I learned to make macaroni and cheese the first time my mother was in traction for her back, because as she lay in a hospital bed, it was me who made dinner for my father and siblings. The second time my mother was in traction, I mastered grilled cheese. By the time she had back surgery when I was in junior high, I could roast a chicken, rubbing its skin with a mixture of vegetable oil and paprika to make it crisp.
My mother’s back went out so often, one of the predominant childhood memories I have is of her standing in her blue and white bathrobe on the white tiled floor of our hallway, her upper body hunched over like an upside down “J,” her right hand holding the spot on her back where it hurt. If you floated her sideways, her arm would look like a shark’s fin. Her back pain was so bad sometimes, she would take painkillers, so when she kissed us goodbye and sent us off to school, her eyelids were sometimes half closed and her speech slightly slurred.
I hated that she was incapacitated, I hated that I had to make dinner sometimes because of it, and I hated that the drugs she took for it made her groggy and unavailable….until my own back went out. I’ve pulled my back out five times in three years now – most recently last week. I was in the shower and bent down to shave my left leg when all of a sudden BAM! I had a back spasm that sent the razor flying, and I couldn’t stand up straight. As I stood hunched over in the shower, I saw that the head of my razor — which is three blades surrounded by a thick waxy wedge of shaving cream and lubricant – was lying directly under the stream of water. These razor heads cost about $4 a piece and don’t last very long, and I’d just put on a new one. I watched the water beating down on the wedge of shaving cream and lubricant, eroding it, and despite my pain, I began kicking it out of the path of the water so that it didn’t waste away.
I hobbled out of the shower with soap still on my body and took a couple of ibuprofen and lay down on the rug in the hall just outside my son, Eddie’s room. He was still in his crib, and I could hear him talking to himself. When he wakes up, he usually talks for about 20 minutes before it descends into whining – the signal that he wants to come out of his crib. I had already gone downstairs and prepared his morning bottle of milk, and I had it in my hand. I continued to lay there waiting for the last possible moment to give it to him because I knew once I did and he’d finished it, he would want to come out of his crib, and at that moment, I didn’t think I could lift him.
As I lay there on the floor, I thought of the night before when I was in a bar, half into a martini, and I was chatting gaily with a waitress about being an older parent.
“Tell your friend she can have a baby at any age!” I said, not quite slurring. “Look at me! I had Eddie at 47! It’s eeee-aaa-sy!”
The very next morning, snap! My back seizes up like a badly-oiled transmission.
It’s not even like I was lifting something heavy. But then these things never happen that way. They occur when you lean over to pick up a crumb or a strand of hair. My mother once dislocated her shoulder playing mah jong.
Laying there, I realized I had no choice but to call our babysitter, Jean, and ask her if she could come over to get Eddie out of his crib and take him for a few hours.
She arrived quickly, changed Eddie’s diaper and got him dressed for the day, as I stood hunched over and watched, my hand holding the spot on my back that was injured. I followed the two of them downstairs to the kitchen and as Jean gave Eddie his breakfast, I sat with them eating a bagel, chatting away until I felt another spasm. And a few minutes later, another.
Jean told me to lie down, and she said she would take Eddie to her house for a few hours. I walked with them to the front door and stood inside the screen door as Jean carried Eddie out to the front porch, down the stairs and buckled him into his stroller. As she unlocked the wheels and was about to leave, I kept trying to say goodbye to Eddie, calling his name and waving, but he wouldn’t even look at me. As she pushed the stroller down the street, Eddie stared straight ahead.
My husband, Bruce, came home from work early, and I remained in bed for about 48 hours, first upstairs in our bedroom and then downstairs on the futon couch, which had been opened up so I could be in the living room with Eddie. By the third morning, I was aching to hold him, but I didn’t think I could handle the weight. I still couldn’t stand up straight, and I continued to have pangs of pain if I turned or leaned the wrong way. I asked Bruce to put Eddie on the futon bed so I could have him near me. He placed the child on the far end of the bed and went into the kitchen to wash dishes. Eddie remained in the farthest corner, playing with a plastic cup holder from his old bottle warmer, despite my calling his name and beckoning him to come over. After a few minutes, he got bored and tried to get down from the futon but chose to do it on the side where the bed meets the wall and got stuck between the two. By the time Bruce heard me calling him for help, Eddie was crying.
“He’s stuck,” I said, stating the obvious.
Bruce lifted Eddie up and placed him back on the futon and began undressing him for his bath. I started to tell Bruce how an interesting phenomenon had occurred with my back in that in my attempts to avoid pain in one spot, I’d inadvertently pulled muscles and tendons all over my back, effectively distributing the pain everywhere like dots in a Seurat painting. Bruce’s response was, “He’s trying to touch his penis.”
“He’s trying to touch his penis. He can’t get to it all day because he’s in a diaper,” he said.
“Did you even hear what I said?” I asked. “I feel like I’ve been trying to talk to you all morning, but when you were in the kitchen, you couldn’t hear me because the music was on, and then the water was running, and now you’re in here, and I’m talking to you, and you’re not even listening.”
If I could sum up most of the fights in our relationship, they would sound like this: “You’re not listening to me!” And then I stomp my foot on the ground, like a petulant child. At least that’s how Bruce sees it. Me, I believe I’m a scintillating conversationalist with keen insights whose brilliance is wasted on a man who doesn’t hear me because his head is often somewhere else, and his ears seem to follow. But having been in pain for two days, and feeling frustrated and sorry for myself, instead of stopping there, I got madder.
“I hate you. You make me unhappy. You make me unhappy for him.”
But my anger was less about Bruce and more about feeling like in the last 48 hours, I had lost Eddie. I’d worked so hard from the moment he was born to entertain him and love him, and wrestle him away from my husband, to whom he seemed so naturally inclined. And after months and months of singing to him, doing vaudeville in front of his crib when he first woke up, playing games with him on the floor during the day, bringing him to the beach, reading to him, buying him soft toys, serenading him with my guitar, I indeed did win his affections. While his first words were “Da! Da!” he soon started saying, “Mumm. Mumm,” and he’s been saying it ever since. And yet in two days, I had lost all of that. There’s an accounting term called Goodwill, which is the value of a business not directly attributable to its assets and liabilities. It refers to things like reputation, the cache of its name, like Bloomingdale’s or Godiva. In 48 hours, I had lost all of the goodwill I had built up with Eddie, like what happened to BP after the oil spill. I thought of a man on my writers’ forum, who, for years, was enormously helpful to everyone when it came to computer-related matters, but one afternoon, as a silly prank, he sent people to a web site that was meant to be funny, but it wound up crashing a lot of peoples’ computers temporarily, and they got really mad. In seconds, he wiped away years of goodwill – poof! — and was nearly blacklisted from the writers’ forum.
Ironically, as my back mended over the next few days, it was not Bruce or the babysitter who took care of Eddie but my mother, who was in town from her home in Florida for a few days. She lifted Eddie out of his crib and would put him in his high chair when it was time to eat. She put him up on the diaper table and got him out of the car seat when we returned from a trip to the supermarket. She was happy to be there for him because living in Florida, she fears she’s missing his formative years.
“Do you think he’ll even remember me? He’s not even going to know who I am,” she said the day she arrived. And as she left, she said, “I hope he remembers me til the next time I see him.”
It seems back pain isn’t the only thing I inherited from my mother. There’s the constant profound fear of being forgotten.