Every two weeks, I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is “Frontal Lobe Release” by Sarah Piazza. She is a teaching assistant in a second grade classroom. She earned a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University before relocating to central Pennsylvania and raising two sons there. For many years she maintained a parenting blog called Slouching Towards Forty. She writes creative nonfiction and poetry.
This essay was edited by Meg Pillow.
Mostly I remember my mother sleeping. I’d be working to perfect my split on the hallway carpet just in front of her bedroom door, and I’d strain to hear a sigh, a rustle, the sharp suck that accompanied the first drag of her morning cigarette. Sometimes it was her afternoon cigarette, because sometimes it was three o’clock before she’d emerge, her face still creased with sleep.
“What are you doing here?” she’d snap. “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
I didn’t have anything better to do. Even if I had homework left to finish, I wouldn’t budge from my spot in the hallway, the spot I’d claimed for so long that the carpet was threadbare. I craved my mother just as she craved her cigarettes.
Her patience for other people was reed-thin, and I tested it often. Even at eight I chattered, hoping to jolt her if not by the cleverness of my words then by the sheer number of them. Responses like “Can’t you see I’m reading?” failed to daunt me. A gerbil on a wheel, I was willing to spend hours in motion for one misshapen, stale bit of food: a raised eyebrow, a glance my way, a smile.
I’d seen her smile in pictures. I’d dug through boxes of old photographs for clues about what was true. In one picture, my mother reclined on a chaise lounge. It was Christmas morning 1969, and she was wearing a mauve silk robe. My mother loved clothes and never denied herself the pleasure of purchasing them. In her book, more expensive was tautologically better; value was determined entirely by price. Her hair, longer than I’d ever seen it, curled at her neck and fell with artful casualness over one eye. She looked soft, receptive. I was thirteen months old, perched on her knees and dressed in white tights and a forest green velvet vest. Her head was thrown back, and she was laughing. It was impossible to tell who, or what, had made her look so delighted. She wasn’t looking at me, nor I at her. We might as well have been in different photographs.
The smiles my mother shone on me were wry and sad. Within them was an acknowledgment that her marriage to my father had failed and that my brother and I were the embodiment of that life-altering mistake, much as she had thought she wanted us. She had wanted us, in the way one covets a pair of the sleekest boots, only to try them on and find that they pinch at the calf and toes and look ridiculous on anyone with thighs wider than a pencil.
Each day when I step into the nursing home, I brace myself and consider the question: Which mother will I find today? Among all the white-haired octogenarians I spy one familiar head of mahogany hair, no grey to be found, although its owner is seventy-two years old. She remains startlingly attractive, profile as elegant as ever: flawless olive skin, naturally red lips, brows full and well-shaped. Adding makeup to her face would have ruined it. It was simply perfect, perfectly simple. Yet if you happened to come upon her in the nursing home, you’d miss the beauty, distracted by just how tiny she is. Years of restricted eating caused osteoporosis, which left her five feet tall and all of eighty pounds.
I thread my way through walkers, canes, and wheelchairs toward the dining room’s corner table where my mother—whose head is barely visible above the back of her child-sized wheelchair—is having lunch with three interchangeable women defined more by their lack of alertness than by anything else. One of them is, in fact, sleeping, her tray of food still wrapped. Her chin rests on her neck as if it’s always done so. She seems past needing to eat. If she sleeps through the meal, I muse, what will they do with her food? I suppress the urge to pat my mother on my head and then give in to it because she seems like an infant now—on good days a toddler—and I would do the same to a baby. She turns, squints at me with stroke-damaged eyes, and beams.
My mother, formerly of the half-smile, is radiant. Too soon her face crumples. “You didn’t come yesterday,” she says, glaring at me.
“No, you’re right, I didn’t. I had to work yesterday,” I say.
