The bathroom door is a painted white barrier behind which lie all mysteries, all secrets, all truth, the past, the future, selfishness and its apotheosis, mother love and singular suffering. She waits, just far enough back from the door to allow the child a halo of privacy in which to lose his breakfast. This is a carefully judged distance; for a fifth grader you had to be close enough to offer the cool cloth, the comforting touch, but far enough away to imply that vomiting is something he can accomplish by himself. Silence from the other side of the door. It is already eight, and in another three minutes he’ll be late for school.
Throwing up. Taken individually these two words seem like a party of a poem, about spring, perhaps, and baseball, and the challenge of tossing a ball straight up. Straight up into the blue. Can anyone do that? Or is an angle required for throwing? A gun can shoot straight up, certainly, engineering helping out against the laws of physics. Matilda, standing outside the bathroom door and thinking of guns. This is a bad idea.
She hates vomiting and will do anything to avoid it. Last spring, when they all thought Joe had a double round of the stomach flu, she fasted for almost two weeks, limiting herself to foods that she wouldn’t mind seeing again. When the boys were toddlers she used to stop eating as soon as the first one threw up, and then wait for the virus to circle like a carousel through the house, all three children heaving within hours, looking at each other, smelling each other and heaving again. Her husband, Tom, would go in the bathroom, toss it up, and get right back to the work of the day, painting or mowing the lawn. Even Joe is stoic about it now, behind the bathroom door. He’d eaten his breakfast knowing it would make him throw up –- his growing hunger outweighing the consequences of eating. The only thing worse than vomiting is waiting to vomit. He stands by the toilet or sits there when he is too tired to stand, resting his back against the bathtub and staring at the basket of catalogues and cooking magazines. He waits for a half an hour to throw up, never sure if it will come. Tea, water, juice, Pedialyte, chamomile, ginger, oriental remedies, licorice root, and Kool Aid only make it worse. Seven Up is the standby and now they have cans of it sitting everywhere, gleaming emerald icons in every room, and all the teenagers are warned to save the Seven Up for Joe.
When she vomits, she reverts entirely to some infantile version of herself. She retchs and weeps and retchs and feels sorry for herself and fears death; mops her face and blubbers into the wet washcloth. The terror of that moment, of losing everything in the bathroom, was reason enough to forgo the drinking binges of her early twenties, and is still reason enough to fast through the virus season. Now, however, she’d trade places with the child in the bathroom in a maternal instant.
“Are you okay in there?” Pause.
“I think I’m going to throw up, but I can’t.” He sounds like no one she knows. He speaks like an old man. Not even afraid, just hopeless. Too many doctors. Too many tests. Every test is an assault, and every tentative diagnosis a tangible threat of new distress.
Is it a parasite? No problem. Too much swimming in Idaho hot springs last summer. Easy to cure. Oh. No, not a parasite. A bacterial infection? Maybe from the water at the beach? No, he was already vomiting when they got to the beach. Check anyway. Try a round of antibiotics. Maybe another, just in case. White count almost normal. No, apparently not an infection.
Was it cancer? Oh God, please not that. No, not cancer. Oh, thank you God, it isn’t that.
Is it an ulcer? Not so bad, we can deal with that. No not an ulcer either. Perhaps its cystic fibrosis. She doesn’t even know exactly what that is. Doesn’t it involve breathing problems? They test for that by wrapping his tender white arm in a wet towel and giving him electric shocks and then measuring his sweat for some chemical or other. No. Test negative. That was such an awful idea for a test that even Joe had to laugh. What will they think of next? His dad says that somewhere there is a room full of Ninja Turtle mad-doctors thinking up outrageous tests for Joe Green. Comfort him with pizza, and never mind that it will make a quick round trip.
Now, on Monday morning, the decision about missing another day of school looms large. The teachers are beginning to wonder what is going on with this family. All the cushy normalness of the Greens has so quickly evaporated. All her volunteer work, reading “A Christmas Carol,” and giving essay-writing workshops. All Tom’s building of carnival booths. All the good report cards. The new teachers this year don’t know Joe. To them he is just odd and absent. He is now a problem child of a problem family.
