Not 10-Years-Old

rxHalloween 1979. I am 10-years-old. And too sick to go trick-or-treating.

In my diary, the one I have received earlier in month for my birthday – covered in blue flowers, with a lock, and the smell of old-lady perfume – I write, “I still have the ammonia.”

My mother cannot bear to tell me it is pneumonia, not ammonia that has me walking to the bathroom on tiptoes, holding my head, because full steps hurt too much.

This is not the first time. For three years in a row I have been diagnosed with either pneumonia, bronchitis or both. Always at this time of year – the season of ghosts and goblins, copious amounts of candy, the addition of one hour, and my birthday.

And then one day…nothing.

Seems I have outgrown my respiratory weariness.

Until now.

I am walking up the stairs of the metro station at Puerta Del Toledo. My head is spinning. My eyes are dry. My throat, itchy and sore. I felt this coming on at lunch yesterday but had hoped to ward it off by jumping into bed early that night. I have already been sick twice this season.

But this time is different. I feel it in my lungs.

They are heavy. It is as if I can feel each alveola filling with air. I walk to my student’s home, trying to will the illness away. By 1 p.m. I am canceling my Spanish lesson and sending texts in hopes of finding others to take on my evening responsibilities.

I receive a deluge of responses, all with the same message – “Go to the doctor.”

A friend of mine, a native Madrileno, offers to make an appointment for me.

“Tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. Text me when you arrive.”

“Does the doctor speak English?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

A little more than 12 hours later, I text her.

“Call me if you need help,” she writes.

Somehow I have gotten it in my head that she is meeting me here, but clearly I am confused. She is at work and I am fuzzy and unclear about pretty much everything.

“Okay,” I write back.

I check in, more or less without incident. And at 9:30, the doctor herself calls me into the exam room.

“Habla Ingles?” I ask, crossing both fingers and toes.

“No.”

I burst into tears.

“Lo siento. Lo siento. (I’m sorry. I’m sorry.),” I squeak.

I am sick. I am overwhelmed. I am scared.

I am 10-years-old, holding my head and walking on my toes, missing Halloween.

And yet clearly I am not. I am 47 and in Madrid, typing back and forth with the doctor using Google Translate – telling her about my symptoms and my medical history.

She takes my temperature. She listens to my lungs. She checks my oxygen levels.

No fever. My lungs are clear. But she wants to run a blood test to find out why I keep getting sick.

I do not understand what she is saying, even with the translator. Probably because this idea is foreign to me.

I remember being in the emergency room in Chicago. Once a heart attack was ruled out, they sent me home.

“So what is it?”

Shrug. “Not a heart attack.”

The doctor calls my friend the Madrileno, who translates.

I get a prescription for ibuprofen and lozenges, as well as for blood work. The doctor schedules an appointment for a follow-up visit – with her English-speaking colleague.

I look at my watch. I have been in her office for an hour. A line of patients sit waiting in red chairs in the hallway.

I go downstairs and have my blood taken, then walk to the train – gingerly, nearly on my toes. On the way, I call one of my girlfriends to tell her “it is not the ammonia.”

“Good,” she says. She tells me that I have done a brave and scary thing — navigating the healthcare system of a foreign country in a language that I don’t quite know.

“Guess you can handle more than you think,” she says.

Guess I am not 10-years-old.

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My Last Conversation With My Birth Mom. Part One

My birthmom as a girl, in the blue.  My ex says I look just like her.
My birthmom as a girl, in the blue. My ex says I look just like her.

I don’t remember my last conversation with my birth mom.

I remember a brief talk we had from the car, when she told me to call her when I could sit down and really talk.  I did, a few days later.  But I don’t quite remember what I said.  Or what she said.  Something about paying bills.

I had gotten used to the idea that she would be around for a while.  I had forgotten she was sick.

A little more than six months ago I got a call that she was in the hospital, unresponsive.  That if I wanted to see her before she died, it was time to go.  So I went.

By the time I arrived in Charleston 36 hours later, she was sitting up, drinking chocolate milk — the occasional expletive flying out of her mouth.  She was “fine.”

But she wasn’t fine.  She was hooked up to tubes and machines.  She looked frail.  The doctors were pushing her to make decisions about the end of her life.  She wasn’t having any of it.

