I remembered reading in one of my mother’s medical textbooks that back when medicine was first beginning to chart the dark expanses of the human body, enterprising men would dredge up the dearly and recently departed to sell to medical schools for the study of anatomy. These unwilling recruits were usually conscripted from the ranks of the poor and the black, the desecration blunted by the utilitarian logic of medical progress.
Did my mother meditate on her profession’s sordid legacy when she cut into a cadaver for the first time? Did she offer a silent prayer to these nameless and faceless ancestors who were yanked from their beds of pine and unceremoniously laid on the dissection table, their silent repose belying the violence of their procurement? Or did she just listen to her scalpel sing as it sliced through skin and fat and sinew, its pitch as pure and precise as a quartz tuning-fork?
Unlike my mother, I can’t get those poor souls out of my head. I imagine them naked under the inexpert hands and the hungry gaze of young men waiting to cut out every last secret and blemish that the dearly departed had hoped to take to the grave. I wonder though, if there are some disappointments that are too deep to be excised.
For my eighth birthday, my mother gave me an anatomy coloring book full of trite passages like,
Did you know that if humans had their small intestines stretched out, we would be taller than giraffes?
She made no secret of her desire for her only daughter, born and raised in the four weeks that she had wrung out of her surgery training program, to follow in the path that she had cleared. The daughter of a family practitioner in Menominee, Wisconsin, she was swaddled in baby blue blankets, scolded over her stick fights, and driven to Little League games up until her shapeless sweaters began to fill out and even her father could no longer deny that his wife had given birth to a daughter, not a son. But perhaps this early socialization into the world of little boys inoculated her against the empty machismo and egomania that pervaded the culture of surgery when she was honing her skills with the scalpel and the hemostat.
Two days after my birthday, my mother picked up the coloring book from my desk and flipped through it, probably hoping to see my impeccable technique in tracing the curvature of the lumbar spine or subtly shading the striations of the intricate muscles of the hand. Instead, she saw that I had drawn top hats and ball gowns on the internal organs.
“I’m dressing up Mr. Gallbladder and Ms. Pancreas for a night at the theater!” I exclaimed. She put the book down without a word, but I thought I saw a shadow of a smile flicker over her eyes.
When my mother was applying to medical school, all of the female applicants at some of the schools that she visited were interviewed by the Department of Psychiatry in order to probe their motivations for studying medicine. I’ve wondered how my mother answered those self-important men, who hid their animus behind their psychoanalytical frameworks and their mahogany-paneled titles. She didn’t get into most of those schools anyway, so she should have just told those psychiatrists that she was born to cut.
Not long after I turned seven, my mother finished her thoracic surgery fellowship and but was still waiting to hear back from her job interviews at Stanford and Columbia and Penn and many other schools that had sent her smudged letters just 13 years prior that opened with “We regret to inform you…” Regret was something that my mother did not tolerate. She was approaching 45, but she had the bearing of a matriarch twice her age, all harsh angles and subdued makeup and withering glances. Regret was akin to admitting defeat — that there was substance to the barbs and disappointments and the million other small indignities that she had brooked over the years.
I’m six or seven years old and I’m on the swings in the park behind my house. My mother is sitting on a bench with a pen poised over the newest edition of The Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery like it was the Times’ Sunday crossword. I pump my knees harder and harder, small beads of sweat plastering my bangs to my forehead. Each swing of the pendulum brings me farther and farther from the ground, but I don’t care.
Finally, when my heart feels like it’s ablaze with joy and even my most stubborn attempts to wring out the last stores of propulsive energy from my legs fall short, I let go. My body launches up into the air and arches in a slow parabola toward the baseball diamond, pocked with little mounds of dirt marking the homes of the ground squirrels that had dug their dens under the grass in the outfield.
Mid-ascent, I manage to peek over at my mother on the park bench, an enigmatic half-smile playing across her face as she tugs at her pen cap with her mouth. The tranquility of this vision reminds me of a glimpse of my mother that I had stolen a few days prior that I’m now afraid that I simply conjured from my imagination.
That night, when I was getting out of my bed to go to the bathroom, I heard the faintest crescendo of strings and winds coming out of my mother’s room. I tiptoed to the door, and cracked it open just an inch to peer into its stronghold. Inside I saw my mother, sitting in her armchair and listening to some symphony on the radio, her eyes closed and her hair playfully cascading across her nightshirt. I rarely saw my mother without her smart black frames, which sat low on her face and focused her gaze’s intensity like a magnifying glass held aloft on a sunny day. Maybe it was the trick of the light, but her face was softened into an expression that looked almost like contentment.
All too soon, I crash onto the playground with a thud that sends gravel flying in all directions. It only hurts a little bit, but thick tears start flowing down my face.
“Mommy!” I cry out. “Mommy!” I hear the rustle of glossy paper and then footfalls on the gravel.
“It’s all right,” she says unconvincingly, pulling me close to her breast. “Everything is going to be all right.”