Thinking about empathy today, which dictionary.com defines as “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Empathy can be so difficult when we’re in the middle of a crisis, but yet that can be the time we most need to have it. I’m somewhat anxious about having my mother stay with me for two weeks while I recover from surgery. She’s a super nurse, and it’ll be comforting to have someone there who understands about wound care and gives a heckuva sponge bath. What my mom’s not great at is understanding that her “my house, my rules” applies to other people, by which I mean I do get to say how I sort the spices and how I want my vegetables prepared. All I can think about is that I’ll be too tired and in too much pain to have to watch my tongue and do all the myriad behavior adjustments that most of us do as grownups when spending time with our parents. I realized today, however, that I needed to put myself in my mother’s shoes. She’s having her routine disrupted for two weeks, she’s watching her child suffer, and I can’t imagine that though the circumstances are entirely different, she won’t occasionally flashback to the last time I was in the hospital, In fact, this whole apartment is a reminder of that time—she and my sister moved my belongings in here while they were still waiting for me to wake up from the ventilator. She bought me the bed I recovered in then and will recover in now. Yes, I will be going through a lot physically, but we’ll all be going through a lot emotionally. In other words, we’ll have a lot of time together for me to work on my empathy. And maybe I need to print out this blog, and keep it by my bed for all the times I forget that’s what I’m supposed to be doing.
My relationship with my mom is difficult. She left me with my grandmother in Guyana when I was just three months old so that she could move to New York City, where the public hospital system was heavily recruiting foreign nurses in the early 1970s and through the 80s. True, she did leave so she could give me a better life. And I can’t imagine how she had to steel her heart to leave her newborn behind, an infant she wouldn’t see again except in photographs for nearly three years. It’s not really an unusual immigrant story. And it’s the story that has formed who I am as an artist—I am always excavating that loss, how it has informed every relationship I’ve had since, how it accounts for relationships I cannot seem to start or maintain. Even after four decades, I’m not sure my mother really understands quite how to love me, or even what to make of me. I’m sure I still seem like a foreign object to her. But sometimes, we do connect, and it is clear she is my mother and I am her daughter. When we’re talking about jewelry or perfume, when we’re being smart alecky and making each other laugh on the phone. She’s coming to stay with me for a few days after my surgery, and I’m somewhat anxious. Will this be one of our good times, or will I be counting down the days till she heads home? What follows is a piece I’ve been working on for several years now, about my mother and me in the wake of my hospitalization for pneumonia.
“I saw what a child must love/I saw what love might have done/had we loved in time.” — Mary Oliver
The comb moves in fits and starts through the tangled inches of hair, preceded by the moist shhh of detangler. I sit: my hands have forgotten how to weave braids and even the plastic comb’s weight is too much for the needle-bruised forearms. It is early February. I have been 36 for a month. I have been sick with pneumonia since Thanksgiving, falling from not feeling quite right to walking pneumonia to eight days of a ventilator doing the work my lungs forgot or were too tired or simply didn’t want to do. Even now, the nasal canula leaks oxygen slowly down my nasal cavities to the tender airways to the weary lungs.
After weeks of not eating and not moving, after weeks of lab tests that have bruised my arms the color of eggplant, after consultations by a clown car’s worth of doctors, my muscles no longer work. I can sit up only with the mechanical, imperfect help of the hospital bed. Despite this, the latest nurse has announced that if I don’t comb my hair, she will cut it off.
In a photo from early December, my face glazed with the happiness of my first published book of poetry, my hair hangs past my shoulders, blanketing my neck in loose, glossy ringlets. My mother has stayed out of my hair since I was in second grade, when she discovered that half a thick braid was gone, lopped off in a panic after my awkward attempts at coming my own hair like big girls had left it in what seemed an untamable knot.
My mother’s hands have always seemed to me the hands of a nurse, firm but distant. Now they rake the comb through my sloppy skein of hair, untangling, before weaving the weary strands into several small braids. I sit mutely, comforted by the insistent tugging and scraping. In my mother’s sure fingers there is an antidote to the callousness and carelessness of nurses and aides. “Why can’t you walk?” they ask suspiciously, resentfully even, as I call for assistance in using the bedpan or need my diaper changed.
I have written about my mother and me and illness before, an essay about the cornea transplant in my left eye, a dear friend taking the role of mother. That time, everyone asked, “Is your mother coming for the surgery?” She did not offer, and I did not ask: I didn’t know how to ask those things.
But now, she is here. As her nurse’s fingers have bathed me, rubbed lotion into my steroid-swollen fingers, we have relearned the clumsy language of need. We are back to the beginning—baby powder, sponge baths, a daughter literally reborn. That conversation continues even after I am moved to a rehabilitation center where the occupational therapist insists I comb my own hair to regain the strength in my arms, the dexterity in my fingers. I will roll from side to side, inching my sweat pants up my thickened legs. I will struggle to put on my shirt without getting tangled in the cord that still connects me to oxygen. I also will ask my mother to comb my hair every day, let her mow new paths into my scalp. My mother will braid my hair. I will relax into her hands. We will see what love might do, and we will love in time.