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More Than My Teenage Mother
My mom had me when she was seventeen. It is so easy to get the idea that teenage pregnancy is what you see on those so accurately portrayed reality television shows—that girl who lives down South with her drug addict grandmother because her mother is in jail for the third time with a DUI. She also has an overweight boyfriend that knocked her up that one time when he was drunk and he swears that he loves her only to conveniently move to another state just as the baby is arriving. It of course ends with the girl dropping out of high school mid-pregnancy. Her whole life is ruined before our eyes. We sit back and shake our heads in our socially accepted disapproval while secretly enjoying this fantastic train wreck guilt-free from the comfort of our living rooms. Contrary to popular belief, not all teenage pregnancies play out this way. Or rather that isn’t how I remember it.
My mother wasn’t like that and from how I perceive it, I was actually more of a little sister or even a best friend and she treated me that way. I wasn’t some unfortunate surprise, nor was I life shattering. I was life altering. I was her life and she was incredibly proud.
My mom was the kind of mother who let her kid stand on the waiting bench at The 99 Restaurant singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” at the top of her lungs while everybody stared and whispered to their own children the reasons why they should not become a neglectful teenage mother. Why they should keep their precious legs closed until marriage. She was so good at ignoring them and just gazing at me as if I was the portrayal of some quality that she did not possess in herself. It was as if this, my confidence, was something truly unique to childhood— that honest, shameless, pride.
She was the kind of mother who would sit for hours trying to figure out why the E-Z Bake Oven wasn’t cooking the artificial slime in the little metal mold. She knew that even if my concoction tasted like dog food, I would still devour it with more than a little satisfaction (and not just because I was more than a little chubby).
She was even the kind of mother who would stay up all night because her kid was coughing and at 2am she would hold back her “GO TO SLEEP DAMNIT!”s and “SHUT THE HELL UP”s and still make it to work in the morning. She would hand me my thick blanket and a cough drop and lay next to me every night until I slept. That is what a mother was supposed to do.
My little brother was two when we found out she was sick. Cancer just meant sick because that is what my mother and father told me. They had the habit of consistently spewing these strategies to keep my brother and me in our purest state of childhood. They all attempted to deceive me by coating the situation in a nice thick layer of sugary goodness. She was sick and she would get better and when she was in the hospital it was because the doctors were making her better so she could come home just in time for my soccer game or parent-teacher conferences.
My social worker later gave me the explanation that I remember most vividly, although then I just looked at her and rolled my eyes and continued to decorate the flower pot she so artificially stuck in front of me alongside some watercolors, Elmer’s glue, and a half empty shaker of glitter. She explained quite simply and insincerely that bad cells were in my mother’s body and the doctors had a medicine to get them out. I remember her haphazard drawings of purple cells with mean faces and her explanation that my mother would be losing her hair. I remained neutral and I wasn’t phased by those awkward days spent with my dad while my mom was in the hospital and I didn’t give it a second thought when I heard her cry in her room on the phone with her own mother. She still went to my pancake breakfasts at school and she still brought me to gymnastics.
What everybody failed to tell me—what I failed to notice—was that abnormal cells in my mother’s cervix were growing out of control and forming tumors that were spreading and violating other parts of her body. If I had gotten news like this now I perhaps could have done something to make it better. My reaction would have been different and I would have started to let go. I would have known that cancer didn’t just mean sick. I would have eavesdropped on my parent’s conversations to give myself hints. I would have noticed my mother’s newly pale skin and cold hands.
One of my proudest childhood moments was when I received the news that my mediocre self-portrait was selected to be in the school art show. To a child this seems like some type of fantastic achievement. It was the comfort that I had done something well and everybody was going to be proud of me. And I craved that universal praise and dropped my bag on the floor. I ran into the kitchen, obnoxiously waving that golden notice, but my mom stood facing the window. When she turned she gave me one of those fake smiles that is only recognizable to somebody older.
Her hair was gone and I had that uncomfortably human feeling that you get when you are at Target and see an older man with a missing leg being pushed in a wheelchair, or when you go to a nursing home and see your great aunt that was just at the family Christmas party, but now she is peeing in a bag and drooling on her pillow. They are as helpless and dependent as a newborn when it is held in the doctor’s careful hands. The newborn begins its life—or really begins the end of its life. But unlike the newborn, these people are finally at the end. But who is to say if the baby is not equally as close to its demise?
You also wonder if these people feel embarrassed or if it is just you that feels embarrassed looking at them. Do they feel like their life was long or fulfilling enough before they came to this unfortunate decline? Do they know (do they accept?) that they are going to die?
With this discomfort, I looked at her and tried to pretend that nothing had happened. I really never was one of those children without filters that upon seeing their bald mother would laugh and say “Mommy, where did all your hair go? You look funny!”
