Mother’s Strange Love

Published on the website bhag.net in 2002

All winter, I wanted to go back to the zoo. Mom said we couldn’t because it was too cold and I might get sick again. I wanted to see that monkey daddy with his baby riding his back. The year before when I was eight, I’d fallen in love with his leathery, kind face; it made me wish for my own daddy. Mom always said I shouldn’t ask about daddy; “He was a bad man,” she’d say.

Spring was finally here and the bare trees in front of the zoo were filled with pink cherry blossoms. I ran ahead of mom and Jim, her new boyfriend, to dance under the trees. I felt pretty and happy in my white cotton dress and red, shiny sandals. My long black hair was brushed into a ponytail down my back. I stretched out my arms, threw back my head and breathed in the sweet perfume as I twirled around, hard as I could. Mom caught me on the third twirl.

“Stop it, Lilly! You’ll fall,” she scolded, sounding so angry. She pressed my arms to my sides and smoothed down my ponytail.

“I want to get dizzy, mom! It’s fun,” I tried to explain, but she wasn’t listening. She was looking at Jim. He was so tall that she, who’s tall too, seemed short next to him. His wavy blonde hair was combed neatly away from his high, pale forehead.

Jim reminded me of my teacher, Mr. Adams, who we all loved.

Mom looked so skinny and ugly that day. She was dressed in a short blue dress and the big white sneakers she always wore in the emergency room where she worked as a nurse. Her dark brown hair was clipped up on her head with loose ends falling on her neck. She and Jim had met in the emergency room where he worked, too, as a doctor. There were other days I had seen her in outfits that made men comment on her good looks.

“Let’s go into the zoo,” mom said. She took my hand and led the way. Jim smiled at me as he followed. He had one of the best smiles in the world. I pretended that we were a family who went to the zoo every Sunday. At the gate Jim took out his wallet to pay.

“You don’t have to,” mom protested. She glanced at me with annoyance. She often looked at me like this, as if she wished she’d left me home. I cringed and wanted to disappear.

“It’s my pleasure,” Jim said.

I felt so good when he said that.

Jim handed the entrance man the money and took three tickets.

I skipped ahead of mom and Jim to the monkey’s cage. A mother monkey, who balanced a baby between her legs, was slowly picking at his fur. The mother looked sad and tired, but the baby, on all fours, had his tail up in the air. He looked happy chewing on a piece of orange. I didn’t think he was the same baby that I’d seen last year, but maybe he was, because when he saw me he dashed over to the bars. He showed his pointed teeth and I bared my teeth too and laughed.

“He seems to like you,” Jim said, coming up behind me. “Here are some peanuts to feed him.”

I stuck out my palm, holding two peanuts next to the bars. The baby monkey reached out and snatched one. I liked feeling his furry paw. I wondered where the daddy was. Did the baby monkey feel lonely like me without a daddy?

Mom pulled my arm back before the monkey could get the second nut. “What are you doing? Don’t you know that monkeys have fevers? Do you want to wind up in the hospital again?”

“I’m sorry, Wilma. I’m the one who gave Lilly the nuts. You’re right,” Jim said. He stooped over and seemed so much shorter suddenly. I wished he could stand up to mom instead of just agreeing with her.

“Well, I want Lilly to learn to be careful.” She sounded very important and bossy, the way she did when she ordered people around. I could tell that mom felt proud of herself when she talked like that, but I didn’t know why. People would get the wrong impression of her and think that she was mean, but I knew how kind she could be. Whenever we went food shopping she’d let me push the cart around and she’d always buy me little boxes of raisins or cookies to munch.

Jim was so nice. He never sounded bossy. I ate the other nut myself and I trailed behind them. I hoped that maybe he and mom would get married and I could be a flower girl like my friend Kathy at her mom’s wedding. Jim said doctors and nurses went together like popcorn and butter.

Mom ambled over to the bird cages while Jim and I headed towards the giraffes.

“Do you think I could ride one of those?” I asked.

Jim laughed. “I don’t think they’ll stand still long enough for you to get up on them. Did you ever ride a pony or a horse?”

