MOTHER OF ALL FEARS
Afraid of Being Hard-Hearted and Sort of an All-Star B-word
In my notes I abbreviate Mother Teresa as MT. The reading voice in my head pronounces this "empty." MT writes things like, "Pray that [He may] empty my emptiness." To MT, a heart is a container. She says: "Would that we could keep all our words in [Mary's] heart." In a letter to Father Neuner, she begs "that our hearts may be the crib Our Lady chooses for Her Baby."
In Sunday school my little brother once made a manger from the cardboard core of a toilet paper roll. He cut a section of the tube and stuck the halves back to back. In one of the parabola cups he glued a peanut with a smiley face drawn on it. We called him Peanut Jesus. Mom parked him in the crèche, her small, open stable with beige plastic figurines and a rough wooden floor dusted with moss flakes.
If I'm not careful, I end up thinking about stuff like mangers, cribs, and strollers. I say snotty things sotto voce when I'm running and must slice a wide path around Hot Moms pushing baby joggers with one hand and holding dog leashes in the other. At peak times and weather, Hot Moms stroll two or three abreast, a veritable brigade of Hot Moms. They take up the whole sidewalk. I grumble, though a voice in my head says, "only if you're very lucky will that be you some day."
My neighbor tells her dogs, Gus and Washington, to "be sweet" instead of "don't jump" or "stop that" or "no, dammit." My neighbor is a very good psychiatrist. She corrects with a kind word, reinforcing the sweet, not the no. There's a tacit acknowledgement that Gus and Wash know how to be sweet. They just need reminding. I'm trying to train myself: "Be sweet," the voice says. I like to believe that inside me lies a vein of sweet and I just need to tap it, like a spile in a sugar maple.
Afraid of Being Alone
One night a few summers ago I sat with my mom on the back porch. I wasn't handling a breakup so well. I would miss having someone to talk to about the small triumphs of the day, someone to take a look at my stove when it sparked, someone to open stubborn jars. I imagined singleness like an airport, as though I were waiting in the Layover Lounge for my connecting flight. I had questions like: "how long will I be here?" And: "Are there snacks?"
That summer, on my flight back to Salt Lake City, I expected a three-hour wait in Phoenix. Instead I walked two gates over to a flight at final boarding. The gate agent let me right onto that plane, without even time for a coffee. I was crying down the aisle to my seat beside a friendly dentist. I didn't mind talking to him, but I was empty and tired, and eventually he saw that I was more interested in my issue of Harper's than telling him about my studies.
"Do you hear that, she's going to be a doctor!" he crowed to his friend across the aisle.
"Not a real doctor," I said.
The dentist had his own practice and three young children. He seemed so accomplished, so grounded, so loud, I figured surely he must be older than I was. He said he was 29. I was 29 too, and what did I have to show for it? It was a mixture of embarrassment and pride. I didn't feel like I'd wasted my 20s. I was glad that I didn't have a mortgage or a Diaper Genie. I could move to Mongolia and teach English. I could change my name to Moon Dancer Express and apprentice with location-independent glassblowers and fall off of the grid.
Afraid of (M)other's Pain
My mother has chronic nerve pain. She keeps morphine patches on hand, but they make her sick to her stomach. Occasionally I ask if I can have a couple. Kidding, Mom! She hasn't learned to give herself injections, so when I'm home she might ask me to give her a shot. I say, "Not a real doctor!"
To shoot a mom: scrub hands, express air from the syringe and insert into the upended vial of Toridol. Pull the plunger. Fill the barrel. Tap it and fire a little arc of what looks like ginger ale into the air. Watch as Mom holds her waistband away from her lower back, exposing her flank. Wherever there's a gray-yellow bruise, like the outside of a boiled egg yolk, stick the needle. Press the plunger with conviction. If you press too hard because you're nervous, Mom will say your technique is fine. She'll say the stab above her eye is sharper than a clumsy needle stick. Remove the needle from her backside and replace its plastic cover, then drop the used syringe with the others in an empty water bottle. Swab the stick site with rubbing alcohol. Apply a bandage if it bleeds. When the thin egg-yolk tissue abscesses, repeat the above procedure on her thigh until further notice.
Afraid of Blindness
Hazel, my mom's mom, has macular degeneration, which is a hereditary condition. Macular comes from macula, stain. Hazel's doctor said to hold your fist right in front of your eye and take a look around. That's more or less what Hazel sees. At 90, Hazel declares she will not renew her license when it expires in three years. Mascara and pink lipstick veer off the shifting tectonic plates of her face.
My mom used to be an elementary school teacher. She doesn't read anymore because wearing her glasses triggers intense pain above her eye and massive headaches. My livelihood depends on reading, so I can't think much about her condition. While I'm home, she asks if I'll help her shop for bras because she can't find her size, and she can't read the price tag, and she's too embarrassed to shop for them with my dad, and it would be a day-long process with Hazel.
My mom makes oversized abbreviations on her calendar and then can't remember what they all mean. No one understands my mother's byzantine filing system. In a one-subject spiral-bound notebook, she attempts a phone directory. It takes less time for one of us to look in the real phone book or for her to call 411 than to find the number again in those sheets of her three-inch tall letters which, unlike her politics, lean sharply to the left.
Afraid of Darkness
A few years ago my mother visited my apartment in Salt Lake City, and she mentioned my laundry situation several times thereafter. The coin-op washer and dryer waited in the basement, flanked by storage units like anchorite cells full of skis, space heaters, and unmarked boxes. My neighbors propped failed paintings against the cinderblock wall. In one corner, two rows of storage units intersected, forming a blind spot in this room that was never locked. My mother imagined scenarios of kidnapping, slavery, butchery, who knows what.
When I was in West Virginia for Christmas in 2007, a student from the nearby university disappeared. The student, Leah Hickman, worked at the Dress Barn in the Merritts Creek shopping center, five minutes from my parents' house. On TV, reporters showed Leah's myspace photo and wondered for days where she could be without her purse, cell phone, and keys, which were found in the apartment. A week after the disappearance, detectives discovered Leah Hickman's body stuffed in a crawlspace in the basement of her building. I sat on the couch with my mother and watched this news.
I don't usually shop at the Dress Barn because the name of the store makes me feel like livestock. But when the Barn closed for two days upon news of Leah's death, this during the busiest retail season of the year, I considered unstrapping my feedbag and buying something.
I felt safe in my building in Salt Lake. I assumed a neighbor would hear and come running if trouble found me. Though I did manage to get my laundry done during the immaculate daylight hours. Why court the darkness?
In a letter to her confessor, MT writes that "darkness surrounds me on all sides—I can't lift my soul to God—no light or inspiration enters my soul.—I speak of love for souls, of tender love for God—words pass through my words [sic, lips]—and I long with a deep longing to believe in them."
Although an editor of MT's correspondence offers his own correction, I much prefer MT's idea of words passing through words. I'm thinking of a paragraph as a dollhouse, where there are wall words and there are ghost, geist, spirit words that travel like the smoke of incense, the vapor of prayer. Tiny beds and lamps are in the dollhouse, perhaps the word CHAIR or LAMP. TABLE is a wall word, whereas LOVE is a spirit word. LEPER, SARI, SISTER = walls. DARKNESS, GOD, SOUL, PAIN, ABSENCE, BLASPHEMY, HOLY are spirits. Or instead of a dollhouse, words pass through a crèche, like my mother's barn of sticks.
I started "Mother of All Fears" after reading MT's correspondence about her "dark night of the soul" collected in Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (edited by Father Brian Kolodiejchuk).