by Silvia E. Hines
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Miriam is lying on a green yoga mat on the living room floor, inverted in the shoulder stand, while an Enya CD plays smoothly in the background. The synthesizer music vibrates deliciously, the words evoking ethereal images: moons, mystery, magic. She’s wearing purple cotton jogging pants and a large pink T-shirt Jenny had left behind, which bunches toward her chin while she holds the inverted position. Her salt-and-pepper hair drapes along the mat.
When she hears a key turn in the front door lock, she remains in her position, knowing it must be Jenny and her friend, appearing for dinner a bit earlier than expected. Jenny enters the room seconds later with a young man, both wearing white medical coats over street clothes.
Jenny wears a bright red stethoscope around her neck, while her companion’s stethoscope is stuffed neatly into the breast pocket of his coat. They’ve been laughing, Miriam can see, and they remain smiling as they take in the scene before them. Miriam smooths her T-shirt to ensure her chest and stomach are covered.
“Hi, sweetie; hi, Josh,” Miriam says with some effort, her larynx constricted in her present position. “What are you doing here so early?”
“Thanks for the big welcome,” Jenny says. “We got out of a seminar early.”
Josh stands aside as though unsure whether Jenny’s mother in this position constitutes too intimate a scene for him to approach. Miriam smiles at him, admiring his slender, athletic build, wondering whether he and Jenny are actually a couple, although Jenny has denied it.
Jenny goes to her mother’s side and bends down to kiss her, not sure how she will accomplish this since her mother’s cheek is so close to the ground. Finally, she bends her head sideways, hoping that shortening the length of her face will help match hers to her mother’s. The stethoscope swings precariously near her mother’s face.
“Hey, that thing is supposed to save lives, not put an end to them,” Miriam says, laughing.
“So, I guess it’s not wise to kiss people in the shoulder stand when you’re wearing a stethoscope,” Jenny says, getting up. “The things they don’t teach you in med school. Why are you hanging out in the shoulder stand, anyway?”
“It’s for my thyroid,” Miriam explains, lowering her legs slowly to the floor. “I’m supposed to hold the position for twenty minutes a day.” She laughs and takes a breath. “And I’m supposed to visualize the gland getting stronger — perhaps bigger or smaller, I can’t remember — while I’m doing it, but I don’t really know what it looks like. Have either of you come across any thyroids in your studies?”
Jenny reaches out an arm and grabs her mother’s hand, helping her rise from the floor. “Let’s see, the thyroid has two lobes, I think, and it sort of looks like a butterfly. But really, Mom, they have good meds for that...” She’s interrupted by a ringing sound and grabs a cell phone from her lab coat pocket.
“Hi Wendy. We’re at my mom’s. Sorry you couldn’t make it.” After a minute, she hands the phone to Josh, “For you. Doesn’t she have your number?”
Josh takes the phone and points to an empty leather pouch attached to the belt loop under his white coat. “I left mine home.” He apologizes to Miriam, moves to a far corner of the room, and speaks softly into the phone.
Miriam rolls up her yoga mat, and she and Jenny sit on the couch. Both open their mouths to speak, but Jenny’s words come first. “It’s great you’re doing a lot of yoga, Mom. So good for your health. Which reminds me: I’ve been meaning to ask; you still haven’t made out your living will and advance directives, have you? Didn’t I leave you the forms?”
Miriam smiles, though her eyes narrow. “I’ve told you before, dear, I haven’t decided what I want to say. It isn’t just a choice between ‘pull the plug or not,’ is it?”
“No, Mom. It’s detailed instructions about what you want done in case you’re dying, or in a vegetative state, or something like that.”
“Well, perhaps I’d want whatever heroic measures modern medicine can muster!” Her voice rises dramatically. “Yes, I’ll have transplants, implants, respirators, all plugs firmly attached, and—”
Jenny laughs and pats her mother’s arm. “Very funny. But seriously—”
“And do they have those cryogenic chambers where they freeze your body or just your head in case they can cure you in the future?”
“You don’t want just your head frozen!” She laughs, “And I give up. I’m going to retrieve Josh.”
Jenny walks toward the corner of the living-dining area where Josh, finished talking on the phone, is perusing framed photographs on the mantel.