“Oh,” she sighs, fretful and dissatisfied. Her clouded eyes flash. She is close to derailing. A few seconds later she is wailing because she doesn’t have her very favorite classical CD in the nursing home, and no one can find it in the chaos of her apartment as it’s being readied to sell. She is wild-eyed with grief and pain. Is this my mother, who preferred frosty silences and looks to direct confrontation, who cried in front of me only once in all the time I lived under her roof?
I think I was seven when I knocked on the door of her bedroom to tattle on my older brother for ripping apart my favorite doll at her seams. I didn’t notice the absent look on my mother’s face when finally she opened the door. Her eyes weren’t locked on me but rather on some spot far behind and to the right of me. I prattled on, oblivious, until she became enraged. She shrieked, “Leave me be!” and slammed the door in my face. I started sobbing. She threw the door open and took me in her arms. And what was this? She was crying, tears coursing down her cheeks.
“Oh, darling, I’m so sorry,” she moaned. “Did I hurt you?”
I nodded, pointed to my face. She retrieved an ice pack from the kitchen and pressed it against the bridge of my nose.
It was wondrous, this unexpected gift of twenty minutes of her time, a drug far superior to me than her cartons and cartons of cigarettes could have been to her. What’s more, my nose didn’t hurt. Not even slightly. Because the door had slammed close to me—so close that I’d felt a rush of air on my face—but not on me. I was so desperate to claim my mother’s attention that I’d lied for it.
Every now and then I carry a milkshake into the nursing home. This gesture thrills my mother, the same mother who used to abhor sugary drinks. Now sugar is what she covets. In this, she's not unlike my children. For me it's yet more proof that she has disappeared, locked inside this woman I don't know.
I sit at the side of her bed, and I put the straw to her lips. I take it away when she’s had enough. Each time she fights me for the straw. The nursing home staff notes her impulsivity and tells me that she has little to no awareness of her condition. Each time she chokes on the milkshake, she coughs and spits pink milk back out at me.
The first time it happened, I was unprepared. “Oh!" I exclaimed, looking down at the droplets all over my coat and attempting to wipe the sticky sweetness off of my neck and face. I think I expected her to apologize. My once-upon-a-time mother would have been horrified, even repulsed, by the idea that she had sprayed me with her drink. My now-mother didn't bat an eye.
I stood up and said, "I'm going to wash up in the bathroom. I'll be right back."
"You can't go," she called after me, and slammed the cup down on her nightstand. “I'm not finished with my milkshake."
It was then that I realized: my mother is not who she was.
Every Monday evening when I was eleven and twelve, we'd drive up from the city to New Rochelle. I'd press my nose up against the car window and try to catch a glimpse of the interiors of the houses in the therapist's neighborhood. Would I be happy in this house, with this family? I'd think. I believed the suburbs held the answers I was looking for. If nothing else, all the missing fathers were here. When my mother drove by a man and his son raking leaves, I'd imagine myself in that yard, a daughter to that dad. I was certain that he was a good dad. After all, he hadn't left.
The family therapist's home was an elegant Tudor on an elm-lined street. The entrance to his office was off to one side of the house, for discretion's sake. He smoked a pipe. It smelled strong and sweet. The therapist was clearly an extravagant admirer of red Eames furniture. In the midst of all the red was a zebra-striped rug on the floor. I always sat on that rug. It looked soft but felt prickly, a betrayal of sorts. My mother and brother took the chairs.
The therapist's name was Tom. These were the seventies, when kids called psychologists by their first names. I spent most of therapy fantasizing about Tom's family. I was jealous of his children, although I'd never met them. They had the run of the house, while I was confined to this one smoky room in which my mother and brother tried and failed to navigate his adolescence and growing independence.
It seemed to me that one day soon my mother and brother might even kill each other. So strong was their push and pull that at times I hid from them. One afternoon my brother shut himself in the bathroom with a steak knife and threatened to cut himself with it.
“Unlock this door!” my mother screamed, over and over, to no effect.
