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People will always ask what is wrong with my mother, in so many different ways. Is she crazy? Blind? Is she really my mom? Had there been an accident? Does she have ticks? My favorite question came along when I was seven. ‘Is your mom having an allergic reaction?!’
This was around the time kids at school were becoming more aware of their allergies, and we had all learned from September that Tadeas Barns could die if he came in contact with peanuts, and Jessica Wong carried an epi pen for shellfish and eggs. My friend Alice Grey has always gotten so worked up about things, especially obvious medical quirks. Situations that render her powerless still make her anxious, and I guess she was triggered by my mother’s MS symptoms. Ironic, that she related the two scenarios.
I remember that day. Alice and I were sitting in my bedroom playing Uno on the carpet. We always hung out at my place, because Alice has two brothers and it’s a relatively small house, just like all the houses in her neighborhood. Small and brown with limited bedroom space, the kitchen and living room conjoined on the main level- the exact same building plan as the home next door and across the way. Alice was winning the game, and she was very happy. She fanned her body out on my dark purple area rug, her limbs splayed like a starfish, brown hair spilling out around her head like a mermaid’s, enjoying the space. She held her cards above her face and kept dropping them as she shuffled through her share, laughing ecstatically. She sat up suddenly and threw her ‘switch the color’ card on the pile.
“Ah ha! It’s green now Ren!” Three cards remained in her hand, and about twelve were in mine. I tilted my head back and sighed, tragic child that I was. How could she have known I didn’t have any green to put down?
“Start over! Redo! Redo!” I whined. It was so unfair that Alice was winning. I still feel that itchy frustration, festering like mosquito bite on the bottom of one’s foot, particularly in win or lose circumstances. My father calls it my ‘competitive streak.’ I used to imagine a vibrant violet mark across my forehead, like the pinkish paste Rafiki smears on Simba’s face at the beginning of the Lion King. An indication of my individuality.
Alice refused to restart our match of Uno. I became grumpy, and Alice got that look of panic on her face, the one she gets when she can’t smooth things over, when she’s afraid she’s ruined something. I knew if I complained just a little bit more, she would cave in. I don’t know why we were playing Uno anyway. I liked showing off my newer, flashier toys, or playing with the Easy Bake Oven. Alice could amuse herself with the various forgotten objects in my room for weeks, and I suppose I’d made an allowance for her, since my mother had told me she was ‘going through a tough time.’ Still, I didn’t want her to trump me and I was too immature to smile and lose with grace.
My complaints and my friend’s audible nervousness was overheard by my mother, who had been reading in the sunroom down the hall. She arrived to see Alice red faced and frantic, and her own daughter crabbily spreading cards around, a pouting expression on her face, knees drawn to her chest. It wasn’t the first time she’d walked in on such a scene, and it probably wasn’t the last, since this was only a second-grade playdate. Alice rushed to speak on an impulse of manners. I pushed my face into my hands, miming tears.
“I’m so sorry Mrs. Lockhart, I didn’t mean to-” She started, but my mother interrupted.
“You did nothing wrong, sugar, my daughter’s just being awful right now.” My face flushed at her words and I emerged from my hand cocoon to face her wrath.
“Lauren! Stop this right now, you’re being ridiculous!” She was wearing her angry eyebrows, smooth slender bands of hair that arched menacingly over her pale green eyes.
I leaned forward and shoved my face into the floor, the dark closeness of the rough braided purple furnishing became a sanction from my self-initiated discomfiture. I heard Alice apologizing again, her voice thin and distant.
“Lau-ren.” My mother stressed the syllables, and her foot started tapping rhythmically- controlled tapping, I might add. I heard it, felt it too, through the rug. There was a miniscule pause, before Alice did as Alice does. She flipped.
“Mrs. L! Are you allergic?! Ren!” Her hand shook my shoulder and pulled me from my bout of supposed misery.
“Is your mom having an allergic reaction?!” Her fingers were in her mouth, nibbling away at her torn up nails.
My mother wasn’t catatonic during this, in fact she was kind of smiling, speaking, and generally attempting to reach out and comfort Alice in her shocked state, without falling over. But that girl just kept on talking until she ran out of things to say.