The doctor has written a letter excusing him from school indefinitely, so the school staff can’t act directly to punish him. Instead they gossip, and make snide comments, and don’t discourage the kids who tease him. His old teachers stick up for him. They remember the old Joe, once nicknamed “the little professor” because he liked homework and would copy out endless sheets of of sour-smelling mimeographed exercises for reading and writing. “Smart as a whip and stubborn as a mule,” said his second grade teacher, an ex-truck driver. Exactly.
The old teachers know Joe is upright with a Joseph brand of uprightness that always shines around him. He has only lied once in his short life, when he told his mother that he’d tamed a pet squirrel on his way home from Kindergarten and that it ate from his hand every day. He had stuck by that story for a whole week. Still, even those who knew him were starting to look at Joe’s mother more closely. Is there something a little off about her? They gossiped about how he wasn’t the first one to miss a lot of school. Her other children had similar problems in the past. Last year Joe’s older brothers both had health problems. The oldest, Vance, had missed a month of sixth grade for some vague fatigue-related illness that was finally diagnosed at Children’s Hospital as an “unknown pain syndrome.” A fishy story.
Now each time he comes in late in the morning, after his hour at the toilet, the new teacher makes comments when Joe passes her in the echoing corridors. “I wish I could sleep in every morning. Must be nice.”
Joe didn’t want to tell his mother this. He knows she’s tired, wants to spare her a new fight. It’s just another blow. He takes them well. It is his job. But Matilda is a hard one to keep secrets from; usually she intuits a problem before the kids get around to speaking it out. Some part of him is glad to know that this teacher will have to face his Mother down. It is a fate the brothers would wish only on their worst enemy. Matilda had started with the principal, acting calm and reasonable and angry. She referred to the letter from the doctor. “I understand that this is frustrating for his teachers, it is a big inconvenience and I know they are already overworked. And I understand their concern about a kid with a mysterious disease. I even understand that suspicion naturally falls on the parents. But at this point we have a letter from the doctor and in any case this teacher has no business taking it out on Joe or making his attempts to come to school any more difficult.”
The principal is young and shocked. She offers to sit in on the next conference. Sure enough the teacher in question can not keep from making snide remarks, even with the principal in the room. The woman revealed her malevolence so blatantly that no epic battle was necessary after all. In the hallway in principal apologized. “I’ll move him to a different classroom today. I’ll have a word with her.” The young woman’s face was pink with fury. “She will be directed not to talk to Joe again and to keep her opinions to herself.”
Matilda had won one small battle. But she cannot help Joe with the isolation he feels at school, the feeling of being doubted, the knowledge that the adults in charge were gossiping about him over their coffee breaks, talking about his mother and making remarks behind his back.
Joe opens the door of the bathroom at last. “You can stay home, Joe,” she offers. “You don’t have to go.”
“Yes I do. My report is due today. We have a math test.” His face is flushed, his mouth set at a familiar stubborn angle. She sighs and goes to warm up the car. Stubborn and brave. In front of the school they sit together for a moment watching the flag whip in the damp breeze. He wipes his mouth. Then he shoulders his backpack, and turns away, plodding heavily and oh-so-slowly across the sidewalk. She longs to run after him, even grabs the door handle, but catches herself in time and sits on her hands. It won’t do any good to knock some more heads. She needs to leave him alone for the day. The wind tosses the tree limbs, making a blurred etching on the rice paper sky. Only a few leaves are left after Halloween. She thinks of painting smudges under his eyes for his Frankenstein costume, the purple make-up covering real smudges of faded violet under his eyes. Her hands go to sleep tucked under her thighs.
