My mother had a way of judging people. She would say, “That woman wouldn’t have lasted a day in Auschwitz.”
What would she say about this body of mine?
Sixty-four years old. Limping, lurching. Stand up straight, she would have said. Head up, shoulders down and, gotteynu, enough with looking down at the sidewalk. What are you looking for, a diamond, a dollar, a big hole in the ground?
My mother told only one story about her family. They had a summer home in the mountains. A beautiful house, a mansion, not like our small apartment. And the trees, the air. Like being in Central Park, but much better. How can you even compare? One summer, she was so excited, so happy, she was running and didn’t look and fell down a hole. I never asked her, What was this hole? How old were you? Did you get badly hurt? I never asked what happened to that house in the mountains, or how every member of her family died.
This is not my body. This body that takes fifteen minutes to walk across a parking lot, that can’t stand up solidly, on two feet, or walk across the floor. “Why are you limping?” a man in Whole Foods, a complete stranger, asks.“I am not limping,” I say. My mother would have said the same thing, but she would have also advised the gentleman to get his eyes checked. We, my mother and I, do not see this as kindness. This is an attack, and we must protect ourselves from those who judge us as weak, sick, broken.
Whose body is this?
Mine. This is mine. (No, it can’t be.) But yes, it is. If only I could get my old body back. If only I could fix what has gone wrong.
My mother believed everything could be fixed. Cracked crystal vases, shattered porcelain figurines, ripped sofa cushions. She knew how to fix them all. If I lost something at school, she’d go to the lost and found and return with a pair of gloves, a scarf, a hat, one time even a jacket. “No, I didn’t find your red sweater,” she’d say. “Probably another child took it, but look what I found instead.” It didn’t matter that what she found was never worn and was eventually thrown out. In that moment, my mother had fixed the problem.
Was it my fault that I couldn’t fix my body? Was it my mother’s fault that she could fix a broken television set, but she could not fix the brokenness inside herself?
I deny. I pretend.
I try to fix it. I google “hip pain.” I order books from Amazon. I go to the pot store.
I cannot fix this. I will have to get help. From a doctor.
My mother did not believe in doctors. It doesn’t matter what I believe. I have no choice.
I go to a doctor. An orthopedist. “An easy fix,” he says. “A total hip replacement. Choose how you want to live your life. Slowly declining or living fully and then dropping dead.” His diagnosis is Left Hip End Stage Degenerative Joint Disease. I don’t like the sound of Degenerative, but even worse are the words, End Stage. There is nowhere to go after this. It is the last stop. A part of my body, once in perfect condition, has failed me. It is gone for good and there is no getting it back.
Along with his diagnosis, this doctor writes that I feel like I am living in a prison. He misunderstood. I told him, I could walk five feet and then had to stop, as if I were exercising in a prison cell. I wanted him to know that I could manage just fine, no matter the circumstances. Even if I were in prison.
I will have the surgery. There is something appealing about living fully and then dropping dead. In any case, I do not have the stamina for a slow decline. My walk immediately goes from a limp to a Frankensteinian lurch. Whatever will power has held me up, collapses.
Three nights before the surgery, I dream I am walking on a road. Barefoot. I cannot believe the view of the mountains. Breathtaking. Some of the road is covered in water. That does not stop me. My God, the view! When I wake up, I realize that the amazing part isn’t the view, it is that I am walking.
The night before surgery and then again in the morning, I must shower using a disinfectant. The bottle filled with red liquid. The yellow sponge. The stark instructions in large, black print. It all fills me with dread. Is it because I am entering the world of the patient, or is it the memory of another shower, another time, places I have never been?
Five fifty-seven in the morning, I check in at the front desk. The woman with the tired face, even her hair looks tired, says she likes my name. Colette. I too like the name Colette. I much prefer it to my name, Paulette. Named after my mother’s mother, Paula, but with an elegant twist. “I got it from Paulette Goddard,” my mother told me. “A very famous actress.”
I overhear a man say he’d come to the ER a week ago with chest pains, and they told him he had a blood clot in his lungs and liver cancer. I can hear my mother, You see what happens? You go to a hospital with one problem and wind up with three. She is right. Nevertheless, I limp down the hall to the surgery wing.
The nurse checks my lungs. “Just out of curiosity,” I say, attempting to sound casual and intelligent, “What if I had a cold?” For weeks I have been close to crazed about getting a cold. No colds, no coughs, no fevers, the pre-op instructions, which I read four times, five times, ten times, state. Along with colds, I worry about rashes, scrapes, cuts, infections, toothaches, and high blood pressure. The very idea of being sent home after having come this far is unbearable.
“People show up all the time with colds and coughs,” she says.
Who are these people? Are they irresponsible illiterates, or do they simply assume that things will work out? What an easy life these people must have.
The surgeon arrives. “Hip? Knee?” he asks.
“Hip. Hip,” I repeat in case he didn’t hear me the first time.
“Left. But the right isn’t so great either.”
“You want both?” he asks. His idea of a joke.
The anesthesiologist and his nurse arrive. He is tall and thin. She is short and round. Like something out of a nursery rhyme. I can’t remember which one.
I ask, “During the surgery, should I be paying attention to what’s going on?”
“You really don’t need to,” the anesthesiologist says. “There’s a lot of banging and pulling, and you won’t be able to see anything.” He recommends that I take a drug that erases memory. I will be awake, but I will forget what happened.
“But who will supervise if I’m not paying attention? Will you?” I like this doctor. With his bald head and glasses, he reminds me of Mr. Magoo.
“Yes,” he says. “I will.”