Miriam rises from the sofa and walks toward the kitchen. “Jennifer, if I should be near death, I’ll trust you to make all the necessary decisions.”
Before joining Josh, Jenny calls back to her mother: “At least you should note someplace that you want me to be medical conservator if anything happens. What if Aunt Irene gets there first and tells them to pull the plug just a little early?”
“Very funny,” Miriam calls from the kitchen. “Actually, I’ve always imagined myself pulling the plug on Irene.”
“Sibling rivalry never ends, does it?” Jenny says, peering over Josh’s shoulder.
“I heard some of that,” Josh says. “You and your mother are hilarious.”
“She won’t deal with the subject,” Jenny says.
“No, she’s just kidding, can’t you tell? But you’re right about sibling rivalry, though I don’t know how you would know, since you don’t have any siblings.”
“Kidding?” Jenny asks. “My mom is in so much denial, I don’t think she even goes for medical checkups. She won’t talk seriously about death. And it’s because of him.” Jenny retrieves a framed photo of an infant set behind a row of pictures of Jenny at different ages. The baby has a shock of dark hair, a wide lopsided grin, and is wearing a tiny tie-dyed T-shirt.
“You see I really do have a sibling,” she says.
“Your brother,” Josh says, “who died of SIDS, before you were born?”
“The sibling with whom rivalry is not possible.” Jenny closes her mouth abruptly and looks directly at Josh, as though daring him to react.
Josh shakes his head and mutters, “This doesn’t sound like you, Jen. What’s going on?”
Miriam’s voice comes from the kitchen. “Help me bring in the food, please.”
After the three seat themselves at the circular oak dining table, Josh reaches to pick up a sketchpad resting at one side of the table and thumbs through the pages.
“I don’t think Jenny’s mentioned that she draws, so this must be yours?” he says to Miriam.
“I’m going back to it,” Miriam says. “I’ve been getting together with friends at a coffeehouse downtown to do artwork. Do you know the place, The Artful Coffee? I did these sketches last night.”
Jenny looks up from her plate. “Don’t you have a class Thursday nights?”
Miriam frowns. “I’ve decided not to do the computer programming course after all, Jen. Didn’t I tell you?”
“Mom!” Jenny cries shrilly, her attention away from her food. “Why? It took you years, decades maybe, to make the decision and apply. And you always complain about your agency job.”
“You know I’m really not into computers,” Miriam says.
“You would have enjoyed the program, and you’d be good at it. Is this definite, or can you—?”
“It’s definite, dear. And I’ll decide what I enjoy.”
Jenny lowers her voice a bit, but appears determined to go on. “Why are you deciding not to move forward with your life?”
“Calm down,” Josh says, frowning and shaking his head. “Your mother’s good at drawing too.” In his own home, he’s thinking, his mother would be chastising him about his life, his choices. It’s wrong to yell at your mother, he thinks, and wrong to be so critical of her life. Then, for the first time, he wonders whether he’s ever seen his mother’s separate personhood clearly enough to perceive her as making right or wrong choices, moving ahead or staying static. His disapproval is tinged with admiration.
“Jennifer,” Miriam says, her brow wrinkling but her demeanor unruffled. “Why are you so angry at me? What have I done?”
Still agitated, Jenny looks around the room until her eyes rest on the photos on the mantel. “Those pictures of me as a baby—”
Miriam rises from the table and walks quickly to the photo display. “Is there something wrong with these pictures?”
“Yes, there is,” Jenny says, standing and loping over to join her mother. “I’m in my second year of medical school and most of these pictures show me as a cute creature of two or three.” Then, slowly, as though conscious she’s moving to dangerous territory, Jenny picks up the baby picture she’d earlier shown Josh. “And he,” she goes on. “He doesn’t even exist anymore. He’s gone.”
Miriam’s face and posture undergo a momentary shift, but she quickly recovers. “He’s dead,” Miriam says. “So you think I should get rid of his picture? Every time someone dies, you just throw their picture in the trash?”
“No, of course not,” Jenny says. “But you could put it in a drawer somewhere. Dad doesn’t keep his picture out like this, as a constant reminder.”
