Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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Last Monday afternoon I drove to downtown LA, to an address just north of Cesar Chavez Avenue in Chinatown, and got myself a twenty-dollar foot massage. I can’t adequately describe how foreign the notion of paying for a massage of any kind is to someone with my thrifty Yankee 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 that my entire body is killing me. Even then I had to gradually work my way up to the idea of “treating” myself to a (low-end) foot massage.
To compensate for this unseemly pampering, I parked a half mile away, even though it was raining: partly to avoid paying for parking, and partly because — and this came way before my conversion to Catholicism — I like building a little penance into my pleasure. The fact is I enjoyed walking in the drizzle through the deserted streets: the pastry shops, the dim sum palaces, the noodle joints, the parking-lot attendants sitting on stools and surveying their realms, the workman squatting against a storefront with a styrofoam container of grease-slicked roast duck and rice, the skyscrapers looming in the mist.
Foot massage in LA is an art form, an hour-long affair that includes a neck, back, shoulder, and leg rub. The place was about what you’d expect for twenty bucks: dim lights, clean enough, tiny rooms, muslin, bamboo, sitar Muzak. First I got to soak my feet in a tub of warm water while “Lisa” did my neck and back. Then I got to recline in a big, comfy, towel-covered chair while she knelt and did my legs and my feet.
Almost as soon as she started on my calves, I began crying. When you are never touched, to have someone touch you like this unleashes a cascade of emotions. That you can walk through an anonymous door and have a person invite you to take off your shoes and socks and then touch you — without shaming you, without asking you to give an account of yourself, without being (or at least without acting) repulsed — is really rather moving.
We carry in our bodies a whole host of hurts, of lonely nights, of tiny slights and insults, of guilt for the slights and insults we’ve inflicted on others. If you’re single, you carry the added weight, the secret shame, of knowing 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 I age, I’m finding that what also comes up is a primal fear of appearing to be debilitated, weak, in need of help; a deep 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 feet, was my mother. Mom’s in a nursing 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 all do eventually. 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 phone in case someone needed her, can no longer hear one ringing two feet away. “Well, hello there,” she’ll say to my brother Geordie, who lives closest by and does the lion’s share of the visiting, the accompanying to doctor’s visits, and the decision making. “She knows I’m friend, not foe,” he reports, “but that’s about it. She greets me about the way she would the plumber.”
Mom took a little fall on the stairs recently. And she’s started to get belligerent (also wildly out of character: Mom’s stubborn but extremely meek). The short of it is that last week the people at the home made her move downstairs to a room next to the nurse’s station, where she has a roommate: ninety-four-year-old Hannah. I can’t emphasize enough how much my mother (1) resists change and (2) is not a roommate person. We all thought she’d protest; instead, and this may be a measure of her diminishment, she merely expressed surprise — “Why didn’t you tell me yesterday?” — and then went happily along with the plan, for which we are grateful.
Still, this is my mother. I’m her firstborn, and she’s my mother. In the week after her move I thought often of the Bible passage “When you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go” [John 21:18].
And there in that 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 being in rehab. She said her roommate in the facility had been a burn victim, a fellow alcoholic who’d tried to fry a hamburger when she’d been drunk, and her dress had caught fire. Too wasted to extinguish the flames or call 911, she’d sustained third-degree burns over half her body. And this woman would lie there in rehab with a pillow over her mouth and scream and scream and scream. The pillow muffled the noise more or less, but it was a terrible, haunting, wrenching sound. Finally the woman who was telling me the story asked her roommate, “Are you all right?” And the burn victim said yeah, she was OK; she was screaming now because she’d been afraid that if she screamed in the hospital, the nurses wouldn’t take care of her.
She was afraid that if she screamed, they wouldn’t take care of her. Isn’t that, on some level, the fear that many of us carry? I thought of my mother, raised on a Rhode Island chicken farm during the Depression by a mother who literally went days without saying a word and a father who up and left one day when my mother was thirteen, only to resurface years later with a new family. I thought about how maybe Mom had been afraid to scream all her life because her parents hadn’t taken care of her. I thought about how, when your whole psyche has been formed by neglect and abandonment, you might be subconsciously afraid that your own child will reject you — and how, in many ways, I had done just that. I thought of all the people in my life who’ve hurt me because they couldn’t or wouldn’t get closer, and how maybe they were exercising superhuman courage just to get as close as they did.
Mom still reads a little, Geordie had said in his last message to me. “I don’t know how much she absorbs, but she had The Wind in the Willows out the other day.”
Last year I, too, reread The Wind in the Willows, even going so far as to read a biography of the author, Kenneth Grahame, whose mother died when he was five, whose father was an alcoholic, who had an unhappy marriage, and whose only child, a son nicknamed Mouse, was emotionally troubled all his life and committed suicide at the age of twenty by throwing himself under a train.
Geordie had gone on to say, “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 of how, before I’d been able to find my way to an actual church, books had been the closest thing to a church I’d had. I thought of how my mother had wanted to be a writer and how maybe I’d become 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 . . .
Now, on the cusp of turning sixty, I had finally realized that, of all the mothers in the world, I had the perfect one for me: The one who had taught me to love books and silence and trees, whose secret sorrows I had absorbed through DNA, whom I’ve been afraid to scream in front of all my life because I worried she wouldn’t take care of me if I did, but who had taken care of me, I saw now, and had loved me and seen what was good in me and guided me toward what was important as no one else could have.
I thought of all of this during my massage, and, though I made no sound, my face was wet with tears.
“Do you want some hot tea?” Lisa asked afterward, but that would have been too much indulgence, so I said no, thank you so much, and I got dressed and left.
It was raining harder now, and I pulled my coat a little tighter around me and put on my scarf. Homeless people were sleeping on the side of Cesar Chavez Avenue, huddled in damp sleeping bags, their meager belongings getting soaked. I walked in the rain over to Grand Avenue and up to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Puddles pooled in the courtyard. I thought I would go inside and sit for a while. I would kneel and pray. Entering the tall front doors, I passed beneath a bronze icon of Mary. Guardian of the poor. Mother of all lost children.
I felt her then, my own mother, forever first in my heart, as our mothers somehow always are. I felt her in my bones and in my blood and in my aching muscles. I felt her, the person who, though she no longer recognized me, had known me longer than anyone on earth. I felt who she was before I was born and who she’ll still be after we’re both dead. I thought of how, when we are stripped right down to the bone, the deepest cry of our hearts, no matter how old we are, is “Mommy!”
Thank you for printing Heather King’s essay “Of All the Mothers in the World” [August 2012]. I read it on my front porch on a glorious fall morning and wept: For the author’s fear that screaming for help would bring no one. For her deep love of her flawed mother. For the difficulty she had justifying a small indulgence.
“Of All the Mothers in the World,” by Heather King [August 2012], was a wonderful essay. One sentence really stuck with me: “If you’re single, you carry the added weight, the secret shame, of knowing that you are first in no one’s heart.” As a single woman of fifty-one (divorced for eleven years), I know what she means. I don’t normally go around feeling sorry for myself, but I’ve never read such a poignant description of being alone.
I enjoyed reading Heather King’s “Of All the Mothers in the World,” but I must disagree when she says that if you’re single, “you are first in no one’s heart.”
It’s no different for those who are in a relationship. We are almost never first in anyone’s heart. There are children, careers, elderly parents, chronic illnesses, and sometimes just plain selfish considerations that take the top spots. Most married people are doing well if they manage to be third or fourth in their spouse’s heart. I know that in twenty-five years I’ve never managed to place higher than third. Almost anyone who has been married for a few decades will say the same, if they’re honest.