“Do you want me to get your vadge?”
My mom, unable to speak, replied with a shrug and a face that said, “Sure, why not?”
We were in the bathroom of her hospital room in Reno, Nevada. She had undergone surgery for throat cancer seven days earlier and was moved from intensive care to gen pop a few days after that. Liberated from catheter and bedpan, we held hands and took slow, careful steps about six feet to the bathroom, rolling along with us her oxygen tank, IV bag and a weird vacuum thing that sucked post-surgery mucous from a tube lodged in the front of her neck.
Her first trip to an actual toilet after she’d been admitted to Saint Mary’s was a stormy affair, and after our long-distance relationship — the most recent years of which we were more or less estranged — after she left my father and me in California when I was six years old, when her ambivalence about motherhood and married life turned into a desperate, drunken escape in the middle of the night…Twenty-five years later, I found myself in the awkward position of wiping her ass.
That could make me sound like a good person: letting go of my lifelong grudge against a delinquent mother to be present in her most vulnerable and disgusting state. But there wasn’t any moral waffling on my part, like “Should I call the nurse instead?”
It was a reflex, a deep-seated caregiving trait that children of alcoholics tend to develop early on, (sometimes before developing their own alcoholism). We become so attuned to the needs of others that we neglect our own until we become human husks with poor health and sporadic anger issues.
So when my mom called me the night before her surgery, crying like a little girl about how scared she was, I didn’t think about saying I would fly out from New York the next day to be with her at the hospital — I just said it — and it felt as natural and satisfying as a yawn, or a stretch, or popping a pimple. When you spend your life feeling useless to your own mother, you tend to come alive when she needs you in a crisis.