1. A diagnostic procedure
My first diagnostic procedure: the radial pulse. It will always be the most intimate, the most revealing, the most healing act anyone can perform on my body.
It began in a hushed adolescent medicine clinic at a big academic center. The nurse’s fingers pressed into my wrist—then almost immediately afterward, the doctor’s. He came in quick steps from another room, held my wrist for a full minute with his eyes on the wall clock. Followed closely by an ambulance ride to the hospital across the street, one parking lot to the other, and then for weeks on end, fingertips on my wrist: every day, every two hours, a full 60 seconds of that warm, encircling pressure.
Weeks later, back at home in my own bed. Sometime in the middle of the night I would awaken to my mother’s fingers inexpertly fumbling around the bone, onto the vein, searching, then resting there as she counted and I pretended to sleep. The most comforting feeling in the whole world: my mom’s monitoring of my heartbeat, her silent worry, her wakefulness in the night, the way the skin on her fingers rolled against my skin. I could almost feel the grooves of her fingerprints impressed into that spot when she finally rose, returning to her own bed.
2. Giving bad news
When I think of bad news—really bad news, not just a delayed flight or a favorite team losing their playoff game—when I think of bad news, I think of my mom. My mom as the ultimate, unfortunate recipient of bad news. Because of how she told me once in high school that whenever a siren wailed in the middle of the night, she would wake up and ask herself if I was all right. (Whenever I was out at night, my mom slept with the light on. When I came home, I was to wake her and tell her I was there; she would then switch off her reading lamp and fall back to sleep. Later, at the sound of a siren, she didn’t have to lie awake asking herself if I’d already been in to see her. The light was out. I was home.)
Once we visited an old friend of hers in another city. The friend asked me my name and then said, in a tone I’d never heard in a human voice (and have only heard only once or twice since), “Oh…. My daughter’s name was Chrissy, too.”
My mom told me later that Chrissy, her friend’s daughter, had been run over by a school bus when she was six years old.
So then I have this image of my mother—perhaps any mother—the perpetual potential recipient of bad news, and the toll it exacts from her, and the peace that is denied to her, always.
And what torture would it be for you, Mom, to be called to a hospital bedside, where your daughter lay—the school bus bearing down on her, on you; the siren wailing, louder, louder, in your ears?
3. Words of comfort
I always think the greatest compliment anyone could ever give me is to tell me that I am in any way like you—that I am as smart or as kind as you, think like you, look like you, talk like you. It hasn’t happened yet. I know that in fact, I’m not very much like you. But I will always wish I were.
When I come home for a weekend and we go for one of our walks around town, I am proud to be your daughter. I like that everyone can tell we’re mother and daughter because we’re wearing our matching Cal sweatpants.
I remember you used to say to me, when I was upset or crying, Oh honey, oh baby, oh pumpkin.
And you used to sing a lullaby that went, Hush little baby, don’t say a word, Mamma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird. And if that mockingbird don’t sing, Mamma’s gonna buy you a diamond ring. And if that diamond ring don’t shine…. I cry every time I think of that song, because I can hear your voice singing it, and it sounds exactly the way it used to sound when I was too little even to remember.
I also remember—without really remembering— exactly how your hand felt patting my back as I fell asleep: fast and fluttering, like butterfly wings. And even though I was so young, I actually remember wondering how you could pat me for so long without your hand getting tired.
One summer afternoon when I was about twelve, I walked into your office in my tank-top and shorts; you turned around from your desk and looked at me, and you said, “Look at you, you really have beautiful legs.” A silly compliment to remember, maybe, but I recall it so clearly. I suppose it was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received.
My favorite memory: A few days before your dad died, you and I walked home through the park after visiting him at the hospice center. We sat on the bench, and you told me how it felt to be in that terrible in-between place, waiting for what you knew was coming, and still clinging to the fact that it hadn’t happened yet. You cried. That was the day I thought that maybe you consider me your friend, because you shared that private fear and pain with me. I was happy and unbearably sad at the same time.
Years ago you gave me a birthday card that said,
From morning light to twilight, may you always be happy.
And in the darkness of night, may your dreams always be sweet.
I wish the same thing for you, Mom.