Home > My Name Is Lucy Barton(12)

My Name Is Lucy Barton(12)
Elizabeth Strout

Finally I was pushed through and there were the right-sounding clicks and tiny red lights blinking, and then the tube was taken out of my throat and I was pushed out into the hallway. This is the memory I think I will never forget: My mother was sitting in the dark waiting area there in the deep basement of that hospital, her shoulders slumped slightly in fatigue, but sitting with all the seeming patience in the world. “Mommy,” I whispered, and she waved her fingers. “How did you ever find me?”

“Wasn’t easy,” she said. “But I have a tongue in my head, and I used it.”

The next morning, Toothache brought with her the news that the tests had come out all right, that in spite of what had shown up in my blood the CAT scan was okay, the doctor would explain it all later. Toothache had also brought with her a gossip magazine, and she asked my mother if she’d like to read it. My mother shook her head quickly, as though she’d been asked to handle a person’s private body parts. “I’d like it,” I told Toothache, holding out my hand, and she gave it to me and I thanked her. The magazine lay that morning on my bed. Then I put it into the drawer in my table that had the telephone on it, and I did that—hid it—in case the doctor came in. So I was like my mother, we did not want to be judged by what we read, and while she wouldn’t even read such a thing, I only didn’t want to be seen with it. This strikes me as odd, so many years later. I was in the hospital, essentially so was she; what better time to read anything that takes the mind away? I had a few books from home near my bed, though I had not read them with my mother there, nor had she looked at them. But about the magazine, I’m sure it would not have made any dent in my doctor’s heart. But that is how sensitive we both were, my mother and I. There is that constant judgment in this world: How are we going to make sure we do not feel inferior to another?

It was merely a magazine about movie stars, one my own girls and I, when they were older, would look at for fun if we needed time to go by, and this particular magazine often featured a story about an ordinary person who had suffered something extraordinarily awful. When I took the magazine from the drawer that afternoon, I saw an article about a woman who had gone into a barn in Wisconsin to find her husband one evening and had her arm chopped off—literally chopped with an ax—by a man who had gotten out of the state mental asylum. This happened while her husband, tied to a post by the horse pens, watched. He screamed, which made the horses scream, and I guess the woman must have screamed like crazy—it did not say she passed out—and the sound of such noises caused the escaped-from-the-asylum-man to run off. The woman, who easily could have bled to death as her arteries were spurting blood, managed to call for help, and a neighbor came right over and tied her arm with a tourniquet, and now the husband and wife and neighbor made a point of starting each day by praying together. There was a photo of them in the early morning sun by the barn door in Wisconsin, and they were praying. The woman prayed with her one remaining arm and hand; they were hoping to get her a prosthetic soon, but there was the issue of money. I told my mother I thought it was bad taste to photograph people praying, and she said the entire thing was bad taste.

“He’s a lucky husband, though,” she said in a few moments. “I see on the news those shows where a man might have to watch his wife be raped.”

I put the magazine down. I looked at my mother at the foot of my bed, this woman I had not seen for years. “Seriously?” I asked.

“Seriously what?”

“A man watched his wife be raped? What were you watching, Mom?” I didn’t add what I most wanted to: And when did you guys get a TV?

“I saw it on television, I just told you that.”

“But on the news, or one of those cop show things?”

I saw—I felt I saw—her considering this, and she said, “The news, one night at Vicky’s house. Somewhere in one of those awful countries.” Her eyes flipped shut.

I picked the magazine back up and rustled through it. I said, “Hey, look—this woman has a pretty gown. Mom, look at this pretty gown.” But she did not respond or open her eyes.

This is how the doctor found us that day. “Girls,” he said, then stopped when he saw my mother with her eyes closed. He stayed just within the door, he and I both watching for a moment to see if my mother was truly asleep or if she would open her eyes. That moment, both of us watching to see, made me recall how in my youth there were times that I wanted desperately to run to a stranger when we went into town and say, “You need to help me, please, please, can you please get me out of there, bad things are going on—” And yet I never did, of course; instinctively I knew that no stranger would help, no stranger would dare to, and that in the end such a betrayal would make things far worse. And so now I turned from watching my mother to watching my doctor, for in essence this was the stranger I had hoped for, and he turned and must have seen something on my face, and I—so briefly—felt I saw something on his, and he held up a hand to indicate he’d come back, and when he stepped out, I felt myself dropping into something familiar and dark from long ago. My mother’s eyes remained shut for many more minutes. To this day I have no idea if she was sleeping or just staying away from me. I wanted terribly to talk to my little children then, but if my mother was asleep I couldn’t wake her by speaking into the phone next to the bed, and also the girls would have been in school.

All day I had wanted to speak to my girls, I could barely stand it, so I pushed my apparatus out into the hallway and asked the nurses if I could make a call from their desk, and they pushed a phone toward me, and I called my husband. I was desperate not to have any tears drip from my eyes. He was at work, and he felt bad for me, hearing how much I missed him and the kids. “I’ll call the sitter and have her call you just as soon as they’re home. Chrissie has a play date today.”

So life goes on, I thought.

(And now I think: It goes on, until it doesn’t.)

I had to sit in a chair at the nurses’ station while I tried not to cry. Toothache put her arm around me, and even now I love her for that. I have sometimes been sad that Tennessee Williams wrote that line for Blanche DuBois, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Many of us have been saved many times by the kindness of strangers, but after a while it sounds trite, like a bumper sticker. And that’s what makes me sad, that a beautiful and true line comes to be used so often that it takes on the superficial sound of a bumper sticker.

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