She watches him disappear into the building and looks for clues to what is happening to them. Despite hardly eating for two months, he still looks chubby. How can that be? Really, looking back now she can see that this chubbiness was the first sign of something wrong. She knew, had known for a year, that it wasn’t normal for a kid to run all day long, and still be getting chubbier and chubbier. His brothers, though normally active, are far more sedate than Joe and less likely to eat a decent diet. Joe will ask for salad and suggest recipes with odd vegetables. Vance, her oldest can spend the whole day eating chips and frozen pizza and reading car magazines, and is still skinny like all the men in the family. Sam, the middle son, is as slim as the flute he plays and as finicky. Given his druthers he’d sleep all day long and never leaving the house except hunt for new bugs in the fields or rent another video game. It has always been Joe with the endless energy. Joe dashing through the house with Alex from next door. The two of them used to keep a running check every night between their two houses, a scheme to determine which family had the most appealing dinner plan -– chicken and dumplings from Joe’s mom, Thai-glazed seitan from Alex’s. As often as not, the boys ate dinner twice.
Joe is addicted to ball games. He has always driven her crazy with a constant bouncing accompaniment striking the hours and her last nerve -- rubber balls bouncing off freshly painted walls; gooey balls that stuck to the ceiling for long seconds before pealing off with a satisfying slurp, leaving indelible brown stains; rhythmic basketballs and their constant bound, bound, bound; soccer balls invariably appearing out of nowhere to bounce off her ankles as she stirs something hot on the stove; baseballs rolling down the street to the park, and the arguments as the little boys made the big ones go down the street to get them back; tennis balls hitting the side of the house and driving the dogs mad; street ball played with a ruffian crowd; hilarious hackysacks. Joe, always moving his feet and always hungry. That had been his hallmark.
He was the last child who should have a weight problem. She’d even mentioned it to the pediatrician last year. He hadn’t been concerned. “Kids just grow at different rates. If he’s that active he’ll get a growth spurt and be fine.”
“But is it normal for him to be so hungry all the time? I mean really, its extreme.” Over-anxious mother. One more of the mother labels to avoid.
Pediatricians see so many normal kids. That’s the problem. “He’s probably hungry because he’s about to grow. Just be thankful he likes to eat vegetables. He’s a great kid, aren’t you, buddy?” Joe had grinned up at him, his square little jaw strong even through the prepubescent roundness. Now he just stared at the doctors and no longer found their false jollity convincing. In fact he now found it insulting. For the new doctors were beginning to act like there was a psychological basis for his nausea, especially lately as the actual vomiting became less frequent.
Some doctors had begun to look at the Mother. After that ghost movie. more people know about Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy than about the dozens of more common diseases. And, as for rare diseases, well forget about it. Munchausen’s is now a staple on C.S.I., E.R., and Law and Order. The sicker Joe becomes the more Law and Order they watch together. They joke that you can tell the mood in the house by whether it is a one-Law and Order, a two-Law and Order, or a three-Law and Order day. When Munchausen’s comes on they look at each other. “Would you like a poop milkshake, son?” she asks.
“Uh, not right now. Maybe later.”
She often reflects on the mystery of Munchausen and the way it has come to haunt her life. Many of the symptoms of Munchausen’s are identical to the assets of a committed mother of a sick child. The internet is full of horror stories of mothers with injunctions that had kept them from seeing their sick children. Later doctors find that the child has a rare disease. Of course, she thinks, maybe these are written by mothers with Munchausens, you can’t know. But on T.V. the mother is always guilty. Matilda and Joe keep waiting for a show where the kid turns out to be sick, but they haven’t seen one yet.
Mother’s of sick children do have a lot of the symptoms of mothers with Munchausen’s. Yes, you know a lot about different diseases. Yes, you ask for help from doctors, learn medical terminology and suggest treatment options. Yes, you keep trying and travel to different doctors if you don’t get answers. Yes, you develop a peculiar connection with the child who depends on you for everything. Yes, you become each other’s reality when outsiders don’t believe or understand. Studies have shown that mothers of children with muscular dystrophy are twice as likely as the rest of the population to be taking antidepressants. A huge controversy rages between the irate mothers who say chronic illness causes parental stress (well, obviously) and the renegade doctors who ran the study and propose a link between mental illness in a parent and muscular dystrophy as a childhood disease. Articles like this make her contemplate the blue veins in her wrists. They make her remember her dreams. Dreams of her own mother. Dreams of bathroom doors.
