It has taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I am a complete and utter disappointment to my mother.
I always studied hard, my IQ nudges the genius range, and I never got caught with a cigarette or alcohol, yet I was never the son she wanted. Sometimes I feel that everything I do in my life is another attempt to win her approval—one failure after another. My wife Jennie asked me once why I even bother trying.
She asks me this now, as I prepare to board the train for the five hour trip out to see my mother. I haven’t seen Mother in nearly four years. She didn’t even come to my wedding, a small affair with only family and close friends. She told me on the phone that she wouldn’t be coming, but I still harbored the naïve wish that she might show up at the last minute, just as I was slipping the ring onto Jennie’s finger. I guess I’m a sucker for happy endings.
Jennie begged me not to take this trip. “Why, Eddie?” she asked me. “You know she just upsets you.” She’s right, of course. I’m going because I’m worried, like all good sons worry about their mothers. I’m worried because the last time we talked on the phone, she didn’t sound so good. One word slurred into another, and it was not the first time that week. The ten year anniversary of my father’s exit from her life was approaching, and I worried she wasn’t taking it well.
“She doesn’t want to see you,” Jennie told me, when I first brought up the idea of the trip. I know it sounds harsh, but Jennie isn’t a harsh woman. She’s very kind—she married me, after all.
“Of course she wants to see me,” I argue. My words are empty—we both know Jennie is right. “I’m her son, after all.”
I have some vacation time coming to me at work. Jennie and I are still young and yet unburdened with children, so it’s easy for me to take a trip spur of the moment. I asked Jennie to come with me, but I was glad when she refused. I felt that Jennie might think less of me to see the way that Mother treats me.
I see the train pulling into the station and my stomach is all butterflies. Jennie stands stiffly beside me as the train slows to a halt. One of the baggage handlers has been recruited to help me onto the train. Jennie resented the man’s title of baggage handler, indignantly asking if the station manager thought I was a piece of baggage. I could feel my face flush as the volume of her voice rose a notch. Jennie makes a big deal over these things, but I prefer to pass through life receiving as little attention as possible. The station manager means well, and even if he doesn’t, I’m not about to speak up.
You see, I’ve learned from my mother that I am not worthy of the special attention that truly elite people receive. My mother was, and I must assume still is, very beautiful. It got her everywhere in life. My good looks mirror hers—a face for the movies, people always tell me. My chest is well built, my biceps hard. But below my waist is the nether-regions. Nobody goes down there, except for my wife. I cover my legs with a small quilt to hide what nobody wants to see. I have never walked.
Jennie, who is almost as beautiful as my mother and has perfect legs, can’t understand my shame. She says to me, “Wear shorts, Eddie!” She is furious at my mother for imposing this self-consciousness upon me. I never abandon the quilt, not even in the deathly heat of summer.
“He ready to board?” the baggage handler asks my wife.
Jennie’s jaw hardens and I look up at her, silently begging her not to lose her temper. “I don’t know,” she says. “Why don’t you ask him?”
Now it is the handler’s turn to blush. He leans over the side of my chair to face me. “You ready, sir?”
I nod. He seizes the handles of my wheelchair and I feel myself being pulled backwards. They have some sort of platform that he pulls my chair onto, and it mechanically rises into the air. I wave to Jennie as he pushes my chair into the depths of the train.
Only the last car of the train is equipped for handicapped passengers, and this is where he parks my chair. Strange how I never thought of myself as handicapped until I left my parents’ home. My mother refused to think of her only son as a cripple, and I inherited the same attitude. I remember one time when I was eight years old, I unintentionally turned the television to the wheelchair Olympics. I watched men racing in their chairs and felt suddenly jealous. These men could not walk, like me, but they did not have to be carried around like I did. They could move on their own, as they pleased. That night I asked my mother for a wheelchair of my own and she exploded at me.
“Is that what you want?” she yelled. “To be just another dirty cripple? You know people laugh at those men, don’t you? They laugh and make fun of them! Is that what you want?”
My mother didn’t want to be laughed at. She married a rich, successful man, who nobody in their right mind could laugh at. And she would not allow anyone to laugh at her son. Perhaps if we hadn’t been so wealthy, she would have had to face up to my disability. But cursed with money, she was able to hide me from reality. Instead of a wheelchair, she had servants to carry me where I wanted to go. Instead of school, I had private tutelage.
The train starts up and the baggage handler crosses his legs awkwardly. “So,” he says, “your sister seems really nice.”
For a moment, I don’t know what he is talking about. Then I realize: he thinks Jennie is my sister. After all, how could a cripple such as myself be married to such a beautiful woman? I feel a surge of resentment, but I also understand. I can see the world the way he sees it. I can see myself for what I really am. “She’s my wife,” I tell him quietly.
“Oh,” he says, turning bright red. To cover up his foible: “You two look a lot alike.”
I nod. This will be a long train ride.
I am cheered by the fact that Mother has been kind enough to send a car to pick me up at the train station. I told her what time I would be arriving and asked her to pick me up, but I fully expected to have to take a cab. Robert, our chauffeur, greets me with a wide grin. “Eddie!” he exclaims. “How goes it?”
“It goes well,” I tell him.
He bows his head. “It’s been a long time. We all miss you.”
“I miss you too,” I say. I want to ask about Mother, but I restrain myself.
Robert opens the door to the car for me. He hesitates, unsure whether or not to help me. Before he has a chance to ask, I lift myself out of my chair and into the back seat. I buckle myself in and adjust the quilt over my legs. Robert collapses my chair and places it in the trunk.
As Robert drives, he makes sparse conversation. We are both nervous, but I am better at hiding it. “I heard you got married,” Robert says.
“Yes,” I say.
“Congratulations,” he tells me. “Knowing you, I’m sure she’s a wonderful lady.”
