When I got off the plane at JFK, my mother wasn’t waiting. She wasn’t answering phone calls or texts, either. Very unlike her. I moved back and forth from the air conditioned terminal to the New York heat wave glare of the curb outside, searching among the glinting windshields of jockeying taxicabs to catch sight of her and her little green car.
My phone rang, an unknown number with a Queens’ area code. Normally I let unfamiliar digits slide straight to voicemail but, things being what they were, I answered it. The voice on the other end of the line belonged to a Delta employee.
“Are you off the plane, sir?”
“I am. Why?”
“Are you looking for your mother?”
I cycled through the Rolodex of lethal possibilities: heart attack, stroke, Mack truck.
“Your mother fell down some stairs. She’s okay, but she hurt her arm and we’re waiting for the ambulance.”
I rushed through the airport to find the stairwell he’d described, leading from the parking plaza down to the terminal. I arrived at the top of it and saw her at the bottom, sitting on concrete with her knees drawn up, cradling her left arm with her right. Saying she’d fallen down some stairs was a bit misleading: she’d tripped on the bottom step and fallen a few short inches to the sidewalk. But the injury was serious: her wrist was swollen and deformed, a clearly fractured thing.
I knew what her first words to me would be.
We hugged, and then with her good arm she held me at length and took an approving look.
“You look good.”
It was only my second visit home since moving away; we were still getting used to this. In the back of the ambulance, the pain started to kick in as the shock wore off. Still, she charmed the EMTs. Together, we all lamented Donald Trump as we drove out to Long Island Jewish Hospital, which happened to be where I was born a little over thirty-three years prior. It was my first time back.
Mom and I hadn’t been to any hospital together in a while. For a few years, though, her health had deteriorated, and so we were in those sterile corridors often during that time. She had continually lost an alarming amount of weight until two years ago, when at seventy years young she had major chest surgery to remove a six inch long, four inch wide, two inch deep tumor that had grown off the lining of her one remaining lung. She’d had the other lung removed due to infection at age eight in the Soviet Union.
My mom always loved her Marlboro Reds. She smoked them for decades, breathing their blue smoke into her one lung. Whether or not her tumor, benign, was caused by cigarette smoking, is something I remain agnostic about. Not even the doctors could definitively say. The trauma down our matrilineal line is encyclopedic in its volume and breadth, and my mother was born in the Soviet Union a mere two weeks after the close of World War II, to a mother who had survived the Nazi siege of Leningrad.
Seeing photos of the tumor after it was removed, the way it looked all knitted and veiny, I feel sure that it was woven out of war and starvation and fear-drenched flight as much as anything else in her life, from my narcissistic father to those fumes that she would breathe in and out from day-to-day in our sunny living room.
Still, the tumor, the surgery, the whole ordeal seemed to say that smoking was probably a bad idea. So she quit.
After our airport reunion, we spent seven hours in the Emergency Room of Long Island Jewish. As hospitals do, they made us wait, and wait, and wait some more. They wouldn’t give my mother any painkillers until she was examined, but couldn’t tell us when that might possibly happen. We asked if she could take some Tylenol she had in her bag. She always has Tylenol in her bag. They said yes.
My mom gestured at her broken left arm, wrapped in a shoddy temporary sling.
“Get the pills for me, please,” she said. Her accent felt thicker that night, as if the pain and fatigue were drawing it out of her.
I rifled through her purse but couldn’t find the bottle. I dug among the keys, receipts, and snacks, feeling around. Then I felt the outline of a small bottle in a zippered pocket off to the side.
“Ah, I said, “it’s in this zippered pocket.”
“No,” she replied, exasperated, and with her good right arm snatched the purse back from me. I didn’t think anything of it; she was at wit’s end with the long wait and the pain in her arm. She kept digging, moving all the objects I’d already moved a few times already, and she couldn’t find the Tylenol.
“I’m telling you, it’s in the zippered pocket.”
“No, it’s not!”
I snatched the purse back from her. We were doing our exasperated Jewish thing.
She reached for the bag, and it settled into the crook between our legs.
Both our hands were in the purse at once. I pushed hers aside, opened the zippered pocket, and both our eyes looked down. I saw a pack of Marlboro Reds, a Bic lighter, and beside them, the small bottle of Tylenol. I said a mental “Hm,” took out the medicine, zipped up the pocket, and popped a couple of pills into her waiting palm. I put the Tylenol back in the main compartment of the bag.
