|ME, AGE 5,|
IN FRONT OF THE HOUSE WHERE MY MOTHER WAS RAISED
Monday afternoon I drove to downtown L.A., just north of Cesar Chavez Avenue in Chinatown and got myself a $20 foot massage. I can’t adequately describe how foreign the notion a massage of any kind is to my Yankee, thrifty upbringing. My Calvinist impulse when in pain is to push harder, work more, soldier through. That’s what my father, a bricklayer did; that’s what my mother (to eight kids) did. Only lately have I allowed myself to realize my entire body is killing me; even then, I'd had to gradually, slowly work up to the idea of "treating" myself to a (low-end) foot massage.
To compensate for this unseemly pampering I’d parked a half mile away, even though it was raining: partly so as to avoid paying for parking, partly because I've come to like building a little penance into my pleasure. The fact is I enjoyed walking in the drizzle through the deserted streets of Chinatown: the pastry shops, the dim sum palaces, the noodles joints, the parking lot attendants sitting on soda shop stools surveying their realms, the workman squatting against a storefront on the sidewalk with a delicious-looking Styrofoam container of grease-slicked roast duck and rice, the skyscrapers of downtown looming in the mist...
Foot massage in L.A. is a term of art, an hour-long affair that includes a neck, back, shoulder and leg rub. The place was about what you’d expect for 20 bucks, no more, no less; dim lights, clean enough, tiny rooms, muslin, bamboo, sitar Musack. First I got to soak my feet in a tub of nice warm water while “Lisa” did my neck and back, and then I got to recline in a big old comfy towel-covered chair while she knelt and did my legs and then my feet. Almost as soon as she started on my calves, I began crying. When you are never touched, to have someone touch you, someone who doesn’t want anything and is coming from a basic place of warmth unleashes, for me anyway, a cascade of emotions. That you can walk through the anonymous streets of a city and through a particular door and someone will invite you to take off your shoes and socks and will then touch you, will not shame you, will not ask you to give an account of yourself, will not be--or at least not act--repulsed, is really, I have to say, kind of poignant.
We carry in our bodies a whole range of wounds, of hurt, of loneliness, of the continual daily onslaught of tiny slights and insults, of guilt for the slights and insults we impose on others. If you’re single, you carry the added weight, the secret shame, of knowing that that you are first in no-one’s heart. You walk the earth with billions of other people and you are first in no-one’s heart…As you age, I’m finding, what also comes up is a primal fear of appearing to be debilitated, weak, in need of help; a deep primordial limbic terror of being cast out of the herd and left to die, alone…
I've somewhat come to terms with all that, though, and what I was really thinking of as Lisa worked over my deteriorating-in-various ways-at-the-moment feet was my mother. Mom’s in a home in Dover, New Hampshire with Alzheimer’s. She’s been in the same second-floor corner room for four years, quite proud that she can still navigate the stairs; insistently, even defiantly (that's my Mom!), refusing to use a walker. But she’s been failing, as we do. Mom, the most fastidious person I know, has been having trouble cleaning herself. Mom, who put her whole life on hold to sit by the metaphorical telephone, to be on call in case someone needed her, can no longer hear the phone ringing, even though it's two feet away. “Well hello there,” she’ll say to my brother Geordie, who lives closest by and bears the brunt of visiting, accompanying to doctor’s visits, decision-making. “She knows I’m friend, not foe,” he’ll report, “but that’s about it. She greets me about the way she would the plumber”…
Mom took a little fall on the stairs recently, plus she’s started getting belligerent (also wildly out of character: Mom’s stubborn but she’s also extremely meek), and the short of it is that last week the people at the home made her move in downstairs, next to the nurse’s station, WITH A ROOMMATE (94-year-old Hannah, bless her heart). I can’t really describe how very much my mother 1) resists change and 2) is not a roommate person. We all thought she’d freak; instead, and this may be a measure of her diminishment: she didn’t blink an eye. Expressed initial surprise—“Why didn’t you tell me yesterday?”—and then went meekly, happily along. So far, so good, for which we are grateful.
