Mom was the one who took care of us physically. When we were growing up cleanliness and order were signs of rightness and normalcy. The house was clean, the yard was clean, and the five kids were clean. Laundry was done, dishes were washed. Food was cooked, served and cleared – but not always eaten. Some of us – me – were picky eaters.
I don’t remember being tucked in or read to, but I didn’t feel deprived either. It was one of those things, coddling, my mom didn’t do. I wasn’t even aware that parents did those things until I was older. You can’t miss what you’ve never had.
And as it turns out she thinks she did all those nurturing cuddly things anyway. She was a 32 year old mother of five (Me – 13 years old, Tommy – 10 years old, Selma – 8 years old, Efthemia – 7 years old, and Teddy – 3 years old) when I got sick. She projects onto the blank twenty years of changing diapers and cleaning house the activities she now realizes involved parents should engage in with their kids.
"Oh yeah, I used to read to them all the time," she once told Tommy’s wife at dinner.
I remember two Golden books from my toddlerhood and an illustrated dictionary Teddy received as a christening gift. Where are all the stories she read us from our childhood? Not at her house, not in my memories.
But I’ve only once challenged her revisionist history. The result was enough to stop me cold turkey after that.
"We did the best we could," she continued in that same conversation with my sister-in-law,
"We paid to get them all through college."
"Not me," I instinctively piped up realizing too late a hunk of bread would have served better as a plug for my mouth than my foot, which was firmly lodged in there instead, "I got a scholarship grant." I followed through, coasting on my pride of being smart and self-sufficient enough to score financial aid as if it were a magic carpet. Yep, there aren’t any magic carpets.
She shot me the look: inward slanted brows, sharp narrowed eyes, and sucked in cheeks all painted over indignation. You never want the look.
She said, "Well, we did the best we could."
And the day she saved me out of my middle school gym class early she was just doing the best she could.
I was the runt of my grade. I was "voted" shortest girl in our yearbook (to the incitement of Nikki S. who was the shortest popular girl in our grade and decided to shove me into a gym locker with the tagline, "You’re so small you could probably fit in there.") Nikki and my utter liability as an athlete made me dread physical education. The worst was anything involving running. Volleyball and hockey I could handle. In one I could stay stationary for a while and in the other I got a weapon to wield. But this day was relay races.
Relay races, the bane of my shortest-girl-in-the-eighth-grade-class existence. Not only was I sans the aid of equipment, but I also had long-legged girls and scrappy speedy boys who wanted to win haranguing me as I pushed and pulled muscles to do things they insisted they could not. My lungs vacuumed in air, but my ribcage had retracted and was constricting the flow of any air making its way through those collapsed gates. My heart beat like stabs to my back and the tears and snot were already welling up as if I had inhaled acrid fumes. I was deteriorating beneath the failure of my body and the harassing calls and jeers of all four relay teams, each yelling at or cheering for its current runner.
Usually, I would have stuck it out. I would have finished my third and final lap, and then retired to the back of the line to recover my composure, dignity, and physical equilibrium. But as I approached my relay line with the next runner poised to dart out and makeup for the time I had cost the team, I pretended to trip. It was my only way out. I have never since made another decision so quickly in my life, for as I thought, I can’t breathe. I need to stop. I’m going to make myself fall, I was instantaneously doing just that.
I threw myself to my knees and skidded a few inches across the polished gymnasium floor. The whole class, all fifty kids on the floor, the male and female gym teachers, and even the girls who were sitting out because of "lady issues" became silent and stared at me. Against my will, I began to cry and tried to choke out, "I can’t breathe."
But before the words could form, Ms. Riley barked in disgust, "Go to the nurse, Elaine."
Mom showed up with Teddy, the baby, in tow. She crammed his stroller into the cramped school nurse’s office. I was never sprung out of school early for anything, so I was not at all upset when after taking my temperature and listening to my heart the nurse suggested that Mom take me to the pediatrician. I suppose they had some urgent implied glances or adult words between them that I did not catch, because Mom rushed me to get changed out of my gym uniform and took me home immediately.
That night the appointment for the doctor was set and I was bathing to be ready for it and the full day off of school the next day. It would become my first full day off in a long string of them. As I stepped out of the tub to wrap a towel around me, Mom barged into the bathroom.
"Are you done, yet?" there was always another kid to be cleaned.
"Almost, not yet," I blurted hastily wrapping the towel around me.
"Hurry up," she started, "What’s that?" she asked pulling the towel aside, "What’s wrong with your stomach?"
She was referring to my distended belly, so taut with fluid retention the rigid wall of my large intestine was pushing against my skin and showing its texture like a bloated snake.
"I’m finally gaining weight," I said pulling the towel to cover me better.
After all my life of being scolded for not eating, I thought in the last week I had finally been taking on pounds. I thought she would be proud or relieved. Instead her distressed face said, Why didn’t you tell me about this?
The next day it was raining and Mom and I drove to the pediatrician alone. We were never alone, so someone must have been home with the baby. The car ride was silence and rain. No radio, no talking.
Dr. P. checked my stomach, pushed on my liver and bladder to see if they were tender. He listened to my heart and lungs. I felt attended to, the center of attention in fact. I had had doctor’s appointments in the past, but I knew this was different. This was special. I have often said that if I had to have such an experience in life I am glad it happened when I was young. Thankfully, I didn’t have the wherewithal to be worried.
After giving me the once-over it must have been obvious how ill I was, because he led Mom out into the hall. I then imagined the conversation like this.
"Christena, Elaine is really sick. We don’t have the right kind of medicine here, so you need to take her to bigger more important doctors."
"But I don’t know any bigger more important doctors." Mom would have replied in classic silent-movie-heroine form.
"They are in Philadelphia at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children," Dr. P. would have informed her.
"But I don’t drive in Philadelphia."
"Then you and your husband, Ted, will have to take her together."
Mom stormed back into the room and said nothing. She had the look on her face as she grabbed her purse. I was trained to follow. She led me out of the examining room and through the waiting room. I should have told her about my stomach and the two pillows I was using to sleep because I could not breathe when I lied down flat. I was sure she was angry at me. But then at the coat rack by the door she reached into the lost and found box and pulled out a doll.
"Here," she said shoving a yarn-hair male Cabbage Patch Kid doll into my arms. It was her best instinct at comforting me.
I named him Christopher after her.
*"A Race" is a chapter from the author's unpublished memoir Heart.