Neither of us said a thing.
We waited some more, staring straight forward at the nurses’ station.
Finally, they called her name. It was time for an X-Ray. I went with her and while she waited her turn, lying on a gurney outside the radiology lab, I held her good hand.
“Oy,” she said. “How I remember the pain you were in when you broke your arm.”
When I was eight years old, I fell off my bicycle while riding with my dad out to LaGuardia Airport, about thirty minutes away from my childhood home in Jackson Heights, Queens. We used to bike out there to watch the planes take off and land. In thirty years of father memories that are overwhelmingly cold and harsh, those bicycle rides are one of the warm patches I can always hold on to. We’d get chocolate milk from the dingy cafeteria in the bus stop right next to the airport and then lean up against the fence and watch 747’s lift into the sky. My father, an avid traveler, would quiz me on how well I could spot the airline logos of incoming landing jets while they were still high in the sky.
Biking there, I fell and broke my arm and in the hospital, while they wrapped me up in a cast, I twisted the truth for my mom when she asked what happened. I was so embarrassed. So my brain whipped up a white lie, and deftly at that. I told her: you see, Mommy, I yawned, and my eyes filled with tears, and I tried to blink them away and I lost track of where I was biking, and I fell.
Did I remember, when spinning that yarn, that before we’d headed out on our bikes my mother expressed concern to my father that it was too late in the evening? Did I understand, at age eight, that they were already splintering apart? Was I doing my piece to push it along?
Oh, how she laid into my father when she heard me tell how I fell. I told you he was tired! she said. Why take him biking at sunset! You know his bedtime was soon!
This is all your fault!
The truth is: I had been playing a brilliant game I’d invented called, How Long Can I Ride My Bike In A Straight Line With My Eyes Closed?, when I suddenly felt grass under my wheels instead of sidewalk, and opened my eyes to find myself on a big sloping lawn in the shadow of a townhouse. I panicked, chucked my handlebars left, fell down to the sidewalk and cracked my arm hard against pavement. Someone living on that block heard my screams and rushed out to help, offering me more comfort than my father was capable of giving. It wasn’t until I saw my mom in the hospital later that night that I truly felt safe and taken care of.
A couple years back, when my mom was getting ready for her tumor surgery, waiting tensely and patiently for her ribs to be cracked open, we had to talk like there was no tomorrow. Because there might not have been. We had to say goodbye, just in case. Love, shame, regret, all the things that get hidden for far too long came bubbling to the surface. Something newly open, newly honest, grew between us, then, and though I’d gone on to move three thousand miles away, it only grew stronger with the distance. I’d called her one day from my new home and let her know that I was queer; it felt like the last big secret I was keeping.
But it wasn’t; there was still the story of my arm.
Outside the radiology lab, holding her good hand while she rested her broken wrist on her chest, I told my mom the truth about my fall. About riding with my eyes closed. She shook her head in disbelief.
“My god,” she said, and despite everything my father put us through, especially her, despite the awfulness of his very way of moving through the world, I saw guilt write itself across my mother’s face. “I really held that against your father, you know. For years. Until now, even.”
“I know,” I said. “I just wanted you to know.”
The nurse came over to wheel her in for her X-ray. My mom looked at me and shook her head. She was smiling.
“What a lie!” she said.
The door to radiology closed.
I sat in the fluorescent hallway and thought about her apartment, the odor of cigarette smoke pervading it, how it would hit you in the face when you came home. How when we’d bring it up after the surgery she’d say, yes, all those years of smoking here, you just can’t get the smell out.
I thought of where all the ashtrays might be hiding, where the lighters must be secreted away whenever I visit. I imagined her sticking her head out a window, or going for a walk just to feel free. The shame of my bicycle story, which I held for years, truly afraid to tell her, had lifted, and I felt lighter.
I stared at the door of the radiology lab and thought about her wrist and then about the cigarettes in her purse, how we’d said nothing about them though they’d been right between us. How easy that was to do: to stay silent. And how much healthier it was to speak. Tomorrow, I knew, I would tell her that it was okay. That her life was all her own, to heal or to harm. Either way, all I wanted was for us to live in the truth.