Yesterday I watched Leo lie in the dentist chair receiving his first filling. After a fair amount of thought we agreed to the nitrous oxide. He lay outstretched, nose covered by a grape flavored mask, mouth stretched by dental tools, eyes wrapped in sunglasses to shield him from the bright light. I found myself looking away from his face, at his still tanned legs. Looking at scrapes, and pen marks that told the story of his last few months. He is a newly eight year old. He is my son. He is not a patient his legs told me. Except he was. In regular life I am more than a mom, although I don’t know exactly what else, and in this small room I am only a mom. He is only a patient. The dentist and her assistant refer to me as “mom” whether it is for Leo’s sake or theirs that is what I have become. I am fine with that. For now I really am only a mom. I don’t exist outside this chair. There is something about medical care, even something as benign and quick as a filling, that strips away all of our other identifiers. We don’t live beyond that room.
It makes me think of other moms. Moms whose kids are acutely ill, who spend not hours but days and weeks and months in the hospital. How do they keep their kids whole? Battling both the disease and the separateness from real life that keeps us away from the activities and responsibilities that define us.
Moving to a new place, spending my time in different ways, and being asked at school pick up and dinner parties what it is that I do has set off a newly old string of questions.
Can you be a writer if you don’t write? Can you be an investor if the last check you wrote was a month ago? Can you be any one thing?
How much are our current actions tied to our current sense of self? And how much can we and do we rely on our past as identity and guide?
It is the difference between the noun and the verb.
One of my new friends in Colorado lost her sister years ago. The exact number of years ago that she had been alive. So each day from now on makes more life lived as an only child than as a sister. But does that make her an only child? Certainly not. Is she still a sister? Can you sister in your mind?
I wanted to have three children. I wanted the act of brothering to be multiple, so each relationship was unique between two, but the definition of a sibling was based on a few. Like being a daughter was for me.
I was such a different daughter to my father than my mother. Adoring, attentive, amused. It seems anathema now as I am alternately tolerant and bitchy, curious and judgmental, open and closed to my mom. It is a living relationship with the contrasts of most, changed by the weather of my mind. And hers.
I am a daughter. I am a daughter to my mom. I am my father’s daughter. It is woven into me. But can I be his daughter when I don’t daughter?
My father would rule a room. Seated at the head of the table he would command attention by being provocative, or introducing a novel idea, or just being mean. All eyes were on him. I have a bit of that now. One on one I am a real friend, listening and talking, remembering dates and events and following up and through. In a group I am the entertainer. Afterwards I am tired, I tell myself to listen more, leave jokes untold.
I don’t think of myself as a social spark. But at some point do our actions start to tell the story more than the descriptions in our minds.
Oliver was a Vermonter. Just a few months ago he lived there, and in his mind he will again. Eventually he will be able to control that, but for now he talks about Camel’s Hump and maple creemees, he talks about his old school’s jog- a thon, and the fall weather. We moved a lot within the same town, so his home became broader than our walls. His sense of place was the state. Is he still a Vermonter? By the twist of an early birth he was born in Massachusetts, but he forgave himself because he was living where he was meant to be. Now without an origin or a present he is Vermontless. And he feels like less because of it.
Is he a Vermonter? Will he always be?
How much of our sense of self comes from the verb?
Who ARE we?