|MOM AND ME, A FEW YEARS AGO, |
DOVER, NEW HAMPSHIRE
And here in this dim massage room, with not a soul in the world except Lisa knowing where I was, I thought of a story someone had recently told me about when she’d been in rehab. She said her roommate had been a burn victim, a fellow alcoholic who’d tried to fry a hamburger one night when she was drunk and her dress had caught fire and she'd been too wasted to extinguish the flames or call 9-1-1 and had sustained third-degree burns over half her body. And this woman would lie there with a pillow over her mouth in rehab and scream and scream and scream. The pillow muffled it more or less but it was a terrible haunting wrenching sound. And finally this woman who was telling the story had said, “Is there something I can do? Are you all right?” And the burn victim woman said, “Yeah, I’m okay. I’m screaming now because I was afraid if I screamed in the hospital, they wouldn’t take care of me.”
I was afraid if I screamed, they wouldn’t take care of me. Isn’t that on some level the wound we all carry? I thought of my mother, raised on a Rhode Island chicken farm during the Depression with a mother who literally went days without saying a word, and a father who up and left one day when my mother was 13, never to return, only to surface years later with a new, second family. I felt how she was maybe afraid to scream all her life because, even remaining silent, they hadn’t taken care of her. I thought how when your whole psyche has been formed by neglect and abandonment, you are maybe subconsciously afraid that your own child will reject you--and how, in many ways, I had. I thought about all the people I have been hurt by in my life who couldn’t or wouldn’t get closer and how maybe they were exercising a superhuman amount of courage and heart to let themselves get as close as they did.
I thought of how like my mother, I am so not a roommate person and yet, a year and a half ago, and due to our current Depression, I’d gotten a roommate, too...
“She still reads a little,” Geordie had said. “I don’t know how much she absorbs, but she had The Wind in the Willows out the other day.” I thought of how, last year, I too, had re-read The Wind in the Willows (“Ratty, please, I want to row!), even going so far as to read a biography of author Kenneth Grahame—whose mother died when he was five, whose father was an alcoholic, who made an unhappy marriage, and whose only child, a son nicknamed Mouse, had been emotionally troubled all his life and committed suicide at the age of twenty by throwing himself under a train.
I thought of how Geordie had told me, “She has two books by her bed, the Bible and Parched”--my first memoir. Could any daughter, any writer, hope for a greater tribute? I thought “In the beginning was the Word” and of how, before I'd been able to find my way to an actual church, books were the closest thing to a church I had. I thought of how my mother had wanted to be a writer and how in a way I became one for her. I thought of all the time in my life I had spent thinking, If only my mother had hugged me, if only my mother had told me I was pretty, if only my mother had …and how, on the cusp of turning sixty, I had finally come to realize that of all the mothers in the world, I got the perfect one, the only one, the best one. The one who had taught me to love books and silence and trees, whose secret sorrows and wounds I had absorbed through my DNA, who I been afraid to scream in front of all my life because I was afraid she wouldn’t take care of me but who had taken care of me, I saw now, had taken care of me and loved me and seen what was good in me and guided me toward what was important as no-one else could have.
I made no sound, though my face was wet with tears. I felt her--forever first in my heart, as our mothers somehow always are--in my bones and blood and aching muscles, I felt her across the miles and the years, I felt her--the person who had known me longer than anyone on earth, though she no longer recognized me--before I’d ever been born and after we both died. I thought of how maybe the deepest cry of our hearts, no matter how old we are, if we are stripped right down to the bone, is “Mummy! Mummy!”…
“Do you want some hot tea?” Lisa asked afterward but that would have been too much intimacy, too much indulgence maybe, so I said no, but thank you so much, and got dressed, and left.
It was raining harder now and I pulled my coat around me a little tighter and put on my scarf. Homeless people were sleeping on the side of Cesar Chavez, huddled in damp sleeping bags, their belongings getting soaked. I walked in the rain over to Grand Street and up to the Colburn School of Music, where I’d attended a student recital the night before, to retrieve the copy of Charles Péguy's The Portal of the Mystery of Hope I'd inadvertently left behind. In the preface, French theologian Jean Bastaire notes: “[A]s it is expressed by the ‘puer eternus’ [eternal child] of the collective unconscious, there exists a connection between childhood and resurrection, and Hope brings the grace that we anticipate from Easter.”