my mother never had a routine physical. most of my childhood memories took place in hospitals- the astringent, clinical scent of antiseptic, the tactile pressure of latex gloves, the calming voices of diagnosticians distracting me as cold hands moved forward with hidden syringes. but my mother never so much as filled a prescription for herself or scheduled a doctor’s appointment. once, a triage nurse jocularly suggested an EKG for her. i remember the flinty, darting narrowing of my mother’s eyes, the fierceness radiating from her sunken scowl that blanketed the rest of our intake procedure with silence.
she was a sharp, neurotic woman, both in and out of hospitals and doctor’s offices. she spoke to my father in a voice constantly pitched at an anxious bark. over the years, i saw her truculence wear on him, a slow and steady grinding that filled our recycling bins with sticky empty bottles. one night towards the end of my 7th grade year, he checked over my geometry homework with bleary, bloodshot eyes. mom wants me to stay home from school tomorrow, i whispered conspiratorially. she thinks i’m running a fever. but i hear there’s going to be a pop quiz. i shouldn’t miss it; i don’t want to stay home. i confided in him, a plea for parental intervention. but he just swayed where he sat, his gaze slightly unfocused as we looked at each other for several painfully long moments.
she wasn’t like this before you were born, he finally said, a flat accusation. you did this to her.
i was quiet then, i was always quiet. as i was docile and obediant when she flitted around me like an anxious insect, haraunging doctors and nurses who rapidly tired of her hypochondria. i was only 7 years old when i came to recognize that constant exasperation, the way medical professionals rolled their eyes at each other in mutual understanding when she dragged me into waiting rooms. i was only 10 years old when i became embarrassed by the size of my medical chart, humiliated when physicians’ offices sent letter after letter addressed to my mother, formally severing our provider-patient relationships. i didn’t know what it truly meant, only that she would stalk angrily to the weathered yellow pages sitting dog-eared on the kitchen table and start flipping through for new doctors. pediatricians. hematologists. cardiologists. endocrinologists. i recognized more medical specialties than disney princesses, spent my summer vacations watching vial after vial of blood withdraw from my body. my classmates came back to school with tan lines and stories about theme parks; i came back with the telltale mark of pressure bandages and three more dispelled diagnoses.
there’s nothing wrong with her, the doctors all told her with barely-concealed impatience. she’s perfectly healthy. you can’t bring her into the ER every time she gets a bruise.
it could be a symptom of hemophilia! my mother would counter, eyes widening. she could be hemorrhaging internally, you need to find out!
but i was fine then, i was always fine. and my mother neglected her own health in favor of her weirdly transferred, chronic hypochondria. she finally succumbed to a brain anuerysm during my freshman year of high school. my father broke down crying during the funeral, weeping into his wrinkled suit sleeves with unrestrained sobs. and our family and friends patted him awkwardly on the back, tracing their own demure tears away with kleenex and subversive swipes.
i did not console him. i was quiet, as i always had been, as i always would be. a statue in a sea of mourners. and when i looked down into the open casket at my mother’s face, i saw it was finally smoothed of its perpetual anxiety by careful embalming. and then the only thought running through my head was finally, no more goddamn hospital trips.
and if i was ashamed or appalled by my own feelings, no one could tell.