“We were on a ranch once, but mom kept me indoors most of the time. I think she rode a horse.”

Mom came back and grabbed my arm. “I told you not to pester Jim.”

My face burned red and I wanted to disappear again.

“No, Wilma. We were having fun,” Jim said. He gave me a wink and I felt better.

The next day I was in bed with one of my fevers. I hoped I hadn’t gotten it from that monkey on Sunday. I knew mom was angry at me by the way she’d given me my shot. The syringe was full of some brown, slimy stuff that smelled bad as usual. She wrinkled up her face and grabbed my arm. When she stuck the needle in, it really, really hurt. Soon my head throbbed and I was sweating even though it was cold outside. My eyes burned; I couldn’t keep them open long enough to read my Superwoman comic, so I got up on my knees and peeked out the window for a few minutes. The curtains in the apartments across the courtyard were closed. Being home in the middle of the day gave me a creepy feeling. I wished I could be in school instead, so I shut my eyes and tried to sleep.

“I need to take your temperature again,” mom said, sounding upset as she walked into my room holding a big glass thermometer. She stuck it under my tongue, hurting me and then she frowned. At least the thermometer wasn’t as bad as the shot always was.

“One hundred and four degrees! This is terrible. I’ll have to take you to the emergency room.” Her mouth looked mean; she glared at me as if it were my fault, like I had done something to make myself sick.

“I’m sorry, mom,” I said, hoping she’d forgive me.

Mom said I was much too ill to go in a taxi, so she called the ambulance for the third time that year. Even though I felt so bad that my head throbbed and my face burned, it was always fun to ride in the ambulance. The sirens screamed, the lights flashed and everyone had to get out of our way. I was lying on a stretcher in the back, while a nice ambulance man talked with mom.

Once at the hospital Jim came out with some of the other doctors to help wheel my stretcher inside.

“Hey, how’s my little friend Lilly doing?” he asked cheerily. He squeezed my hand. I felt happy to see Jim there. He was the psychiatrist for the emergency room. He’d been there the last time I was rushed in too. Mom said he didn’t have to go out to meet every ambulance, but he came out to help me as a special favor to us.

Jim patted my shoulder as he helped the other doctors hook up my IV. The needle they stuck in my hand hurt. Then they taped the needle on and attached everything to a tube that ran up to a plastic bag on a pole. Jim pulled up my T-shirt while one of the doctors listened with a stethoscope.

“She sounds fine. Heart and lungs clear. What could be wrong with this kid?” The lady pediatrician who spoke to the group read from a chart. She looked pretty with sleek black hair in the latest style, a short cut with bangs. I could see mom scowling from the back of the room. “Put her in room two for observation,” said the pediatrician.

My stretcher was wheeled into a room with pink elephant cut-outs hanging from the ceiling. Jim came in and tucked two pillows under my head, then he sat down in the chair next to my bed.

“So how’s it going, Lilly? Want to go back to the zoo next weekend?” He gave me one of his very best smiles, which made me feel a little better.

“Yes, Jim. Would you go with us too?” I smiled back at him even though that needle in my hand was still stinging. I would ask mom to fix it when I saw her.

I noticed Jim staring at my upper arm. “What’s this, Lilly?” he asked, gently rubbing his finger over the red spot.

“That’s nothing. Mom gave me a shot there, that’s all. She does that a lot,” I replied.

“Why is she doing that?” He looked funny–a way I’d never seen him look before.

“It’s medicine for the fevers.”

“What comes first, the fever or the shot?” he asked, looking angry the way mom usually did. I had to think about that for a minute, but then remembered.

“Today the shot came first.”

“Is it ever the other way around?”

“I don’t think so.” I wondered what was so important about that? Why did he look angry? I’d never seen Jim mad. Had I said something wrong?

Jim stood up and left; I was frightened. I heard him calling for my mom in the hall.

They stood outside my door. I strained to hear every word.

“What are you doing to Lilly?” I’d never heard Jim speak with such anger. It was hard for me to believe it was him.

