An Infected Ear
It had to be that Sunday—the one day we were all unreachable—that an infection decided to bloom without warning, full and malicious, in my mom's left ear. Sundays were when my dad drove to Andrews Air Force base for military reserve training and my brother slept off a long, party-filled night that left hazy memories. That Sunday I happened to be hiking three hours away with friends on a trail up South Mountain in Maryland.
My mom had attended Sunday service alone that morning and then took a nap in the early afternoon. When she opened her eyes, a pressurized, pulsating bulge had blown up to the brim of her brain, pushing against her skull with an unbearable might. The titanic and unstoppable nature of this pain rendered her speechless. When she finally remembered to take a breath, she realized she had gone completely deaf on one side. She heard instead a ghostly cacophony, as though phantoms were crying out for her on the other side of a concrete wall. Our phones were all turned off. She left the same quiet voicemail for each of us, “It's mom. My head is in pain—I think it's an ear infection. I'm driving myself to the hospital.”
I was the first one to the emergency room. It had been over an hour since she left the voicemail. She was still waiting to see a doctor and her body was bent over the chair next to her. A sheen of sweat glistened on her forehead like ice. It was as if I was viewing an ancient work of art: one hand delicately touched the side of her head while the other laid on her lap, palm up and open. It was easier to see her as such—because you are never prepared for it: the fragility of your mother; this only becomes a Real Thing at that moment when you first bear witness to how pain can completely conquer her body and spirit. And since I was so struck, my speech was robbed just like my mother's. My tongue simply floundered and went dead in my mouth.
I flashed back to the day a pigeon crashed into our sliding glass door when I was seven years old. I remembered kneeling down, hovering over the dying bird—its brown and white chest rising and falling with violence. I took one of my father's gardening gloves and placed it underneath the bird—a futile gesture. Its glazed, marble eye stared into mine until its last breath. I then carried the pigeon with white, gloved hands to the edge of our backyard and buried it without feeling; I remembered being struck by its extraordinary weight. That was when I first learned that my remorse did nothing to change events in the world.
I sat next to my mother; we exchanged no words. The room was frigid. I remained quiet as a stone. By mirroring her stillness, I believed that, in the least, I would not get in her way.
Although her body was petite and compact, the ear infection had somehow managed to both reduce and swell her at the same time, with all the effort it took to suppress the pain. I forced myself to repress my thirst from the hike, to not lick my dry lips in her presence. Some children know how to console their parents. Their affection remains raw and undiluted and thus easily conveyed. You see it all the time: a son pats his mother's back, a daughter hugs her dad. Some children are capable of these things. But I was not one of these children.
Whenever my mother and her two sisters and three brothers gathered under one roof, they ritually reminisced about their immigrant childhood in rural Tennessee. They cackled recalling schoolyard fights against kids twice their size who grabbed their hair, punched their chests and threw gravel at them, while sneering, “stupid, no-good chinks!” I would listen with rapt eagerness to the romance of these bloody fights and exchanged slurs, the subway beatings and robberies. My mother wrinkled her nose recalling the long lines of cockroaches marching upon her bedroom wall. I soaked up what I perceived as glamorous stories of the hardship of my mom mopping sticky tiled floors at the local Hot Shoppe and my grandmother cleaning up after filthy guests as a hotel maid. In this new world were both my mother and grandmother forged: indestructible, indivisible elements transformed out of necessity. Although my aunts' and uncles' mouths remained upturned during such recollections, their eyes inevitably turned dark as soot, and remained dark long after. My mother would always turn to me at the end, shaking my arm like a log in the fireplace, to make sure I had listened.
And so we remained, not touching or speaking. The air conditioning continued to whistle from the upper vents. White blood cells continued to mass and deluge within. A daughter continued to resemble a statue, mute and unmoving. Because how to comfort a thing that just this morning was the essence of invulnerability?
Right then, a young couple came into the emergency room. Their impeccable, tanned skin remained flattering even under the harsh fluorescent lights. Their affluent whiteness sang through the room like a chorus of birds, unyielding. The woman was moaning with her hands clutched to her stomach and eyes shut. The jewels on her fingers sparkled, her mauve eye shadow complemented her glowing skin. Her chiseled husband held her in his arms—an image taken straight from one of those paperback romance novels that my aunt read as a teenager—and eased her into the chair with gentle coos. She continued to moan, over and over and over again. Louder and louder and louder each time. She wanted the entire hospital to know she was there and needed help without delay.
Her noise and behavior made me flush with wrath. How undignified she was! Her shamelessness loaded me up like a shotgun, my face the muzzle—I was desperate to strike the primer and lodge some brass into her throat to stifle her cries. My eyes flitted towards my mom who had been sitting in silence for nearly two hours, bothering no one, asking for no one. I was holding the gasping pigeon once more in gloved hands—I was re-learning the hardest of lessons. Any gestures I made towards my mother would have acted as mere, ugly symbols of pity.
I walk over to the groaning woman, this toad of a woman, as she sits there splayed out like a bare turkey bone. My fingers grip her throat to cut off her cries—long enough so that she passes out. I am able to do the same to the husband, so that they both lay on the emergency room floor—dolls abandoned by their owners. She is breathing lightly; perspiration evaporates off her forehead. I get close to her face; we almost touch nose to nose. She smells of gold coin. I slap her across the face. I kick her stomach, right where she was rubbing. I kick her several more times and with each impact of my foot her body moves closer and closer to the potted fern leaning against the corner of the room. I spit into her perfectly conditioned blonde hair. I walk back to my mom on the other side of the room, rejuvenated, as if coming out of a cold lake. We do not speak of what happened. I'm giddy, lighter than air. I take my mother by her hand, and squeeze it comfortingly. The nurse calls her name. The doctor comes out to usher her into a private room—the curtain opens into a dizzyingly sun-filled space, as if we are in a field. The bird I buried resurrects from its rough dirt mound and lands on the windowsill of the room. My aunts and uncles are there as well and I am able to laugh with them as they laugh darkly at their past. I am all-powerful—my mom looks at me—I am her oasis—the world is at my command. And after her left ear is induced to burst, painlessly, we leave hand in hand. My love for her can finally drown out my fear.