My mother and I were watching old family videos on summer on our living-room TV when we came across the footage of my first birthday party. I’m sitting in a high chair with a pointy paper hat, and my family and friends are gathered around, laughing and waving. Soon the lights dim and my mother walks in — a younger, longer-haired mother with full checks and bright eyes. Illuminating her face and the tiny dining room is a glorious birthday cake with flaming Micky Mouse candles. “Happy birthday to you,” they sing. “Happy birthday to you.” But my real-life mother, my older, thinner mother, had her hand clutched over her mouth, glassy-eyed and fixed on the screen.
“I’m poisoning you,” she whispered, shaking her head. “I’m poisoning you, Marina. I’m poisoning you.” I went to the VCR and turned off the footage.
“It’s okay, Mom.” I said. But she was already shaken.
I was reminded in that moment of the stories my father told me about my infant months spent in the hospitals and waiting rooms. He’d urge my mother to sleep at home or in the visitor ward, but she wouldn’t listen. Each and every night she slept upright, propped uncomfortably in hospital-room chairs.
Marina Keegan, Against the Grain from The Opposite of Loneliness
My name is not Marina. I don’t have deathly allergic reactions to gluten. I’m not a girl, I didn’t attend Yale, I haven’t graduated yet, and I can’t write like you do (yet).
But it was startling to see my own words ripped from my mind and written on a page that I didn’t write.
When I see photos of my mother from years past, the first thing I notice is how much weight she has lost. She’s thinner now, with cheeks that speak of tiredness and age. The thing about seeing a person on a regular basis is that you miss the small changes, even when they start adding up. Every time I see old photos of her from when I was just a child, I wonder just how much of that change is my fault.
Then I’m reminded of the days and night that my parents spent driving me to the hospital, for one sickness after another. I say “reminded” even though I was only just a baby because I the stories feel like memories. My mom would tell me about how often I used to get sick as a baby, and how they couldn’t even count the number of times they brought me into the emergency room. She said the staff at the local hospital knew us well. She’d talk about the sleepless nights, her falling asleep on a chair by the hospital bed, her head unwittingly resting on my bedside. The moments in the cleanrooms when she couldn’t do anything but watch from the outside of a curtain, without being able to cradle her own child when I cried.
Marina, I wish you had stuck around for me to get to know you one day. I don’t know if we liked the same kind of music or the same kind of movies. There is only so much I can glean from these pages of yours. But you made me cry tonight, because you understood a deep part of me that I don’t like to show others. And these tear stained pages tell me that I’m getting the invaluable gift of understanding a part of you.
Thanks for your words, Marina. I hope you know you’ve made a difference.