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A Thousand Yesterdays
Tears stung the back of my eyes as I laid Gena down to sleep. It had been an especially rough day on us. She couldn't hold down food very well and tossed up the scrambled eggs and applesauce the minute she swallowed it. She had complained of soreness in her neck and back, and when I flipped her over I was shocked to find several round, red, pus-filled lesions all over her backside. I immediately called the doctor and was instructed to give her a luke warm bath and apply the medicated ointment afterwards. She moaned the entire time. I shuddered. To me her voice was like sharp nails on a rusted chalk board. I laid her down on her left side for a nap, and when I came back to check on her an hour later she had rolled back onto her back; brown and red fluids stained her long white t-shirt.
I took deep breaths as I did her laundry, trying not to look at the stained clothes as I put them in cold water to soak. The smell caught me. It was unbearable. I did not know the smell of rotting flesh until I smelled my mother's clothes. I fell to my knees and whimpered. Day by day she was getting worse. Was this her punishment for all those years? A repent for a thousand yesterdays? No one should have to suffer like this.
I checked on her once more before turning out the light and retiring to the living room. I turned on the news but couldn't focus. My mind ran back to that day, thirteen months ago when I had gotten the phone call. Gena had been feeling horrible. Constant vomiting, loss of energy and soreness. When she accidentally cut herself in the garden and could not stop the bleeding, she knew something was wrong. She’d called me. A red flag right there. Gena and I had not spoken in three years, ever since Thanksgiving 1981...
I had come home from grad school with a new boyfriend, James. He was tall and lean with a muscular build, deep sky blue eyes and curling blond hair. I could feel the tension brewing the minute I entered the house. David was home, helping Gena set the table. My younger brother was all legs and quite thin with my father's strong, dimpled chin, thick black hair and deep brown eyes. His rich, dark skin had grown ashen. Even then I noticed the dark circles around his eyes and his hallowed out cheeks. Gena had sworn he was three months clean now, but I knew better. His teeth were beginning to rot and decay. I was ashamed. Embarrassed. But I introduced James anyway. David shook his hand and smiled, exposing his absent bicuspids and yellowed bottom teeth. Gena hugged me tight, smelling of cheap wine and cigarettes. She glanced at James and snickered. After dinner Gena, James and I entered the living room with coffee while David offered to wash the dishes.
"So Megan,"Gena began, lighting a cigarette and offering one to James. He declined."How is med school coming?" Her question was directed toward me but she was staring at James. I had neglected to mention that he was white. She would have a field day with this. Her thick brown lips were stretched into a smug grin.
"It's fine." I responded. I wondered if James felt as uncomfortable as I did. I had warned him that he would not like what he would see, but he'd said he wanted to see the real me. The place where I grew up. So here we were. Home sweet home.
"And Jeff," she turned her petite body to James."How do you like it?"
"It's James," he corrected cooly, exposing his lisp. I winced. "And I am generally enjoying it. I'm leaning more into the field of cosmetic surgery. It's a vast, growing field of study."
Gena giggled and puffed on her cigarette, uninterested in his life’s goals. The night passed like this. Awkward and bitter. We made small talk and I tried to ignore her rude comments about my social life and education. At nine I figured it was time to go, and asked James to wait for me in the car. Gena walked me to the door and called David to say goodbye. I waited five minutes. "Where is he?" I asked, walking back through the house. David was nowhere to be found. When I walked into the dining room I noticed that several of Gena's fine china plates, silverware and glasses were missing. She let out a tired sigh and I turned around to face her.
"How long?" I asked. She lit another Newport, pretending not to hear me. "How long has he been stealing from you?" I demanded, the anger rising. Her perfect, favorite son --a high school dropout, drug addict and thief, yet I was the one who disappointed her.
"It's not stealing. He borrows things and sometimes he forgets to ask but he always replaces them. He'll be back soon," she replied, her voice light and assuring, as if she'd explained his behavior many times before.
