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Lithium What my mother's leg injury taught me about vulnerability

Dec. 17, 2018
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Cover art by Julia Tabor.

A few months ago, my mother got into an accident and fractured her leg and arm. I’ve always been aware that my mother is not physically indestructible—yet this incident managed to shake me.

My mother is 58 years old. At 17, she left our province, Bulacan, to work in Manila. My grandparents were not very well off, and she eventually decided to take a short-term secretarial course so she could provide for herself. A shrewd woman, my mother was not afraid to quit a job and would easily get one after another.

When my brother and I were kids, besides keeping our house clean, she also grilled and sold street food all day and night—just to make sure we had lunch money for the next day.

For years, I have witnessed her take care of my grandmother and act as a maternal figure to my nephews and nieces, freely offering the same love with which she blesses me and my brother. She bathed, dressed, and fed us, and made sure to attend our school meetings whenever she could.

When I heard the news from her during one of our phone calls, I didn't imagine the days, weeks, and months which would follow. I didn't understand the worst of it until I came back home and saw it with my own eyes. 

My mother had always done everything for us. But all of a sudden, that changed.

Crippling Vulnerability

Bathing my mother for the first time gave me an odd feeling.

I stood in front of her as she sat on a chair. Uneasily, I grabbed the shampoo bottle and poured a bit in my palm. As bubbles formed in her hair, I envisioned my younger self sitting in a small bathtub, my mother washing my hair.

"A change of dynamic," I thought. I'm shampooing my mother—the same person who braided my hair when I was in first grade. The figure of authority who often yelled at me and my brother for leaving the dishes unwashed; the strict guardian whom my 11-year old self sometimes feared.

While cleaning her hair, I had to be delicate and careful to prevent water from trickling down onto her injured arm.

Despite the slight shame that comes with showing every part of oneself to their offspring, I saw bravery and humility in the way she allowed me to help her. She was half-naked, literally and figuratively.

The first time my mom asked me to help her shower, she mentioned that my aunt would bathe her when I was away. Suddenly, a strong sense of aggressive protectiveness washed over me; I was upset by the complete surrender and vulnerability her words implied. How could my mother be weak and dependent? 

This was something I had to mull over. Who was my mom if I couldn’t define her by her strength? 

And so I stepped outside of what I knew. My mom, I realized, was not just my mom. She could be a clumsy friend, a silly daughter, and an ill-tempered wife to others. She could be human.

Familial Intimacy

Months before her operation, my mom’s left arm had this metallic antenna stuck in the flesh between her bones.

Taking a shower and undressing became tricky. We had to cut the sleeves off her clothes just for her to remove and wear them. Her bandages needed to be changed after every shower.

I’d pat the cotton gently around the open areas, as if tip-toeing on thin ice. "Does it hurt?"

"No," she would reply.

This is the same person who yelled at me and my brother whenever we fought over unevenly sliced hot dogs. Tenderness isn't exactly our main language.

The unfamiliarity of our physical and emotional closeness naturally made things awkward. Familial intimacy circled her wounds and spread across the room, engulfing both of us wholly. I didn’t know what to feel.

I wondered—is there a handbook for familial intimacy? It’s easy to find memes and literary texts analyzing every type of romantic and platonic intimacy imaginable. But I’ve rarely encountered one about familial intimacy. Where’s a handbook when you need one?

Perhaps, sometimes, handbooks for any kind of intimacy are unnecessary, and we just have to let things happen. Allow its warmth to enter our lives in whatever form it may come, however weird it might feel at first.

Taking Charge

Two months later, my mother was scheduled for her leg operation.

Once my mother was taken inside the operating room, I was left outside. Alone. 

I stood there, unsure of my next move. I tried to maintain my posture and appear brave despite being short. Nurses and doctors passed by. Eventually, I decided to just go downstairs and accompany my father. We spent the next six hours waiting and sleeping.

Frequently, I had to check if my mother had been moved to the recovery room, thus requiring me to communicate with nurses about post-operation essentials such as food and sanitizers. These check-ins also gave me a scary glimpse of my unconscious mother just feet away from the doorway at which I was standing at.

When the operation finished the next morning, my mother was moved to the patients’ ward. That was when I started witnessing my mother's most vulnerable moments outside of our home.

For days, we navigated getting her on a wheelchair from a high bed, balancing her legs as we carefully pushed our way to the comfort room. Bathing in a hospital was another story. Those private moments tested our endurance. 

It struck me how powerfully this dynamic could change a daughter's perspective. Usually, it is the parent that guides a child during a challenging situation. But then a life-altering event happens, and the table is turned. The circumstances that forced my mother and me to temporarily switch places have radically altered our perspectives. Now, our relationship knows no hierarchy; there is neither parent nor child—only a strong companionship built on shampooing each other’s hair and changing bandages.