Most often I stayed silent, absorbing, but that afternoon it was all too much and I myself started screaming, just to get the two of them to stop. It worked. My brother opened the door, and he had not even broken skin.
The therapy, then, was neither for me nor about me. I was the child who did not scream. I knew my role, as did Tom.
Tom never spoke to me unless it was to ask me to verify a statement made by my mother or brother. Once he abruptly turned my way and said, Still waters run deep, you know. I didn’t yet know the meaning of the word trite, but I did know how to roll my eyes at him. Still, he wasn’t wrong.
Here’s the thing about strokes, or at least my mother’s stroke. While it has used rough hands to dig deep, mucking about in areas of the brain that control the various facets of her personality, it has also released her frontal lobe, allowing her to articulate the longest held and most deeply buried truths about herself, her children, and her ex-husband, truths I had never before been able to confirm.
One night in December, my brother sits, head in hands, legs splayed out on the dated pink and teal carpet of Room 204. My mother has just told him that he has never been able to do something without screwing it up. Hearing it aloud must be excruciating. But it also has to be a relief, the knowledge that everything is on the table now.
It’s also a relief when my mother turns to me and says, “All your attentions since my stroke? Your daily visits? They do nothing, absolutely nothing, to improve the quality of my life.” I gasp at this information: so raw, so late in coming, so admirably honest. At last. It hurts, of course, but I do recognize its truth. I find myself in my mother’s tiny bathroom with no knowledge of how I got there. I am slumped in a corner, and I am sobbing into a towel. I wonder whether this pain will be the pain that kills me. When instead the pain speaks to me, I listen. It asks, Aren’t you tired of being her daughter? Is it possible that with these words I can be free of her? I feel suddenly powerful. I can leave this room. I can leave. At forty-one years old, I stand up and shake off the good daughter mantle. The towel hits the floor. I don’t pick it up.
Every summer, my family escaped from the city to the northwest corner of Connecticut, a place dense with foliage and riddled with mosquitoes. I always had the bites to prove it. They'd take over my arms and legs, these fresh, swollen pink mounds interspersed with scabbed-over sores.
I was seven, and it was late August. For weeks I'd watched the tawny, golden-haired older boys race around the clubhouse. Their footfalls shook the floors of the rickety wooden building where we got dressed and undressed in narrow, dank stalls and where above us, the non-swimmers played rowdy, hotly contested games of ping-pong.
But I was a little fish, even though the lake was so cold that it hurt down to the bone when I'd finally waded in enough to dunk my head in the water, even though the lake was choked with moss and alarmingly spongy underfoot. I’d been swimming for at least a few years, but the rules at the club were that kids seven and under had to stay in a crescent-shaped shallow area, roped in by buoys and far too skinny in the middle. I hated it there. Every now and then my legs, when not brushing against slimy tendrils of lakeweed, would hit a warm patch. I'd sigh and whip around to catch Mrs. Hollander’s youngest boy behind me in the act of peeing underwater, his face turned to the sun, beatific.
All summer I’d gazed with increasing hostility and envy at the older boys and girls who were allowed to swim to the first raft, a glorious place made more so by my fierce desire for it. A slide, robin's egg blue, sat at the far end of the raft. There were no restrictions on how a kid might make his way down the slide. Head first, feet first, on belly or back, it was all fair game. The only “rule” was that the bigger the splash the slider made, the worthier the trip.
My brother was among the happy crowd of first-raft kids good-naturedly jockeying for position in line, eager to take a ride down the slide kept brilliantly shiny by near-constant contact with wet swimsuits. Not since that summer have I so acutely felt the pain of being a younger sibling. I made a decision that day that was entirely out of character for me: I was going to swim to the first raft. Adults were always taken aback by how tiny I was. I'd been born premature, and I hadn't yet caught up to my peers in height or weight. But I was stronger than the adults guessed.