“What are you talking about?” mom asked. Her voice was sweet, like when she read comic books to me at night to help me fall asleep.

Jim said, “There’s a needle mark on her arm,” and some other things I didn’t understand about needles and fevers.

“I didn’t give her a shot. Who told you that?”When mom said things that weren’t true, I felt confused.”

“Lilly told me you did.” His voice changed. “Wilma….” Now he didn’t sound so angry, but more frightened, the way I felt.

Suddenly mom ran into my room. “Get up, Lilly! I’m taking you out of here.” She pulled the cover off roughly and sat me up.

“Leave her alone, Wilma! She has a fever of 104! You can’t move her!” Jim yelled as he ran in after her. His face had turned bright red.

A tall, black man in a blue uniform came in behind Jim.

My head was throbbing just from sitting up. I felt dizzy.

The guard moved towards mom and me.

“Yes, please stop her,” Jim said to the guard. “Bring the lady over to my room in the Psych E.R.” For a moment, Jim looked like he would cry. I wanted to help, but my head hurt too much.

Mom ripped the IV out of my hand. Pain pushed up my arm and down through my fingers; blood gushed out. I wanted to bite her the way I had when she sneaked into my room one night and gave me a shot that woke me out of a deep sleep. She grabbed me out of bed and headed towards the door. I opened my mouth to scream, but couldn’t. The guard rushed over; maybe my blood scared him too. He threw his arms around mom from behind, while Jim pulled me out of her grip.

“Bastards!” mom yelled. I’d never heard her say that word before. Mom looked so wild and ugly. Her hair had fallen down in clumps around her shoulders. The guard dragged her out of the room away from me.

Jim placed me back in bed and put a cotton pad on my bleeding hand. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Does your hand hurt?”

Before I could answer, the lady pediatrician came back into the room. She took my hand. “What happened?” she asked kindly.

Jim looked sad. “Last time Lilly was admitted to the E.R., I suspected that something was wrong. I saw needles in Wilma’s apartment and was shocked at how she treated Lilly.” He pushed his hair back when it fell over his forehead and continued.

“Wilma’s been causing Lilly’s fevers by injecting something, maybe feces, into her. I’ve been reading about these cases.” Jim patted my shoulder, his forehead shiny with sweat. The other doctor just listened.

“But why would a mother do such a thing?” The pretty doctor asked, speaking softly as if sharing a secret.

“I don’t know,” Jim said. “It’s a mother’s strange love, I guess.”

I wondered what he meant by that. It seemed important–but I was too tired to ask.

“Don’t worry,” the pretty doctor said, when I started to cry.

Jim gave me one of his super smiles again. “You’ll be safe with us.”

“What will happen to mom?” I asked. “Will they take her away forever?”

“She’ll take a little rest here in the hospital,” Jim said. The lady doctor stared at me again. I felt hot and cold at the same time.

“Is mom sick too?” They both reached out to touch me.

“Lilly, we’ll take good care of you,” Jim promised. I thought of all the good times with mom: the zoo, the comics, shopping for groceries, talking late at night. She had always been there, even if she did bad things, sometimes.

“Can I see her?” I asked.

“Of course,” Jim said. “But just rest for now.” He and the other doctor walked out. I heard their footsteps echo down the hall.

Lying there by myself, I felt the loneliest and most frightened that I’d ever felt. I was losing everybody.

 * * *

When I discussed what had happened to me with my foster mother, she nodded and stroked my head. She was fat, much older than mom and wore golden-rimmed glasses. When she took off her glasses, I could see that her blue eyes crinkled at the corners in a friendly way. Her hands were always warm when she held mine, unlike mom’s cold ones. I liked her and living in her big house which smelled so good when she baked oatmeal cookies.

Jim came to visit on weekends. He told me that mom had been sent to another hospital and wouldn’t be able to see me for a long time. His new girl friend was the pediatrician from the E.R.

Alone in my room at night, I’d take out my doll, Ginny, and play nurse by giving her a shot. Did mom still think of me? Maybe I was to blame for getting her into trouble. I promised myself that when mom was out, I’d be so good that she’d have to love me better.

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