Why did I want to be aware of what was happening? To make sure that if something terrible happened, I would… Do what? What could I do? I wanted to be aware right before, the very second before, I died. I should have said to this man, this smiling doctor, All I ask of you is that if you know I’m about to die, please tell me.
Seven-eighteen, we go down the corridors, passing people dressed in scrubs. I wave as if I’m Miss America. Oh how my mother and I loved watching Miss America.
“Curl to your side,” the anesthesiologist says. I hold on to the nurse’s arm, soft and warm, as I feel the needle pierce the skin of my spine. I roll to my back. The nurse takes my right arm, extends it horizontally, and ties it down. Just like Jesus, I think. Maybe I even say it.
And then, such a good sleep. The best sleep I’ve had in years. I move the bed up and down. Everything is white. Peaceful.
When I open my eyes, I wonder what all these people are doing in my bedroom.
“You did great,” they say. “Ice chips?”
“Yes. Thank you.” So delicious.
My back hurts. “This bed is terrible.”
“It cost thirty-thousand dollars,” the nurse says.
“You should consider getting a refund,” I advise her.
Nine forty-five, I am out of recovery.
Room 342. They bring me orange popsicles, vanilla ice cream, pancakes with real maple syrup, toast with raspberry jam, tea with sugar. People come and go: nurses, orderlies, physical therapists, occupational therapists, the surgeon. A woman in red scrubs comes to draw my blood at four-fifteen in the morning.
They put yellow socks on my feet so that everyone will know I am a High Fall Risk.
Home. I am on the other side of this. There is a rhythm. Three pills when I wake up. Shower with Saran Wrap and duct tape covering the incision. Compression stockings. Exercises. The days become a blur. I have no need to remember. Not everything must be remembered.
I stand by the kitchen window, looking at the trees. I dance. I can dance. But walking, walking is a whole other story. I can’t remember how to walk. I know one foot moves and then the other. I watch people walking. They walk as if it’s an easy thing to do.
Outside the ground is unpredictable. It has slants and cracks. It slopes and it rises without any warning. And I must not fall. Falling is out of the question.
My mother walked everywhere. Did she believe the ground was safe, or was she just more courageous? My mother walked to the very end. Suffering from dementia, nearly blind, she insisted each day on going out for her walk. She would sit at the bus stop and talk to people. What must these people have thought of her, this once proud woman wearing torn, stained dresses? I hope they were nice to her. One day on her walk, she fell and hit her head. She forgot how to walk. A month later she died.The day before she died, I tried to teach her how to use a walker. I thought that if she could remember how to walk, she’d come back to herself. She kissed my hands that day when she said goodbye.
How can it be that I have no memory of the surgery?
My body was cut, sawed, hammered, sewn up. I was awake for all of it, but at some point my body and the rest of me parted company, because I don’t remember any of it.
Except I do. It’s just that I have changed the story. The special operating table is the bed I’m moving, the whiteness around me is the operating room, and the assault on my body? All I remember is peacefulness.
What is true? What they say happened, what I experienced and forgot, or what I remember? If my mother could have had a drug that let her remember Auschwitz differently than what she experienced, would she have taken it? I hope not. Some things need to be remembered exactly.
I am relearning the grammar of my body. I can go back to how I once was. Everything is as I left it. But for my mother, there was nowhere to go back to; nothing was as she left it. This country called Poland—her Poland—was black and empty.
We’d eat ice cream. “Delicious,” she’d say, “but the lody, those were ice creams.” Ice creams that were gone forever. Not even the Good Humor man sold those ice creams. We’d walk down Broadway, and I’d snuggle into her fur-lined coat. “Wonderful, yes? From Ohrbach’s. But in Poland, what a coat I had. All fur. If only I’d had that coat on the death march.” We’d watch Divorce Court. My mother presented arguments and pronounced judgements, and when she said, “What a lawyer I would have been, but no. Not possible,” I knew not to ask, “Why not?”
This new country—its ice creams and department stores and television programs—could not replace the country my mother had lost. Her two daughters could not replace the family, the profession, the life she had lost.
I don’t know what happened to my mother, I don’t understand it, but I live what happened to her. When I’m on a line, any line, the supermarket, the post office, Disneyland, I imagine being in line at the gates of Auschwitz. After the surgery, when I go to a buffet at a restaurant and I stand with a plate in one hand and my cane in the other, the thought—unbidden, unwanted—comes to me: What if someone hits me from behind? In Auschwitz, my mother was beaten on her back. Why would someone do this to her? I stand there looking at the desserts. I have no answer.
At sixty-four, I would not have survived Auschwitz. Even with this new hip, I would have been sent to the left. Would I have survived at twenty, at thirty? I’m not sure I would have had the courage, the strength, the will power that my mother had.
But I don’t have to figure out how to survive in Auschwitz. That is not my story.
When I finally go outside and walk, I realize it is no wonder that my mother loved walking so much. I think of her waking up each morning, remembering that her mother, her father, her brothers are gone. Nephews, cousins, aunts, uncles. All of them. Gone. She is all that remains. She lives in a foreign country where no one cares that she came from a well-to-do, educated family, that she graduated from law school and almost became a lawyer, that there is a language she can speak fluently without an accent.
She gets out of bed, showers, and brushes the long, black hair she has not allowed anyone to cut since Auschwitz. She dresses, puts on her stockings and high heels, and goes out for her walk.
Is this her triumph over those who had every intention of destroying her? Is it a victory over her own demons that ask each morning, What is really the point, why are you bothering? What a strong presence she is walking down the street, in every movement of her body saying; Still alive. Here I am. Still alive.
Paulette Fire is a family therapist in private practice where she has spent many years taking copious notes on the peculiarities of family life.