And to my dismay, later that night, it was mentioned again and I was taken back to that place strangely familiar to me. But this time she asked me if I would be embarrassed if my friends saw that I had a mom with no hair. I didn’t say anything except maybe a polite “No” but now I would like to think that I should have said something cheesy like, “Mom, don’t be silly. You are more beautiful than ever,” or “Now we can see that beautiful face.” The older family members probably told her that every day.
It was not all depressing: I loved going to her chemotherapy treatments after all. My mom would always take me to the hospital cafeteria and buy me some thick pudding or salty chicken nuggets or a bear from the gift shop that said “Get well soon” when you squeezed its foot.
My mom was buying me a get well soon bear. This seems incredibly perverse looking back, but I was in a state of oblivion for quite some time and it’s funny how children are. They are so easily distracted from the bad things in their life because they are so dependent on their parents. My dad was strong and so was my mom, but was I strong enough? Or neglectful? I was so infatuated with eating her jell-o cups that came with her hospital meal and smelling her flowers and playing with her balloons that I failed to notice that my mom had tubes up her nose, needles in her arms, and couldn’t even roll over without the help of a nurse. I completely disregarded those screams coming from the hospital room while the nurse handed me a carton of milk and asked me to wait outside in that seemingly never-ending and conflicted white hallway that appeared to amplify the screams of my mother as she was forced from her position in the hospital bed.
If I was anything but a seven-year-old girl, I might have questioned Jen, who convinced me that it was not my mother screaming. Or stayed with my mom that night because that’s something that a daughter should do. And I did stay with my mother a few times. She would motion for me to get into the bed with her and I was always quite paranoid about pulling out one of her needles by accident or taking up too much of the deathly thin hospital blankets.
I dreaded having to stay with her because I dreaded her cold hands against mine. It seemed as if there were not enough blankets to keep them warm or make her better. The same hospital air that my mother breathed when she gave birth to me, the air that was the first to fill my lungs, was now that same air we both inhaled and exhaled when I felt her dying.
I had to grow increasingly immune to emotion. One night at my grandmother’s dimly lit kitchen table my mom sat eating ice cream out of a pint, tears streaming from her face, and all I could think about was how she wasn’t wearing the earrings I had made for her earlier that afternoon. I had so meticulously strung them on hemp and handed them to her with a huge smile, expecting her to smile back. Now, at the kitchen table she repeated, “I’m going to die…” over and over. I couldn’t tell whether it was a question or an epiphany. She wasn’t wearing the earrings.
When she did die—when it was a reality—it was interesting; I immediately threw myself on the ground kicking and screaming. My emotions poured out of me and all over that pavement in front of the daycare center. I really had taken in every single thing that happened around me, but out of some force of denial I had been able to keep it all inside. It was now safe to let everything out; my mom was away so I didn’t have to be strong or full of denial or doubting or oblivious. Why hadn’t I shared these emotions with my mother? Didn’t she die knowing that I needed her?
I wasn’t even there to see my mother die. She had been in the hospital for a few weeks and it was decided that my brother would go to daycare and I would go to school and I can’t decide if I should have been there to see her. Myself at seven years old and myself at sixteen are different people. I was helpless then; I was not able to comprehend the things I took in from my surroundings or make sure that I had enough emotion to actually act like I cared. Even my memories from that seven year old are mixed and the times are unknown. The day that I got the news was the last day that I felt like I could stop being strong. I was oblivious not because I was stupid, but because that was I all I could be. My dad stopped being strong too. He cried and so did my family. And he stopped being strong for a long time after that and I had to be strong again.
With this said, the act of stopping one’s regret is so clichéd and it is hardly what is made out to be. There are so many doubts that go through one’s mind as they look at their past and what could have been done differently. What they missed out on. To me this was when I was ignorant and when I lost my childhood and when the rest of my life became hard. I didn’t take the time to even try to draw the conclusion that my mother might die. I was only seven and hadn’t had time to learn everything that she had to teach me. I couldn’t fight with her or cry to her as a teenager. I couldn’t do the same when I was an adult. I didn’t have time to ask her what I should know—how to ask out a boy or if it was okay for two girls to love each other.
If I am to glance just a little bit further into the past, with the help of borrowed memories, I can envision Kim, seventeen-year-old high school student. Upon hearing one of her peers share their words of disapproval, she lifts up her shirt to reveal her pregnant stomach. She says, “Is this what you are looking at? Well I’m not ashamed, are you?” And from this alone, I deduce that my mother was quite empowered by her less than charming situation as a teenage mother. She did not tell me that she was—I just know. I also realize that the sixteen year old in the present and the seven year old from the past are extremely different, but cohesive. One gives another its pride, it’s feelings of self worth. With this I am also empowered.