Megan Stielstra | Longreads | December 2019 | 22 minutes (5,562 words)
I spent last December taking care of my 70-year-old mother after surgery. She doesn’t like being taken care of. She takes care of herself. She lives happily alone in an impeccably decorated condo near Ann Arbor full of art and books and a fireplace that turns on with a remote control. She does Pilates every morning. She visits my 93-year-old grandmother every afternoon. She wears vegan “leather” and doesn’t eat dairy and goes to her doctors’ appointments and canvasses for the Democratic party and Facetimes her grandson in Chicago on Sundays so I can have a merciful extra hour of sleep. We have the same last name; sometimes her former students read my stuff and email through my website to ask if I am related to the Ms. Stielstra who taught fourth grade and totally changed their lives. I’m her daughter, I say. She’s wonderful, they say, and I say, I know.
“I need surgery,” she told me in September. We were on speakerphone, me stuck in traffic trying to get from the university where I teach to my son’s elementary school. In my head was every movie ever made of a child sitting sad and alone because their mother is late to pick them up. The word surgery hit like a baseball bat: I thought of the inoperable tumor in my best friend’s daughter’s brain, my father’s heart attack on a mountain in Alaska, my friend Randy’s emergency quadruple bypass, the cancers that took both my grandfathers, the hip replacement my grandmother had never recovered from, and the tumor they peeled years ago off my ovary. Please don’t let it spread, I thought.
“Not that kind of surgery,” my mother said, responding audibly to my inner monologue. We talk three or four times a week and she knows how I think. Or maybe it’s a mother-daughter thing, our bodies tied together across miles and molecules. Maybe she’s really a witch. “It’s foot surgery,” she said. “Again.”
Five years before she’d had a cyst removed from the bone in her foot and something hadn’t healed right. The pain was constant. She used a cane. She couldn’t drive long distances. She’d been to countless podiatrists, orthopedists, physical therapists. “Looks okay,” they said after X-Rays. “Try this exercise, this ice pack, this orthotic.” She bought special shoes. She bought a stationary bike. Nothing got better and no one could say why. “These things happen as we get older,” they told her, another way of saying It’s all in your head. “I know my body,” she told them, another way of saying Fuck that noise. Of course my elegant mother doesn’t use the word fuck. “Ladies can say shit, damn, and hell,” she always told me, reciting the sentence like it was gospel, like she’d read it in Emily Post. “But they can never say — ” She didn’t finish the sentence.
“Foot surgery is good, right?” I said into the speakerphone. My relief was near-tangible, a thing I could hold to my heart. “Maybe they’ll find out what’s wrong.”
“That’s the plan,” she said. “But I won’t be able to walk for a month and — ” She hates asking me for help. I have a kid and a job and she doesn’t want to bother me even though I tell her repeatedly that it’s the furthest thing from. Of course I’ll be there. This is how we take care of each other.