My mother has short dark curly black hair. She handles this hair like a pro, while simultaneously cursing its existence. It takes so long to tame and contort it, that she’d rather not have this beautiful defining characteristic. Some days you wouldn’t know she had any curls, and sometimes they are bouncing off her ears, like visible laughter. When we were toddlers, my sister and I used to pull these perfect coils, so they would spring back into place. When they are frizzy and unkept and restrained in a hair tie in place of a snazzy clip, clasp or barrette, I know it is one of her Bad Spells, and that I’m better off asking my father whatever I wanted to ask her. On this occasion her hair was straightened but still sort of kinky, parted to the left, rogue locks swept out of her eye with a discrete black bobby pin. Her left eye was flicking back and forth like it was trying to escape her head. It was darkly comical and a little freaky, but ordinary to me, since I lived with her. Mom’s Naughty Eye was just acting up. She described it as a bout of blurry tunnel vision, where she can’t focus her sight on anything.
Eventually Alice calmed down, and my mother sat her on my bed- unmade of course, I’d refused- and Alice Grey received Lucille Lockhart’s well-practiced Multiple Sclerosis Speech. I picked at loose threads on my comforter and pasted different expressions on my face. Bored, annoyed, embarrassed, weirded out. Eventually I decided on relieved, since Alice had taken the heat off of me after my outburst. I kept my head down, so as not to interrupt the rant and Alice’s politely phrased inquiries. I hated how prim and proper she was. Always asking permission and pushing her chair in. It was my house, not school or church or anthing! I didn’t mind how she acted so long as it wasn’t boring or agitating, like Uno had turned out to be. My mother’s eye returned to normal, but she got up very slowly; maybe her Trouble Leg was doing its thing again.
I’m probably making stuff up at this point, who knows what the Trouble Leg was up to! Just keep in mind that my mother doesn’t limp or stutter or drool, although these are potential side effects of her disorder. She wears leggings and cute sweaters with peace signs on them and she likes animal print patterns. She bought me an Easy Bake Oven even though my father dubbed it the Easily Unbaked Oven, and sometimes the Effortlessly Bacterial Oven. (I once heard him say, ‘oh, you’re making brownies with your light up shoebox again.) My mother was cool, in every effect. Maybe she got up unsteadily, maybe I’m adding things. But her symptoms weren’t unusual, and they weren’t very severe. Those with MS don’t always have muscular difficulties outside vision problems and headaches to go along with daily injections. My mother isn’t debilitated, but she does have a Trouble Leg, a Naughty Eye, and Bad Spells. ‘That’s the way of the world,’ is how she would put it.
Alice never asked about my mother’s issues again. She isn’t like witchy little Mimi Pond down the street who will ask point blank,
“Is that your MS?” And point accusingly at whatever incident she’s witnessed, as if she needs a gold star for recognizing a personal issue.
Or Brandon Gerwitz, a kid in my little sister’s scout group, likes to explain my mother’s medical history to other people- kids and adults.
I used to wonder why she continued to explain herself to brats who didn’t give a fig, waste energy on people who would never understand, and couldn’t comprehend the significance of privacy. If she really wanted to talk about her condition, then what kept her from putting a stop to that kind of nonsense? Why not tell Mimi to put her finger down and shut her mouth? Why not tattle to Brandon’s mom after scout meetings, or pull him aside for a reprimand? She was so unfazed, and I got ornery whenever my so-called friends failed to notice and compliment my different hairstyle or new shoes. I pitched a fit over loosing Uno for cripes sake! Yet here my mother was, patiently conveying the details of her diagnosis to this random friend of mine.
She told me once that ‘everyone is curious, especially when they see something unusual.’ Instead of telling people to mind their own beeswax, she tells them something real and truthful, instead of squandering their honest curiosity.
“Alice will go forward with that knowledge.” She said to me that day at dinner, “She’s a good egg.”
I still wonder how she manages the bad eggs, the ones with the hard shells and bitter yolks, who holler and jab at her ‘quirks and giggles,’ who call her weak and weird. Such unwavering patience my mother has.
I can hear Alice’s response to this day. It is picture perfect, exactly what my mother hopes to hear whenever she shares this information.
“Thank you, Mrs. Lockhart.” A serious nod, a quick smile, then back to our playdate, scooping forgotten Uno cards back into their box. Nothing more to the matter than mutual understanding.