My son throws up a lot. He throws up when he’s sick. He throws up when he’s tired. He throws up from motion sickness and from boredom and whenever things haven’t gone his way. Mornings before day care, he throws up because he doesn’t want to go. He always throws up in exactly the same spot, right under a train trestle one mile away.
It took me a while to figure this out. Now I pack extra clothes and change him in the back of the car. Then I go to work, knowing how I must smell, all curdled milk and guilt and vomit.
“Some kids are gifted like that,” the pediatrician says when I bring my son in for a check-up.
The pediatrician wears cartoon ties. His hair is spiked. His eyes are big and round. He looks like a boy-man. He looks like a character from one of his ties. I can see why kids love him, but I’ve always felt uncomfortable around doctors, and this one is so nice and perky that his questions seem veiled, an interrogation.
“Is mommy a good cook?” he asks my son.
“Are you a good sleeper?”
“Do you like T.V. or sports better?”
“What’s your favorite snack – carrots or apples?”
I grow small in the orange plastic chair while my son shifts back and forth on the exam table, the paper tearing beneath his bare legs. All around us, cartoon animals peer out from the wallpaper – rainbow-colored snakes and zebras, lions and giraffes hidden in the design like a seek-and-find game.
We’ve been coming to this doctor since my son was born. We’ve waited in this room a lot. I know where every zebra is hiding. I can point out the lions without looking.
I think the doctor can see me like that, too, his big anime eyes taking everything in.
I am a bad, bad mother.
My son does not eat vegetables. He does not eat fruit unless juice boxes count. He fights bedtime. He loves TV, doesn’t get outside enough and thinks sports are things kids do to entertain their parents.
My son is a gifted puker.
I feel all of this come down, a fault line.
If I didn’t work so much, if I kept him on a better schedule, if I were a better cook, if there were more carrots, more attention, if I were selfless, if. . .
“He looks good,” the doctor says, and pats my son’s leg, then my leg. He hands me paperwork and a list of parenting guidelines, inoculation schedules. “Good job, mom.”
This doctor always calls me mom. His nurses do, too.
My own mother, a nurse, hated doctors, but she was afraid of them, their judging. My parents adopted me when I was a year old. I’d been born with clubbed feet and had many surgeries.
“She’ll require a special kind of care,” the Catholic Charities social worker who handled my adoption told my mother. “With your medical background, I think you’re a good fit.”
My mother fussed over me a lot. When I’d wake up in the hospital, her face would be the first I’d see. She’d spend the night on a cot next to my hospital bed and keep one hand on me as she slept so she could feel me breathing.
“Not flesh of my flesh but heart of my heart,” my mother would tell me. She’d recite it like a mantra before I went into surgery and in the minutes after I woke up. It was a line she’d memorized from a poem in a Dear Abby column. The column offered advice for mothers with adopted children, something about love being a nurture-over-nature thing.
In my adoption records, there are medical reports and reports from social workers, accounts of house visits. My mother worried she’d be seen as a bad mother, though for her there was another fear. She could be labeled unfit. I could be taken away. I could be sent back. And so before doctors’ visits, my mother used to change the banged-up bandages on my casts. She brought home supplies from the hospital where she worked. She scrubbed me and re-bandaged the casts, then coated them in Sani-White so they shined. She dressed me like we were going to church. She dressed herself to match. We smelled blameless, all Ivory ® soap and baby powder.
“Good job, mom,” the doctors said.
“Doctors,” my mother said, and clicked her tongue against her teeth like a deadbolt.
“Thank you,” I say now to the pediatrician. I make a show of reading his guidelines. Use a car seat. Childproof outlets. Be careful around stairs.
“No one knows how I worry,” my mother would say as she wrapped the plaster gauze around my bent and broken legs, ribbons around May poles.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t a better mother,” my mother said as she was dying. “I’m sorry I wasn’t more patient. I’m sorry I yelled so much. I’m sorry I was nervous all the time.”
My mother was a good mother.
“You’re a good mother,” she often said to me, knowing what it meant to hear it.
I look at my son perched on the pediatrician’s paper-covered table. All I can think about is how often I fail him.
“There are two kinds of people,” my friend Gerry says. “People with kids and people without them.”
One time I saw my son’s pediatrician at the mall. He looked smaller there. He was chasing his own kids, one boy and one girl, around the mall’s padded play area. His kids had crawled into the trunk of a play tree and refused to get out.
“Come on now,” he said. “Time to go.”
His kids wedged themselves tighter into the tree as he began counting backwards from ten.
In the mall’s florescent light, his shoes seemed less shiny, his pants cheaper, wrinkled. His hair had gone flat. His cartoon smile looked forced and he seemed very tired.
This made me like him a little more.