My mother leaves the lights off when she presses the needle to her belly. Still, I can see the pink Caesarean scar pointing from her navel to the top button of her jeans. I want to touch this imprint of my birth, the sign of my entry into this life and exit from her. But I am afraid the needle will graze my fingers. I know needles hurt like bee stings and pinkie-fingers caught in door-jams. My mother makes no sound when the needle tip enters her skin. I expect her to cry, as I do, each time my pediatrician approaches me with a needle. Our kitchen has the same rubbing alcohol smell of his examination rooms. Does she need to see a doctor?
She takes my hand and wraps my fingers around a vial of clear fluid. In the pantry behind her, I see a row of vials lined up beside our cans of Spaghetti-O’s. Her palms soften against my wrists. She pulls me to her chest. I listen to her heart. No monster can touch me. I am protected. I am loved.
This is insulin. My mother explains her pancreas stopped working when she was a girl. I do not know these words or understand how they relate to one another. Pancreas. Insulin.
But I nod my head, as if I understand. The glass vial of insulin is small enough to fit on the kitchen table of my dollhouse, where I have already placed a plastic bracelet. I like to hide toys and rediscover them, when I have almost forgotten the pleasure they bring me; I like to believe what I love can find a way back to me, that there is no such thing as lost. Yet, without my mother having to explain, I know her insulin is not a toy for me to steal and stow. I release my fingers from the vial.
Many years after I discover her sickness, I drive in thick fog to the office of an endocrinologist I’ve never met. In the fog, his building stands like a gothic mansion, dropped into the middle of a suburban office complex. The incongruity makes me smile, and I find myself searching, as I often do, for my mother’s ghost, as if the spooky fog and my body –– this last corporeal link to her –– form the final ingredients of a conjuring spell. An odd thought, I know. But I am sick. I want my mother.
I lay on an examination table and offer up my body as a clue to solve mysterious symptoms of fatigue and anxiety that have plagued me for months. Such symptoms are not normal for me, who once bounded from bed to run, meditate, and practice yoga. Sterile paper crinkles beneath me, and I think of all the student essays I have left to grade. I feel guilty for taking time away from work to visit a doctor. I wonder if the unshakable exhaustion I feel is all in my head, and if the doctor will dismiss me as a woman who cannot accept she’s getting older, a childless woman with time to fixate on herself, made neurotic from the too-soon death of her mother.
I smell rubbing alcohol and remember the words diabetes mellitus on her death certificate. Honey in the blood, or in my mother’s case, not enough. This new doctor said nothing when I spoke of how long she suffered, her organ transplant, and rejection. When he presses his hands against my neck, I am seared by pain.
Together, we look at an ultrasound. How startling and strange it is to see a secret part of myself alive on a computer screen. Flame-colored specks, like the eyes on a butterfly’s wings, dot my thyroid. I do not have my mother’s disease. But here we are reconnected, bound by the same class of disorders.
Disorder, I know, did not intimidate her. After she divorced my father, my mother melted her silver butterfly-shaped engagement ring and gave it to her mother, who wore it as a pendant. The charm passed to me, and I hunt for it after I return home from work, a long, end-of-semester day with no time for worries about doctors or the future. When I clasp the pendant around my neck, the butterfly sits at my heart. I place one palm over my heart, another on my belly, and cradle myself. I know these hands belong to me, and to my mother, and her mother. Their kind, careful hands that bathed and held me are my inheritance, like the jewelry and superstitions that passed from my mother and grandmother to me. I hold myself firmly, gently, and listen to my heartbeat, as if this primal rhythm can carry me back to them.