“How does it hurt you to see his picture here, your brother?”
“I can’t think of him as my brother. I never knew him. And he stayed a baby forever, while I grew up to be... awkward and big.”
“I asked how it hurts you.”
Jenny pauses, now close to tears. She looks at the other two and realizes she knows the answer to this question. “It’s always hurt me,” she says slowly, “because it hurt you so much.” She takes a breath and continues. “And I was jealous of this baby, sitting on the mantel, where you put it after you told me about him. It seemed to me that he was your... favorite child!”
Josh walks over to where the women are standing and makes an ambiguous gesture, midway between grabbing Jenny’s arm and patting her on the shoulder. “Shut up, Jenny,” he says, in an embarrassed whisper. “Come on, you’re being ridiculous.”
Jenny ignores him and faces her mother. “And you never even wanted me to be a doctor. Everyone else’s parents begged them to be doctors, and you wanted me to be a... a naturopath. I think you might have been happier if I’d just been a yoga teacher, or an herbalist... or maybe a witch!”
“Stop that, stop it right now!” Miriam says, grabbing one of Jenny’s and one of Josh’s hands, leading them back to the table. “I mentioned naturopathy once, that’s all. There was nothing wrong with that. You loved going to see Dr. Betty when you were sick, and she gave you those sweet-tasting little homeopathic pellets.”
Jenny isn’t ready to relax out of the rampage she knows she’s created, but there’s a slight softening of her face, and she shifts her position in her chair, unstiffening her shoulders. Her mother retreats to the kitchen, leaving Jenny and Josh to glare at each other.
“Why don’t you lay off your mother?” Josh says. “First, you’re trying to arrange the manner of her death, and then you’re trying to plan her life. I’ve never seen you like this. Why is it so important that your mother change her life?”
Jenny holds Josh’s stare while she thinks about the question. She puts her elbows on the table, resting her brow on her two hands, completely covering her eyes.
“I really don’t know why I’m so angry,” she says. “I think I just resent that... that I didn’t know Ben, and she did. So even though we’ve shared so much, know so much about each other, we can never share Ben.”
Josh nods, encouragingly.
“And Ben’s existence, and his tragic death, were the overwhelming trauma, the defining incident, of her life. Sudden infant death syndrome still colors my mother’s being, forty years later.”
“Okay,” Josh says, grateful for the admission and the new tone. “But why do you need to know everything?”
Jenny smiles. “There was a presentation at that optional psychiatry seminar you and Wendy skipped, about searching for your past and your parents’ past, too. It was intriguing. They claimed we can’t move forward in our lives unless we know what happened to ourselves as children and to our parents as well.”
“That’s an interesting theory,” Josh says, “but I don’t think it’s mainstream psychiatry. It reminds me of that show we saw about family secrets, remember?”
Jenny tells Josh that Ben’s story was once a family secret but that now she knows all about it. “My mom told me about Ben dying when I was six. I was rummaging in her closet and found a sterling silver rattle in the shape of a baseball bat, packed in a little white box, something you would never give a baby girl, even in the seventies, when they dressed girls in blue and made them play with trucks.”
Josh shakes his head from side to side several times. “The trauma of losing an infant is impossible to overcome for some,” he says. “Anxiety and addictions aren’t unusual in survivors, I think.” He pauses. “I’m sorry, I’m being preachy... and pedantic.”
Jenny smiles, released into the kind of mellowness that can follow a storm. “My mom is addicted to sadness, I think. Maybe the reason I came back here for med school was so I could watch over her, and somehow force her to finally get over it.”
“That’s understandable,” Josh says, responding to Jenny’s smile with his own loosening of tension. “Although I think you probably came back to New Haven mostly because you got into Yale Med!”
“I keep wanting her to move on past it,” Jenny says, emphasizing the word it as though to demonstrate its charge. “My father has. Other mothers do. Why can’t she?”
“Could be something about her.” Josh says. “Or something about what happened?”
“Something about what happened?” Jenny repeats with a quizzical look. “I know what happened.”
“Maybe so,” Josh says. “But... I don’t know... did you ever consider that maybe you don’t?”
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Copyright © 2020 by Silvia E. Hines