I smile at the compliment. I always liked Robert. He’s been around since I was a little kid and he’s always been nice to me. My mother was cordial with him, as she was with all our servants. Father never had to worry about her having affairs with our male servants, because she’d never touch a chauffeur with a ten foot pole.
We arrive at the house too soon. My mother’s house, once mine also, is huge—I can see it looming over the horizon. There are three floors and more rooms than I’d like to admit. She always demanded that Father buy her the best. When he divorced her, she kept most of his money. To him, it was worth it.
I am noticeably shaking when Robert puts my chair beside me. I almost slip as I am getting in, even though I have performed this maneuver flawlessly millions of times. He smiles sympathetically at me. “She’ll be so happy to see you, Eddie,” he says.
I can only nod. I wheel my chair toward the house. If it were my mother’s choice, there’d be steps. A steep flight of steps leading to the house. But she hadn’t seen my twisted legs yet when she’d purchased the house, so there were no steps. All she could do was to give me a room on the top floor of the house. Two flights of stairs separated the world from her deep, dark secret.
I dared to hope that Mother might be there to greet me at the door, but of course, I was disappointed. It was Gwen who opened the door for me. A smile lit up Gwen’s broad face and she bent down to hug me. “Oh Eddie!” she cried. “It’s so wonderful to see you again! You look so good!”
I can’t even find the breath to answer her, stifled in a hug. I was suddenly overwhelmed with memories—the good and the bad. Officially, Gwen was our housekeeper. Unofficially, Gwen was my nurse. She did all the dirty deeds my mother refused to do. When I was young, she carried me around, she bathed me, she changed my diapers, and she was my sole playmate. Gwen was simultaneously my life and my prison.
I don’t blame Gwen for anything. I know that she spoke up to my mother, told her I should be going to school with other children, said that I was too old to be carried around. But my mother was firm on the life she wanted me to lead. “My son is not to be just another handicapped child.” Gwen was powerless to help me.
When we separate from our hug, I abandon all the good manners I was taught and blurt out: “Where’s my mother?”
Gwen and Robert exchange meaningful glances. “I think she’s sleeping,” Gwen says.
I nod, not surprised, yet disappointed nonetheless.
“I made up a room for you,” Gwen says. “One on the first floor.” We do not speak of the fact that my old room, on the third floor, is out of reach. “Let me show you the room.”
It seems odd that Gwen should be showing me a room in my own house, but she did know it far better than I did, especially the first floor. The first floor was off limits for me. It was the floor where my mother entertained guests. She kept photographs of me, but we all knew that my presence would spoil the illusion.
The room is large with a wide bay window. I decline Gwen’s offer to unpack my clothes, and Robert places my suitcase on the bed. They sense my need to be alone and leave me to unpack. But once they are gone, I just stare at my suitcase, wishing I had never come. If I were back home, right about now Jennie would be cooking us dinner. She would open the refrigerator, searching for meat, and her nipples would pucker and strain at her white blouse. I miss Jennie desperately.
I spot a phone by the bed and I pick up the receiver to call her. I have dialed three numbers when a familiar voice stops me. “Hello, Edward.”
Edward is my father’s name, but I don’t correct her. I wheel around. My first thought is that she is still beautiful. She’s had a facelift—I can tell, and she still has a perfectly contoured body. Her dark hair is swept back from her face, but a few tendrils have escaped and fall gently against her cheeks. Her brown eyes are slightly bloodshot, which I try to ignore. “Hello, Mother,” I say.
“Did you just arrive?” she asks me.
“Yes,” I say, nodding at my suitcase.
“Good to see you,” she says briskly. She hesitates and I wonder if she is considering giving me a hug. My mother hasn’t hugged me since the day I left for college. “We’re eating dinner soon.”
“Okay,” I say. “I just have to unpack.”
“Do you need help?” she asks. We both look down at my legs, still covered by the quilt. An old fear grabs hold of me: tomorrow morning, I wake up and my wheelchair is not beside my bed. To some, a wheelchair is a prison—to me, it was the first taste of freedom in my life. It was my father who bought me my first wheelchair, a going away present of sorts. I was twelve years old and he came home from work long enough to realize what was going on. Back then, the only way I could walk was to pull myself across the floor, dragging my twisted legs along behind me. My father hadn’t seen me in months, so busy he was having sex with his secretary, and he was furious. “Look at him!” he yelled at my mother. “He needs a wheelchair!”
“My son is not a cripple!” my mother shot back.
But my father won in the end. He took me out to buy a wheelchair, and threatened my mother with what he’d do if she took it away from me.
Sometimes I don’t blame my mother for what she did. She was beautiful, she married rich—she thought she’d have the perfect life. When I emerged from her belly with my mangled legs, the doctors told her I would never walk. Instead, she chose not to acknowledge my disability. Even when I was an infant, my legs were twisted—both feet are malformed, there is only a semblance of a knee, and the bones are brittle and crooked. I only have rudimentary sensation and I can’t move them at all. But she covered them up so that I could still associate with other children. By the time I was two, it was more than a little suspicious that I was the only child who could not walk, thus began my social isolation. When Mother had guests over, I was to stay in my room at all times.
It isn’t as if she didn’t try to help me. Every specialist in the country looked at my legs, but nobody told her what she wanted to hear. They were too mangled to walk on, even with the aid of heavy braces. No amount of physical therapy would help. One doctor suggested amputation, but fortunately, the man had his license revoked before my mother had a chance to consider this option.
She was ashamed, not of me, but of herself. After all, she was the one who produced this monster. What would people say if they knew what had emerged from her womb?
I feel sorry for her, in a way. I have a woman to come home to, one who loves me more than anything. What does she have? She has been alone for ten years. She has no one.
To be continued....