Still, the mechanics of poisoning a child remain mysterious. She reflects that if a person wanted to become a successful Munchausen’s mom, they’d have to start early. Because by first grade you can’t make them wear a Hawaiian swim suit or eat avocado. Poop smoothies are completely out of the question.
She can’t blame the doctors and teachers. They are right to feel protective of the innocent. The screaming moms on T.V. don’t ring true to her either, crying, and protesting righteously when their kids are taken away to an isolation ward. A real mom would be willing to do whatever is necessary. Still, she doesn’t want to imagine her son alone in the hospital. Would they let his brothers visit? Or would those elegantly awkward adolescents be under suspicion too? Could a grandparent or a family friend come to sit with a little boy in a big bed? It would be clear that she wasn’t guilty when he still vomits. He will vomit even more when you take him off of his current diet, the low-vomit diet she has worked out, of crisp fried potato pancakes and Seven-Up.
On the other hand, it is hard on any child to have the doctors narrow their eyes when they speak to his mother, harder when they raise their educated voices or are downright rude. On the other hand, deep down there is a worry that when he is separated from her he will get well. Perhaps she is making him sick. Perhaps she has done everything wrong. Maybe it is something in the Seven Up. Maybe she should feed him a normal diet and just let him throw up. One doctor insisted loudly and in front of Joe that she should do just that. Or maybe they’ll take him away and he’ll have a spontaneous recovery and everyone will believe she’s quite mad. Her great grandmother, also named Matilda, died after thirty years in an insane asylum in Pendleton, Oregon. No one knows why. It is a family secret, now impenetrable. Matilda fears the same fate. Perhaps her hold on sanity is more fragile than that of the ordinary pedestrian.
She decided after the last colonoscopy down in Little Rock that they would allow any kind of testing or separation if the Munchausen’s diagnosis was ever mentioned. Take him away and see what goes in and out of his body and just tell us why! It would be worth anything to know.
She calls down blessings on their main pediatrician. For whatever reason, perhaps having seen her in and out with the other boys -- the way they all tease her, call her Mumsical, and are perpetually disrespectful, Dr. Smith believes Joe is just plain sick. Not shirking school, not sick from some ugly psychological torment at home or elsewhere, not suffering child-molestation, or keeping a terrible secret that makes him nauseated. Last week Dr. Smith had asked Joe directly: “Has anything bad happened to you? Anyone one hurt you.” She had doubted it, since Joe has his brothers or his friend Alex with him every minute, but it was worth a shot to ask. Bad things do happen to children,
“No,” Joe said and rolled his eyes. Heard it all before.
“Are you feeling upset or stressed? Are you afraid of anything? You can tell us if something bad has happened to you.” The doctor pressed on, kind, reassuring, confident. He asked in just the right way. Silence. They all wait. Joe is about to say something and it feels as if the information, the answer, is about to materialize.
“Yes.” They all lean in. “I’m scared because I’m sick.... I’m sick all the time.”
At home they wait for a call from the doctor about any one of the most recent tests. Joe lies on the couch in the yellow lamplight and the shadows of a vicious Alien flash across his face. He is watching the third rented movie of the day. She looks and him and knows that he’s dying.
Then she accuses herself of an inflated sense of destiny, a predilection for self dramatization. Still, it is obvious that somehow the food she gives him is poisoning him. Every time he eats he gets sicker. The more balanced and healthy the portions, the sicker he gets.