I looked around to make sure the teen lifeguard, his hair white blonde and so long it curled at his shoulders, wasn't watching. He was never watching. He was busy socializing with the long-haired girls in their halter-top string bikinis, and who could blame him? So I began to swim steadily, intently. I'd made it three-quarters of the way before my mother spotted me. I hesitated, looked back at the shore, and saw her hands waving about in the air. Her mouth gaped open, frighteningly wide, but I couldn't hear her words. No matter. She looked mad and mad. Both meanings of the word fit her equally that afternoon. Understand this: My mother was not only concerned for my well-being. She was also furious because my “indiscretion” had interrupted her ongoing flirtation with a genial, balding fellow named John, one of the only eligible men at the club.
Her indignant squawks roused the lifeguard from his blissed-out stupor. In a flash, he was in the water and at my side. He lifted me out of the lake and carted me like a football to shallower water. In his clutches I was rigid with fury—and humiliation, too, as nearly every pair of eyes at the club was now focused on me. Never one for scenes, I kept thinking, If you had let me finish what I started, we'd all just be going about our business right now.
I would have made it to that first raft. And had I slid gleefully off the slide and back into the familiar dark green stew we called a lake, I would have been able to preserve the truth of my own strength, a smooth stone in my pocket that I could have caressed at will whenever I needed a reminder.
Lately I’ve been wondering what any of us owes our parents beyond the most basic sense. Yes, we owe them our existence, but what does it take to carry, then birth, a child, and is that effort worth a lifetime of allegiance to a person who may not deserve it?
I visited my mother in Room 204 most days until the time came for her to be transferred to a less restrictive nursing home back in New York, where she had lived most of her life and where even after her stroke she felt more at home. While she was still in my town, I brought her the things she asked for: I heard on the radio about this book on the economy. I don’t know its name, don’t know who wrote it. Could you find it for me, Sarah?
“Sure, Mom, sure,” I said. The next day, my husband found the volume at the bookstore, an amazing feat. I handed it to her, and she was transiently grateful. Did she know that since her stroke she couldn’t read? What did she know?
When I was younger, I might have wasted hours on the internet attempting to track down an audio version of that book. Now I simply offered her the paperback that she would never read, kissed her on the cheek, and told her I had to go. There were always groceries to buy, soccer practices to attend, sleepovers to host. I added that I would see her soon, but not tomorrow, and maybe not the next day, either.
Once when I was an early teenager, I noticed that newly hanging from a post on one side of my mother’s headboard was a necklace of deep blue glass beads. Painted on each bead was a bright white and yellow design, a swirl or an eye, a triangle or a sun. I bounced onto her bed and pointed to the necklace. “What’s that?” I asked.
“Stop bouncing,” she said, and frowned. “Oh, those. A friend gave them to me. They’re called worry beads. Can you imagine something so new-agey, so ridiculous?” She laughed.
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t help thinking that she could really use those worry beads, and I could, too. I don’t know what happened to them. My mother has died, and I cannot ask her.
Just the other day I was thinking of those beads, and I remembered my childhood wish to have some truth, that stone in my pocket, to reassure me: Yes, you are strong. But in middle age I am beyond needing talismans. I know that I am strong. I understand how to manage worry when it creeps in. I am an adult, despite it all.
When my mother was still alive, I would often use the bathroom near the front door of the nursing home. It’s where I dabbed at the milky stains she spit onto my clothes, where I glanced at myself in the mirror and stopped, transfixed by the unfamiliarity of the woman who met my gaze. If my mother was a stranger to me on Thursdays but on Sundays the essence of her former self, then who was I?
It has been more than a decade since her death. Once in a while, when I look at myself in the mirror, I like to bypass familiarity and pretend that I am a stranger to myself. As I do I find myself tracing the contour of my cheekbone, so like hers. My eyes too, hazel today, amber tomorrow, remind me that I am my mother’s daughter. But the resemblance ends there.
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