Sometimes you get a car where nothing goes right with it, the kind of car where every time you turn around there is something else wrong, some other thing that needs fixed or addressed or dealt with. You sort of want to drive the car off a cliff, or at least take it back to wherever you bought it and be all, hey, this car sucks. Gime my money back. Or at least give me a different car. A term for this kind of car is a lemon. As far as children go, I was something of a lemon. My mom and I had a heartfelt conversation about six weeks before she died wherein she admitted that although she wanted me, they hadn’t exactly wanted me. And because the Universe has a glorious sense of humor, I was fraught with health and behavioral problems from birth.
You were ambivalent about this pregnancy in the first place, right? I’m gonna go ahead and mix things up a bit and send this little monster out breech. And for good measure, how ’bout some umbilical cord wrapped around that delicate baby neck?
My mom was a trooper, managed to deliver me with no drugs, and walked out of the hospital wearing her pre-pregnancy jeans. This was the way things were back then for high-school-educated folks of Irish descent. It’s not like it was the 50s. This was the 80s. But the working class is often a couple of decades behind sophisticated middle class with their book learnin’ and all the other fanciness. So I almost died in childbirth and my neck was screwed up from then on out, and my dad and mom were fighting and mostly hating each other and now they had this extra mouth to feed and the thing couldn’t even be grateful to be alive, it had to be difficult and sickly and cry its terrible cry all the time. It was a cry so disturbing that the doctor looked my mother square in the face when she brought me in for my first checkup and asked her how she could possibly stand me and advised her that it was okay to want to dropkick me or throw me out a window, so long as she didn’t act on that impulse. It goes without saying that rejection is a concept with which I continuously struggle in my adult life.
My childhood and adolescence was a mix of strange health problems, and by the time I was seventeen I had a couple of surgeries, one proudly earned broken bone, and a few hospital stays under my belt. My mom was also sickly, was in and out of the hospital, and most of my exposure to hospitals had to do with her being in the emergency room or the ICU or just generally admitted. My sisters and I earned our stripes in the healthcare system early, learning terminology and becoming acquainted with the emotionless, dead-eyed way you describe a confusing litany of health problems to a health care provider. We became databases of knowledge at tender young ages. She’s allergic to sulfa. Her maiden name is McGuire. She always has high blood pressure. She’s taking acetaminophen-based drugs.
Except I also had to be a database for my own strange health history, and I had to navigate what was often scary territory alone. This was before both of my sisters were employed in healthcare, before we knew exactly how things work and what to do and how to adeptly navigate the healthcare system to garner the most painless experience possible. Once when I was in my early twenties I had to go to the emergency room due to severe muscle spasms that were occurring in conjunction with vision problems. This all has to do with possible MS, a case on which the book has not been fully closed, but we’ll get to that later. On this particular visit, my sister Nep came with me. She frequently mothered me, and if I am at all well-rounded, is to her maternal instinct that I owe that. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t see straight, couldn’t drive myself, could barely lift my arms. I remember being in the passenger seat of her Impala which always smelled like heaven, staring down at my tennis shoes shoes, tears falling on my lime green Aeropostale pajama pants. I was terrified, exhausted from my body attacking itself, and my sister drove us with purpose, her brow furrowed and her face concerned.
We got to the hospital and one of the first orders of business was to have an injection of some sort of medication to relieve the pain and minimize the muscle spasms. We laughed nervously and hysterically in the exam room. Our nostrils flared and I choked on sobs while we giggled and she played with my hair to soothe me. I was single at the time, had very deliberately chosen to avoid dating, and I remember saying out loud, I wish I had a boyfriend. In that hospital room with my sister, feeling vulnerable and afraid of seemingly enormous health problems, the desire to have not just a partner but the partner was almost insurmountable. It was a pivotal moment in my life, when I realized that I have always wanted a mature partner with whom I can spend my life, someone to share in both the good and the bad with me. To that point, I had mostly toyed with relationships, sabotaged them and convinced myself that men didn’t have feelings and I was better off going it alone. I had no relationships to model, and I was an angry little human with balled up fists who could not admit that maybe the risk of rejection was acceptable in the face of the possibility of transcendent love.
The nurse told me just before she stepped out of the room that she would need to give me the injection in my buttock so I should pull down my pants and she would be right back with the medication. Not having received such a shot before, I had no idea what to expect and no idea what to do to prepare. Attempting to cooperate, I grabbed a hold of the elastic waistband of my pajama pants and yanked them down to my ankles. I leaned forward on the bed and assumed what I assumed was the best position to receive an injection in one’s ass. My sister sat in a chair on the other side of the gurney, facing my face and not my butt. The nurse came in and stopped short in the doorway, holding a medication-filled syringe in one hand, eyes widening as she assessed the situation.
Oh, she said. I, um, I really just need you to pull your pants down a little so I can get to your gluteus muscle.
And she just stood there, holding the syringe and staring at me. I looked at her, then to my sister. No help. She was chewing on her lip and trying not to laugh at me. Strong though her maternal instinct was, still she was my sibling.
Okay, I stammered, squatting to grab my pants and see if maybe I could find my dignity somewhere under the gurney. I pulled the pants up and the nurse fully entered the room and administered the shot. We still laugh about this story, though my sister remembers less about my pantaloon faux paux and more about how my body involuntarily shuddered and jerked forward at receiving a syringe full of pain meds in the ass. I always revisit the nurse, frozen solid in the doorway, apparently afraid to approach a pantsless patient who was not supposed to be pantsless. Presumably as a health care professional she had seen more than just my private bits before, yet she was incapable of even entering the room until I pulled my pants up. It is moments like these and observations about the absurdity of life and humans that make me glad I still get to live it, lemon though I may be.