, Dad called one day to tell me that he and Mom were about to go to Maine for a two week vacation, and explain that, while they were gone, he expected me to water his flower gardens, in Virginia, about 7 miles away.
“But Dad,” I said. “I’m on bed rest.”
“Hmmph!” he said. “Stuff and nonsense!”
Naturally, the twins, born full-term and healthy, didn’t give rat’s ass that the blobs of warm softness that provided their mouths with that sweet juicy utter perfection had spent the past nine months alternatively praying for a miscarriage—please dear God anything to end this puking—and begging God to ignore that last one—and we all just kept keeping on with the usual minor scrapes and cuts, fevers and colds, until, nine years later, when the now-five-of-us were living in Glasgow, Scotland, during my husband’s sabbatical year (he was by then a law professor) I was diagnosed with breast cancer. By then, though, Mom had cancer also, only her cancer, which had been diagnosed years earlier, was a killer. Dad, in Washington, sent emails telling me not to let Mom know that I was sick, explaining (rightly so) that this was information that, if shared, wouldn’t be good for either of us, and additional emails telling me that, like many women of his acquaintance, I too would “bounce right back,” I had surgery, then six months of chemo, then a month of radiation, and it was behind me. By the time my mother died, in February of 2004, my biggest health issue was that I couldn’t stop crying.
And also, my hip hurt, and as the years passed, it began to hurt so much that walking became problematic. Was it genetic? The result of my own bout with chemo? My decades of depression? Who knew?
My husband contends that I like to be sick because some small part of me still thinks that it’s only through sickness that I can get the attention I still crave, that sense of being a beloved child safe at home and under the watchful eyes of its doting parents. Or, in my case, parent—because my father was mainly at the office, and nursing wasn’t exactly his specialty. Though I like to think that I’ve outgrown the little girl who’d pour Baby Powder on her face in the hopes that she’d look pale enough to miss a day of school, my husband isn’t entirely wrong, so much so that I was actually looking forward to my hip replacement, to what I was imagining as a vacation from trivia—there I’d be, lying in my hospital bed, blissed out on addictive pain killers, while my loved ones fussed around me, and sent me flowers. Which wasn’t exactly how it went down at the hospital, in part because my blood pressure kept bottoming out so I didn’t get to have enough of the really good drugs, and in part because, no matter what, the first few days after hip replacement surgery are nasty. My 84-year-old father, who’d sworn he’d be in the hospital to greet me when I swam up out of anesthesia, was felled by a stomach bug, though, not that he admitted it, and had to make do with phone calls that I was too weak to take and flowers. But once I was home, he and I started bonding over my recovery.
Me: “Guess what I did yesterday, Dad?”
“What’d you do?”
“I walked to the bathroom!”
“That’s my girl.”
“And this morning I walked without my walker.”
“You’re a champ.”
Or: “That bitch nurse kept me on a bedpan for forty minutes. I thought I was going to die.”
“But now I’m back and running Dad—the home health rigged up this old-person’s toilet set, so I can go any time I feel the need.”
“Now you’re talking! You show them!”
And so here we were, at 54 and 84, hurdling and hurtling back through the decades, spinning and tumbling all the way back, until we arrive, again, to the early 1960s, where the grass is always green, and the sun is always shining, and my beautiful young dark-haired mother confers with Mae in the kitchen over what to prepare for dinner, while at my end of the house I’m learning to walk and to use the toilet, only this time, instead of being downtown at the office with all the other dads, my father is at home, with me, in the Enchanted Pee Pee Forest, the same place where my siblings and our dog George and our several bunny rabbits and my own special family of stuffed bunnies live, in an endless round of snack time and clover-smelling time and nap-time and story-time.
“You can climb the stairs by yourself!” Dad says on the phone. “Wow! That’s marvelous!”
And what neither of us says is that, though Mom took every form of chemo available to her, that she spent years suffering from nausea, pain, various infections, loss of hope, bloating, emaciation, bruising, punctured veins, burning sensations, and sheer, raw misery, it did hurt, and she was never all right again, until, by dying, she slipped through her pain, and, leaving us, left us forever.
Jennifer Anne Moses is the author of Tales from My Closet, Visiting Hours, Bagels and Grits, and Food and Whine. She’s also a painter. She and her husband live with their two dogs and cook a lot for their grown children, who like to come by to do their laundry and get fed, in Montclair, NJ.