I felt my face grow hot and red. "And how do you suppose he'll get back? In a body bag?! He's out on the streets pawning your good china for drugs. God knows what will happen to him and you just sit here in your cozy, little house pretending that he's still your little Davey. The same little boy who-" A wall of pain smacked across my face, causing me to falter for a moment. I held my sore cheek, searching Gena's crazed eyes for understanding or remorse. All I saw was anger. I tore out of the house, jumping into my red Thunderbird, ignoring James as he asked me what was wrong, and sped off without looking back.
Three years later I was on my bed, playing with my kitten, Snowball, and watching the nine-o'clock news when the phone rang. I answered on the second ring.
"M-Megan?" I didn't recognize her voice. It was shrill, feverish and almost child like.
"Yes. Who's calling?"
"It's me. Your m-mother."
"Gena?" I sat up and muted the television. My mouth had dropped. It was David. It had to be. Why else would she call me up out of nowhere in the middle of the night?
"Megan." She sounded as if she were on the verge of tears.
"Yes, Gena. I'm here. What's the matter?" I tried to calm myself but I knew something was wrong. Gena never did this. She never apologized or called out of the blue unless she needed something or there was trouble.
"I need you to take me to the hospital. I-I don't feel well."
It seemed strange that she would ask me to take her to the hospital when I lived nearly six hours away. After my residency I had chosen to move to Rochester, a safe distance away from Gena and David in Brooklyn.
"Well...can't David take you?" I asked. There was a long pause and then I heard her burst into tears. My heart was pounding in my ears. Gena never cried. Not even when Dad left. She valued her independence and reputation as a thick-skinned, hard-as-nails, black woman. But now she was falling apart. Something was horribly wrong.
"I-I don't know where David is. He took the car and left two weeks ago. I wouldn't bother you except...the only person that knows me as well as I do is you, Megan. I'm sick. Very sick. I was wondering if you could come stay with me for a while. Help me. Sometimes I can barely get out of bed, I feel so tired. At first I thought I was sick over David, but then I started throwing up and falling out. Now you know me having been a nurse, I can take care of myself but this...this bug...it has me beat, Megan. I need you to come and....take care of me." I was more shocked in that moment than I had ever been in my life. Regena Corinne Lovett needed me. Me. Part of me didn't want to care. She should have listened to me when I told her about David. But she was my mother. My one and only. I had to help.
I took off work, using the three week vacation I had coming at the Park Ridge Hospital and packed up Snowball, my equipment, enough clothes for a month, and headed down to Brooklyn. When I reached the house I was appalled. Gena's garden was riddled with weeds and dead and dying rose bushes. She never neglected the plants. I also noticed the green shutters on the windows had broken off their hinges and were hanging sideways against the gray siding. I knocked twice before entering. A foul odor hit me as soon as I opened the door. The kitchen was stacked with dirty dishes in the sink and on the counters; on the table a cockroach scurried around a bowl of half eaten stew.
"Gena!" I called, shutting and locking the door behind me. I walked down the hall cautiously, noticing how dirty the wooden floors had become. I found Gena in her room, the ashtray on her nightstand dusty with several cigarette butts. She was asleep on her side, facing away from me. She was wrapped under three blankets, an unusual act for my normally hot natured mother. I decided not the wake her and took her wine glasses and ashtray into the kitchen. I spent the rest of the morning washing dishes, sweeping, scrubbing floors and doing laundry. When Gena awoke I had chicken noodle soup and an egg salad sandwich waiting for her.
"You cut your hair." Gena snipped, removing the tray of food from her lap. “You know you have no chest. With short hair you look just like a boy.” When I ignored her she motioned toward her purse. I reached into the brown leather handbag and fetched her carton of cigarettes. She covered her mouth to stifle a hard cough before sticking the cigarette in her mouth and lighting it. "How is Jonathan?"
"I think you mean James. We broke up two years ago. It's just me and Snowball now."
"Snowball." I picked up the white kitten, asleep on the rug, and held her up for Gena to see. Gena wrinkled her nose. If nothing else her hate for animals was still strong. "Are you still hungry?" I asked, collecting the dishes.
