Here is an example of how my mother works: last year I was dancing in my room, got a little too into it, and ended up dislocating my knee. The pain was so overwhelming that I cried openly in front of everyone, even the attractive, bachelor-age paramedics. So overwhelming that I yelled some less-than-kind words at the doctors who made me wait for two hours in the emergency room, despite that being so removed from my normal disposition. They did x-ray after x-ray despite everyone being able to see my patella sticking out four inches on the lateral side of my knee, stretching my skin out with it. Back to how my mother works, though: when she realized it could take a couple more hours for the doctors to help me, she decided to shove it back in herself.
Kandie, the woman who takes matters into her own hands, is a huge proponent of “advocating for your own health,” which in our family means calling a specialist immediately when anything seems off and searching WedMD Symptom Checker prior to doctor’s appointments in case we can diagnose ourselves. She’s helped us countless times this way; she made a nurse look at my brother’s throat when the nurse was convinced it was a cold, and it was actually strep. She had them do an iron test when the doctor said I just needed more sun, when it was actually anemia.
Despite being such a proponent of good health, my mother also smokes a little more than a pack of cigarettes a day. She started when she was sixteen for the air of rebelliousness it gave her, but cigarettes quickly became an extension of her mouth, as much of her person as her stiletto boots and dark lip liner. When her father finally caught her smoking, he made her swallow the cigarette. She threw up a chunky, reeking mixture of school lunch and tobacco and rolling paper, and he made her chew and swallow that, too. We come from a lineage of tough love where spankings and sharp words are doled out as often as medicine for a cold or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Weakness is reserved for the soft, hollow area at the apex of your skull in infancy, and expected to be just as short-lived.
Kandie calls me at least once a month, and when she inevitably asks how my health is, there is little point in lying to her. Most days I’m sick. I’m allergic to dust and mold, which coat every surface inside and out. Clorox wipes are my best friend, but even these can’t save me. The allergies aggravate my asthma. My hormones are out of balance most of the time. I have a genetic syndrome that makes my heart too big for my body. Sometimes, I feel more time bomb than human.
Explaining these feelings would be both redundant and annoying to Kandie, who understands each pain and twinge and shortness of breath better than myself, since she lives with them as well, and has been doing so for much longer. The genetic syndrome is passed down from her, and despite each of her children having an independent, 50-50 chance of getting the disease, all three of us inherited it. The same happened with my mother and her sister, and her mother and her mother’s mother, and every woman that’s ever come into this legacy of too much cardiac muscle. We joke that we should be playing the lottery, with odds like ours. We joke that the doctors don’t know shit about the probability of inheritance of this syndrome. What are the chances, we say. Before I understood it, before I mastered the technique, I wondered how everyone laughed with their mouths while their eyes stayed angry.
We have had an estranged relationship, Kandie and I, for reasons not entirely divorced from her gift of this syndrome, or her early departure; a year after my twin brother and I were born she left, leaving in her wake my now-single twenty-one-year-old father with a premature baby in each arm, and one bottle of breastmilk each. She knows how to make an exit.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, I knew how to hold a grudge. Everyone around me moved on. My twin brother looked forward to the court-ordained weekly visits with our mom because they meant presents, a trip the city, and no chores. But I liked my chores. I had no need for presents unless they were books. I liked my small house with my dad in the suburbs where we gardened and read and my dad and I bonded over the smell of bleach as we scrubbed the floors together and folded laundry. I liked when we went to church and made iced tea. It wasn’t a personal vendetta against Kandie – I just preferred a different lifestyle.
In the city with my mom, the apartment she lived in seemed to sweat grime. She cleaned once in a while, but by the next week, dirt and grease had inevitably gathered on the floor and tables and walls again. The apartment was alive, if only at a microbial level, and it heaved and shuddered under the layers of dirt. If you were to stay in one spot long enough, I’m sure small flakes of this or that, dandruff from the apartment would settle on your shoulders and begin to take root there, too. I tried to touch things as little as possible. I slept under tables and behind couches, places where the dirt couldn’t reach me.
“I’ll clean, I promise I’ll clean,” Kandie would say to my dad when I cried and refused to leave the car at our drop-off point in Galt. But the damage was done; of course, it was never actually about the lack of cleanliness, it was the unfamiliarity, the distinct loneliness and fear that came with leaving home for someplace that was so different. And in her defense, she did get better. When I was four, I walked into the apartment and there was a new man there. He was tall and black and I didn’t acknowledge his presence. He stayed on the couch in front of the TV.
“Jaycob, Sierra, introduce yourselves for chrissake,” my mom said as she dumped our backpacks on the ground.
Jaycob yelled out a hello and ran upstairs to play. I looked up at Josh. Kandie didn’t usually introduce the men and every person who wasn’t family scared me. “Hello,” I said.
“Hey, Blondie,” He turned to Kandie. “Where’d she get that hair?”
“Her dad was a towhead.” This was a first; I’d never felt ashamed of my appearance before, had never even been aware of it.
“Josh and I got married this weekend,” Kandie said off-handedly in my direction.
“Oh.” I took my book and climbed behind the easy chair.
For a while, Kandie played the roles of wife and mother like she’d been doing it all her life. The apartment was cleaner than it had probably ever been since being constructed in the 50’s. They got a puppy. We all ate dinner together when we were there for the weekend. Time passed, though, and playing dress up can become tiresome. Before long she’d reverted back. No one, not even myself, blames her for this – putting a collar on a lion doesn’t make it a housecat. No one would expect otherwise when it didn’t stay docile. Kandie gave my brother and I NyQuil so we would fall asleep, fed me a small, square, lavender-colored diuretic when I cried that I was hungry after a trip to the zoo. The apartment starting growing dirt again and the dog was pushed outside.
The thing is, what very few people understand, is that love isn’t restricted to pats on the head and gardening, it doesn’t boil cleanly down into compartments of baking cookies and reading stories. A swift, precisely timed blow from the hand to the side of the knee can be just as tender as a kiss on the cheek, if both are timed correctly. So, when security escorted my mother out of the emergency room, they couldn’t conceptualize her thought process. They hadn’t grown up with her, couldn’t possibly get it. They saw her steely look, her determined eyes and mouth set in a line as she approached her daughter on the stretcher, but they didn’t know to translate it into love.
Sierra Freeman is a California native. In September she will begin her Master’s degree program in English at Stanford University, where she also completed her undergrad. Afterward, she plans to continue her writing career, hopefully staying on the West Coast. She has been writing since childhood but only recently began working with nonfiction. Check out her other work on her blog, “Please, Have a Seat.”