They sit together for long hours, sipping Seven Up and watching the Thirteenth Warrior. He wants to watch it again and again. Something about the Beowolf story feeds them; something about the monster that winds down the mountain in an endless flaming snake, something about the mystery, something about the power of the unknown. Without speaking he hits the rewind button at the point where the body of the Viking king is set upon the river. The warriors lift a girl. She rises like a white tower in their arms as they chant their divinity,
Lo, there do I see my father.
Lo, there do I see my mother.
Lo, there do I see my sisters
and my brothers.
I see the line of my people
back to the beginning.
Lo, they do call to me to take my place
in the halls of Valhalla
where the brave may live forever.
The dusk sinks blue around the flames, flames so bright they can hardly look at them even on film. Later, she finds that this is a documented ancient prayer, and the historian in her is relieved. This song remains after a thousand years, and they both recognized it even through the film glaze of the movies. They feel its hard truth and strange comfort. They watch it again, the flames, the river, the ship, the sacrifice, “Lo, there do I see . . .”
The family waits for the phone to ring. Even the neighbor kids grow quiet and watch her spring for the phone. They wait for something to turn up. No one knows whether to hope for or against a diagnosis. They try to imagine diseases they wouldn’t mind having. Or maybe having even a bad disease is better than not knowing. At least the doubt and the gossip would be gone and Joe could receive some support
It is obvious to the family and to Joe himself that he throws up less often because he has quit eating. He talks about his hunger all the time. Hunger dominates his day. At this point only apples and potatoes and hard candy don’t make him vomit. This is what he eats. And the nausea remains, but the vomiting of the last three months has subsided. Joe is hungry and articulate.
It is a strange combination, hunger and nausea. They go to another hospital to drink barium and get x-rays. He doesn’t want to go. It is early in the morning and his face is green, his eyes shadowed, his courage disturbing. She puts one foot delicately in front of the other. Cement sidewalk, fall leaves, grey hospital tiles. “Why do hospitals smell funny?” Good question, honey.
“Well they have to clean really well so that no germs can live around sick people. And the cleaner smells so strong that you can’t get rid of the smell. You know, like when we bleach the toilet and the whole bathroom smells.”
“Hmm. Well I guess I need to clean the bathrooms more often. I’ll put it on my list.” Good mothers clean the bathrooms. The sons of good mothers are familiar with the smell of bleach and Lysol and pine-scented cleaners. Perhaps she has been lazy and let some terrible germ into their world.
Inside the clinic the x-ray room is very cold. They shiver in their tee shirts. The technician steps into the room and everyone breaks into smiles. It is the mother of one of his friends from school.
“Wow, it is great to see a friendly face in here,” she says. “This should make it all easier.”
Somehow the woman manages to smile warmly at the boy and coolly at Matilda. “Come on Joe, let’s mix up this drink. You can stir it up.” The doctor, slim and regal in her white coat and warm turtleneck, explains the procedure to him, the barium, the photography, the machines. “Okay kiddo, drink this and I’ll be back in 15 minutes to take some pictures.”
Matilda thanks her profusely. Too profusely.
It is not surprising that Joe can’t get the barium down. The room swims, he breaks into a cold sweat, his skin is green-gold. Can’t anyone see he needs help? She begins to panic. “We need a bathroom, quick!” The nurse barely looks up.
They find the bathroom. Like all hospital bathrooms it is large and cold. There are aluminum bars in unlikely but useful places. It smells so clean that she can think of nothing but bacteria and contamination. Joe leans over the toilet and won’t let her leave the bathroom, his fingers digging into her arm. What will they think, seeing she has gone into the bathroom with him? That is a definite sign of being overprotective. He retches twice but nothing comes up. Of course nothing comes up, his stomach is empty except for three tablespoons of barium.
“Come on sweetheart. Just drink it down. Two big drinks and it will be over. We can go home. I’ll buy you a milkshake.”
“I don’t want a milkshake. I’m hungry. I’m starving.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll stop and get you a hamburger. Anywhere you want. Whatever you want. We’ll go home and see if there is a Law and Order rerun on.”
