(Fourth, and last, in a series.)
Mami and I walked the one and a half miles along Jersey Avenue from Doctor Miami’s office to Unico Towers. We walked past the corner where my husband B’s ground-floor, bachelor-days apartment is now a sweets and ice cream shoppe (with the quaint “e” at the end that means “expensive”). Mami declined the offer of ice cream. I would have splurged for triple cones for the both of us to celebrate the relief of the doctor’s visit being over. I had anticipated the worst: that Mami would refuse to go at the last minute; that she would refute anything I said in the examination room or that she would insist I not accompany her into the room so she could be cute to Doctor Miami, get her meds refilled, and be out of there.
The visit had been sitcom-cute: two petite Latina women and Doctor Miami in the examination room, sharing information and Spanglish-isms, being all Latino and reaching that level of confianza, ¿sabes? where there are no blank looks, just heads nodding si, because yes, we understood. I was reassured. The word had been confronted.
“Likely showing the signs of early dementia.”
I’m old enough to know that denial causes more anxiety than just acknowledging and naming the fear. I was grateful that Doctor Miami had put the word out in the open, all action-hero like, “Stand back, damas. El Doctor Miami will handle this for you.” It was a relief to feel I was not alone in having to figure out the possible causes for Mami’s increasing forgetfulness. I had been paralyzed: It’s impossible for me to take a next step when I don’t understand what I’m confronting. Going forward into the unknown requires faith and I have very little. In life as in the pool, I need a lot of reassurance before I’m willing to let go of the edge and swim, tread, dog paddle, do whatever I need to do to get through the deep water and possibly make it to the other side.
In that and so many ways, Mami and I are similar. She’s never been officially diagnosed as having social anxiety, but that’s what Doctor Berger believes. She’s my doctor, the one I’ve seen since my Liam died eight years ago. Doctor Berger diagnosed my own Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and anxiety; because so much of therapy involves talking about where you came from and, of course, talking about your mother, Doctor Berger feels that Mami likely suffers from social anxiety.
When I was younger, I didn’t have patience for what seemed irrational. Why didn’t Mami want to take me to the park? Why didn’t she want to attend school meetings or events? Why didn’t she want to go to parties? Why was it my job to stand on tip-toe to peek over counters and speak to store clerks or administrative personnel or bank tellers? In the examination room, little Nancy had been relieved that Doctor Miami had answers and actionable steps that super-competent Nancy could move forward with and fulfill.
Mami understands and speaks English. She’s the one who read with me in those first grades, helped me sound out words, and practice, practice, practice until we could both repeat from memory the passages assigned to me for homework by the nuns at Most Sacred Blood School. She’s also the one not to be messed with if she’s overcharged at the store. Mami is capable of holding her own in English, in the United States, the place she’d arrived to as a young, unaccompanied, single woman. She’s the one who had worked and saved for that first plane ticket and decided to leave her own Mami and Papi’s house in el campo not to a new marriage or San Juan, but to Nueva York for una nueva vida. She’s the one who stepped off the plane with only the Bronx address of an established aunt and a utilitarian English vocabulary that included the days of the week and the words for farm animals. It took cojones to do all that in the early 1950s, but when I was younger and knew it all, I focused on what Mami didn’t do.
Doctor Berger’s suggested diagnosis was the beginning of my understanding the contradictions of my mother, the quiet little woman who has made big moves. Imagine if Mami had had the benefit of a Doctor Berger? But psychotherapy was not an option in rural Puerto Rico during the Depression years when Mami was growing up. And housewives in New York City public housing just didn’t do talk therapy, ¿sabes? That’s the kind of thing daughters like me do, daughters born and raised in the United States, whose mothers had to go through a lot of shit, sometimes took jobs cleaning shit, so we could have more options and opportunities than they ever did—like the option to sit on the couch in Doctor Berger’s basement office in Hoboken to talk about my mother and how I want to be bold, not rely on medication, and not be so nervous and anxious like Mami.
Yet I’m just like her: small, brown, and high-anxiety. I got my fear of stepping into the unknown from her, but I have chosen to go forward many times in my life. Those times have taken cojones, and I got those from Mami, too. I’ve learned from her example throughout my life: of what I don’t want to be, of what I want to be, and of what I am.
On that walk along Jersey Avenue from Doctor Miami’s office back to Unico Towers, I asked Mami more than once if she’d understood everything, if there was something she wanted to go over. She said no, she’d understood everything. I asked if she liked Doctor Miami, and she said yes. Maybe she thinks he’s cute or likes to be doted on by a beefy younger guy. I didn’t ask. Let her savor that alone if she does. I told her I’d been impressed with his knowledge, especially his knowledge and understanding of her, and his manner and patience. I didn’t ask Mami if she was afraid or nervous. That was not the ground I wanted to cover in Friday’s one and a half mile walk. There is going to be time for that ground to be covered and I don’t know how many miles it will be.
I looked at the small woman walking beside me, matching my gait and my slightly-leaning-forward, gotta-go posture—both of which I get from her. I’ve spent so much time trying to move ahead and away from her, not noticing she’s always been right beside me and so much of who I am.
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