I had imagined sitting next to her, stroking her hand and telling her everything I never got a chance to tell her and wondering if she heard any of it.

Instead, we had a dance party in her room.  I danced.  She held  my hand.  We listened to Motown — naturally.

I sang to her and rubbed her feet and we talked about boys — the one I had just met, the one that was my biological father, the one I used to be married to.

She told me she had written my ex off as “dead,” as she and her friends were wont to do.  Fiercely protective of me.  I told her she didn’t have to.  That he was a good man.  “But he hurt you,” she said.

“It’s ok.  I’m ok,” I said.  And she softened.

And yet, when I left her I was certain I wouldn’t talk to her again.  Wouldn’t see her again.  Neither turned out to be true.

We continued our conversations as she was moved from hospital to hospital to rehabilitation center to home.  None of us believed she would ever go home, let alone live another six months.  But she was determined.  And when Pharen got an idea in her head, it was hard to derail her.

And so, over a six month period, I was lulled into a sense of security.  A belief that she would “be there.”  Our conversations felt less dramatic.  Less desperate.  Less “this might be the last time we talk.”

I was surprised when I got the call that she died. And yet, there was a peace in not knowing our last conversation would be just that. That we could just talk, like people do. Like we had learned to do. 

 

 

Looking For Myself At My Mother’s House

me and momI’m at my mother’s home.  I’ve only been here once before – three or so years ago.

When I pull up I am not sure I am at the right house.  It looks different than I remember, so I call her from the rental car to make certain I am in the right driveway.  That 173 is the correct address.  It is.  And she comes through the garage to greet me.

Inside, the house does not look familiar.  I did not grow up here.  It has been too long since I have visited.

I look around the house.  There is a photograph of my brother and his son.  Another of him with both of his children.  There are photographs of my stepfather’s children and grandchildren.  His mother.  My mother and her brother when they are wee.  A sepia-colored family photograph, taken when my Papa Barney, my great-grandfather, was still alive.

There is nothing of me.

The 43-year-old in me says, “It’s not all about you.”  The 7-year-old says, “Why aren’t there any pictures of me?”  The 7-year-old wins.   And I ask, as casually and with as much detachment as I can muster.

My mother responds without missing a beat.  “All the pictures I have of you have your ex-husband in them.  So we have to take new ones.”

My mother is black and white when it comes to her children.  Anyone who messes with her kids is out.  Period.  Even if she liked them very much, which is the case with my ex-husband.  I remember the first time they met. I woke up the next morning and found them eating leftover birthday cake for breakfast, still in their pajamas.  Thick as thieves.

She takes me into her bedroom and shows me a single photograph of myself, flanked by her and my stepfather.  We are eating ribs and pulled pork.  My mother swore I wouldn’t eat it but I surprised her.  I told her my friend Jerry had turned me on to pork ribs at a BBQ a couple of years prior.  How the little Jew now threw down pork with the best of them.

My mother has cut my ex out of the photograph.  I cannot tell that he was ever there.

Later we look at photographs, as we do every time I visit.  It is my desire, not necessarily hers, and she appeases me.  There are, in fact, photographs of my ex-husband.  Of visits.  Of our wedding.  His hair is dark.  I do not remember him that way.  He has been gray now as long as I can remember. 

The photographs are tucked away in a box, along with my wedding invitation, cards and notes, and her wedding photograph – the one from her first marriage to my father.

There are other photographs, lots of them.  Me as an infant, dressed in red and white checks, sobbing.  At 5, with my jeans rolled up, playing in the surf in Malibu.  At 16, in a black dress with a hood.  We are at a family party.  I think I am punk rock.  My mother is next to me, swathed in winter white, smiling.

My 27 years before meeting my ex, stacked, rubber-banded and tucked into a Ziploc baggie marked “Lesley.” 

I stretch out my arms, point my phone at our faces, and take a photograph of the two of us.  I love doing this. I never know how we will capture ourselves in the moment.  The photograph is always a surprise.  Sometimes we are half a face.  A nose.  Only eyes.

I turn the phone around to look at our picture.  We are framed perfectly.  Centered.