He takes another drink. Throws his head back and tries again. Then he is coughing and choking and retching again. Tears leak from his eyes and he brushes them away quickly so his friend’s mother won't see evidence that he has cried. He tries again. Breathes deeply, heaving over the icy toilet.
“I can’t stand it.” This is her silent scream, but it echoes with other silent screams and is lost in the hospital ether. She wipes her own tears away when he isn’t looking. Still nothing comes up. She can’t help but think that now they won’t believe how sick he is, not if they can’t see the vomit. Can’t someone come and watch him suffer? She knows he doesn’t want anyone to see him like this. He hides it from everyone. And then they think she lies when she describes his symptoms. She has told him not to be so brave; she has delicately approached the problem of unbelief. He understands. He feels the doubt, but it just makes it harder for him to show his weakness.
They emerge from the bathroom to an empty waiting room. “He can’t drink it all. What should I do?” she asks the nurse.
A shrug. “Just keep trying.”
Oh thanks. Thanks a lot. She goes on trying to cajole him. Just a few more sips. Then the Doctor is back. A big smile. “How are we doing?”
“Joe is extremely sick to his stomach this morning. He’s having a little trouble getting it all down.” The doctor’s smile fades.
She looks sternly at Joe. They remember that she has told her son that Joe should not be missing school. Suddenly they see that she is eager to get a look at these x-rays.
“Joe, you have to do what needs to be done. Drink it up.”
It feels like a betrayal when Matilda says “Come on, honey. Two big gulps.” He looks at her. He tries. He gags. Again. He gags again. Now they will see how sick he is. Now they will see his sweaty bleached face.
“Come on Joe.” The doctor’s face seems far away. “You are a big strong boy.”
She wishes he’d vomit all over the doctor’s gleaming white coat. She wishes he could vomit. She wishes he could drink it. She wishes they were home on the couch watching Law and Order. Joe looks at her and she thinks he is wishing the very same things. At last the chalky stuff is gone.
Now to the x-rays. She stands across the room in her lead apron as if she will have more babies. The doctor uses this opportunity to chat with Joe.
“What’s going on, Joe? I hear you’ve been sick.”
“I’m sick to my stomach.”
“Do you throw up?”
“Anything else?” she probes. “Turn to the side.”
He is silent. “I’m tired. Really, really, tired.”
“You need to get outside. Go for a hike. Get back to school and you’ll feel better.” The doctor shoots a look towards Mom. Joe shoots a look too.
“Joe loves school. He hates missing days.” Matilda tries to find a still space as she speaks. There are no still places.
“Are you nauseated right now?”
Joe hopes the truth will set him free. “Yes. But not as bad as in the bathroom.”
“Oh, come on. The barium’s not that bad. Hold your breath.” They hold their breaths.
“It’s not that,” he says after the machine has made its strange rotation. “I’m just nauseated all the time. Sometimes its better for awhile and then it gets worse. And I’m hungry.” That’s right, you tell her.
“Are you going to go get some lunch?” He doesn’t see the loaded question, but she does, behind her lead jacket.
“Yep. My mom says I can have anything I want.”
“I thought you were nauseated?’
“I am. But I want to eat.”
“What do you want to eat, Joe?”
“Taco Bell.” The thought brings a faint smile to his face.
The doctor finishes and speaks to them both. “Listen, you can’t be nauseated and hungry at the same time.”
Matilda stands, “You can be hungry and sick to your stomach. Like when you have the flu for a few days, or when you have morning sickness.”
“ I don’t see anything on these x-rays and he’s not pregnant. I expect you to go to school now, Joe.” The two women look at each other. “I’ll send these on to his pediatrician.”
On the way home they stop for tacos. “Don’t worry about it, honey, she just doesn’t understand.”
He gobbles the tacos greedily, and smiles at her. “I know Mom.” Before they get home she stops the car so he can throw up. Her own lunch sits uneasily on the day. He gets back in the car, and starts to fall asleep as they cross the busy intersections, the lunch break shoppers darting in and out of fast food places.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have given you the taco,” she says as they pull up to the house.
