By: Anonymous CTGirlcott Blogger
About 25 years ago (although I remember it like it was yesterday), my mother was in the hospital for the umpteenth time. She had cancer and emergency visits to the hospital were the excruciating norm. I had driven my mother there and, after a few hours in the emergency room, it was determined that she had to stay. A nurse wheeled my mother up to her room and I set about arranging her things to her liking. Finally, after putting her clothes away and taking her lotions and toiletries from her black tote and placing them where she wanted them (during stressful times, these little things take on huge significance), I sat down in the high-backed, vinyl, light blue chair beside her bed, exhausted. My mother looked at me. “What’s today’s date?” she asked. “November 7th,” I said. “It’s your brother’s birthday.” “I know,” I said. “I brought the cards we bought the other day and, when you’re out of the hospital, we can have cake and presents.” “We have to have a celebration for him,” my mother continued. “Well, mom, “ I said, “Carl will be here soon and just being together and knowing that you’re being well taken care of is probably celebration enough for right now. ” I don’t know why I thought logic would prevail. “No, we have to celebrate his birthday NOW,” my mother said. “I want you to go out and get him a cake and I want to give him a camera. Go get a camera.”
Twenty-five years and thousands of dollars of therapy later, I would handle it differently. But back then, all I saw was my pale, shrinking mother with her steely blue eyes and all I felt was optionless. So, I walked down the long corridor of the hospital, waited for the (dare I say it?) interminably long elevator, walked out into the chill of that autumn night, to my car, which was parked about a mile away. I rode to the mall, found a camera store and figured out which one to buy. Then, I drove to the supermarket, bought wrapping paper, a card, tape, a cake, candles and matches. Next, I attempted to wrap the camera without the scissor I forgot to buy. Then I drove back to the hospital, could only find another spot a mile away, walked to the hospital, went back up in the rickety, slow elevator and walked down the corridor to my mother’s room where she and my brother were talking and laughing.
When my brother left the room for a moment, I handed my mother the card to sign, put the cake on the table, inserted the candles in the downy white frosting and put the camera next to it. When my brother came back, we sang happy birthday, he blew out the candles and opened up the camera. “Wow,” he said, “Thanks.”
We all sat and talked for a while and then, when a doctor came in to talk to my mother, my brother and I went out into the hall. I thought we would take this opportunity to talk about my mother’s condition or that my brother might even have some words of appreciation for his harried sister, but instead, he turned to me and said, “You know, you look more feminine when you wear earrings.”
I was shocked and then, one second later, filled with rage. My caretaking of our mother and of him, for that matter, should be feminine enough for him, I said (all the time kicking myself for resorting to such an essentialist argument—as if being a caregiver is a “feminine” quality. Isn’t it time we were all caregivers? Duress makes the oddest things come out of our mouths!).
But isn’t it true? Women are supposed to care for everyone (children, parents, in-laws), run ourselves ragged doing so and, at the same time, look “good,” as defined by someone else. We haven’t come very far from the days when women and girls were required to walk with books on their heads to improve their posture, a metaphor for the arduous balancing act we are still expected to perform throughout our lives, a balancing act designed to keep us busy, quiet and unfocussed on the oppression we and others are experiencing. It’s ludicrous and, frankly, it’s lethal–killing the spirits and, often, the physical health of women and keeping many of us from having the time or energy to stop the destruction of life around us.
I felt invisible to my brother, reduced to the accoutrements of gender. Later, when I told him how hurt I was by his remark, he looked at me blankly and suggested that I was just being “sensitive.” Invisible again. Is that one of the reasons women wear the bold colors of make-up and jewelry? Is it because we are trying to tell ourselves and others, I am here? How sad is that? It’s enough to make one’s mascara run.
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