“It was worth it, you know?” He looks at her. She knows.
Now they are thinking it could it be some intestinal blockage or severe cramping or liver or kidney problems, or Crohn’s disease. An upper and a lower G.I. scope involves sedation. A day of sitting with him, playing cards and making him drink an emetic. How do you get a mother to spend eight hours forcing her starving child to drink a viscous bitter chemical so he can spend another eight hours in the bathroom with violent diarrhea? Its easy. Just ask her. She can’t say no, and neither can the child. Act cheerful. Act hopeful. “Well the good thing is, honey, this test ought to do it. At lest we’ll finally find out what the problem is.”
She and Tom sit for a long time in the waiting room, blind to the sunshine and uncomfortable chairs. What heretofore unknown and mystifying new disease might they find?
Were there any diseases she hadn’t turned up in her endless searches on the internet? Do you know there are dozens of search engines just for medical use? You have to register to use them and answer questions about your type of research. No, she’s not a doctor, not a medical professional, not a pharmacist. Yes, perhaps a kind of research specialist. No spaces provides for "desperate parent." The abstracts never say quite enough and usually you have to pay for the whole article. Did you know there is a parasite passed by a bug that bites the lips of children in Texas and can cause death by intestinal blockage? According to an article in Discover the tiny worm hitchhiked across the Bering Strait ice bridge with the first Americans 20,000 years ago and enjoys the climate of Texas. Joe was in Texas for a few days on his summer trip with his cousins. But he was already sick then. Or was he? She phones the Idaho State Epidemiologist to ask about emerging diseases or new parasitesat the Hot Springs. (Did you know every state has a State Epidemiologist? Now you do.) He actually answered her email query and called her back. Amazing. And they do have some new strains of resistant bacteria and parasites in a couple of the hot springs, but the drugs he’s already taken would have killed even those.
Now he’s out of surgery. Out of surgery, but the clinic can’t send him home in the usual two hours because he has been vomiting for five hours. Finally they let her back there. The children's clinic has brightly painted walls covered with whales, monkeys, and lions to ward off evil. Joe lies on a table swathed in the color she thinks of as scary green. He’s a big boy. Husky and soft and stoic. He is beautiful, like those Victorian sculptures of babies asleep. His skin is too soft for his age. Is that a symptom, she wonders. The other boys had hard little hands by age eleven, small but already capable, already anticipating the hands of a man. Joe’s skin is still pearly, his fingers soft and round. The nurses always adore him; his giant grin, his giant heart, his dry jokes, his contagious laugh, his shocking sarcasm.
Joe doesn’t whine, he doesn’t complain. She whines, she cringes, she cries, she screams, she tears her hair, she beats her breast, she has a tantrum of panic and rage and prayer on her knees before all the gods, wiping their stone feet with her hair. But not out loud. In the recovery room she is calm, reaching for a sweetness that doesn’t come naturally. Joe speaks, sadly matter of fact like an abused wife after a beating. “I’m sick,” he says.
“I know.” She replies. The gastroenterologist stands nearby frowning and holding no results. They couldn’t find anything wrong. Joe vomits again and they administer more drugs, gently adjusting the tubing, moving from Phenergan to a more powerful anti-nausea bolus. Something they use for chemo patients. She must never cry while he’s looking at her.
“Mom, they didn’t find anything wrong.” This should be happy news, but his voice is cracking with fear. They look at each other and that look holds them, anchoring the pair of them to some vertiginous reality that they alone recognize. They hang like a pair of mountain climbers, who find themselves strung up on an impossibly sheer granite abutment. Below them stretches the whole delicate mantle of ordinary life where faraway people go about their business. She looks down at him, silently assuring him of the excellent quality of the cord they made so long ago. They look at each other. In this moment they are no longer child and mother, but equal humans full of fear, bound to each other and nothing else.