"No. I'm full. I'm surprised I was able to keep it down." Gena attempted to laugh but began coughing instead. I exited the room with the dirty dishes. When I came back Gena was holding a frame, her eyes watering and chin trembling. When I walked over to her side to see the picture, she threw it down on the pillow beside her. "Help me get dressed. I'm ready to visit the doctor now." She said, all traces of the emotions she exhibited a moment ago erased.
"Mrs. Lovett, it's been years!" Dr. Carrigan gave Gena a light hug and turned toward me. "Don't tell me this is little Megan! Well, you're fully grown now!" Dr. Carrigan's plump, rosy face glowed and his eyes twinkled. Ever the friendly man, he had played Santa every year I could remember for sick children during the holidays. His then-gray hair was now completely white, and he seemed a bit shorter and chunkier; however, my mother's former boss hadn't changed a bit in kindness.
"Now, what seems to be the trouble?"
"I'm sick, Doug. What, you think I'd come here if I was healthy?" Gena snapped. She raked her long, jagged, unpolished nails through her afro in an attempt to straighten it. Dr. Carrigan chuckled.
"Can you be more specific?" He asked gently.
"Well, I'm sore all the time. Don't have no energy and can't eat except for some soup Megan made. I'm just not me. Haven't been for a couple of weeks."
"All right. Let me listen to your heart." Dr. Carrigan listened to Gena's lungs, looked in her ears, up her nose, checked her blood pressure and her temperature. "You're pressure and temp are definitely low." He said, frowning. "I'll send Nurse Helen in here with a blood test and see if we can't figure out what's been ailing you, all right?" Gena nodded and Dr. Carrigan left. A couple of minutes later a tall, leggy blond entered the room with a needle and empty bottle. She swabbed Gena's right arm and pierced the needle into Gena's vein. Afterwards she held a cotton ball to the open vein and sealed it there with a band aid. "It will take about a week and then we'll call you back with the results, all right?" Nurse Helen's blue eyes shone prettily, but I could tell no one was home. I helped Gena up from the seat and into her coat.
Waiting for the results was the most anticipation I had felt in a long time. Gena truly had me worried. She had become increasingly rude because of the pain and weakness she felt. I was only able to get three more bowls of soup into her that week before she began vomiting. I took care of the bills, the personal phone calls, and the visits from friends until I felt I might go insane. At seven o-clock Tuesday evening the phone rang.
"Mrs. Lovett?" Dr. Carrigan's professional voice called out.
"It's Megan. Do you have the results?"
"I'm not sure, Megan. Maybe it's better if you both came down."
"Doctor, today hasn't been a good day for Gena. She just stopped suffering from the pain long enough to get some sleep. You can tell me over the phone and I'll relay the message."
"Well, it's just....Mrs. Lovett....your mother...we believe she has this new virus that is known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS."
"A new virus? I don't think I've heard of that before. What will she need to do to get better?" There was a stillness on the other end. "Doctor? What will she need to do to get better?" I repeated, desperation edging into my voice.
"Megan....this virus is very new. It was first discovered in June, 1981 in a group of homosexual men. We figured it was some kind of disease passed around throughout the gay community and....so far there is no cure. All people known to come in contact with it have....expired."
My mouth went dry. "Ex-expired?" I sputtered. "You're telling me that my mother has a gay man's disease and that she's now going to expire?!" I felt fear and anger clog my throat.
"I'm sorry, Megan. There are a couple of laboratories and organizations dedicated to the research of this virus in Africa, South America and California."
"Are you saying that to get my mother help I would have to travel half way around the country --around the globe?!" Dr. Carrigan was silent. Enraged, I slammed down the receiver. These small time doctors knew nothing! My mother gave them thirty-two years of her life and this is how they repaid her? Well, I would help her myself. There was no reason why I shouldn't examine my own mother and cure her. I had the resources. I was, after all, a certified doctor! And how foolish I was.
I looked at myself in the mirror. My caramel skin had gone pale, my eyes were dark and hollow. No longer did they sparkle with youth and vivaciousness. My life hadn't been mine for over a year now. My hands, once soft and manicured, were now rough and thick; proof of laboring over the stove, scrubbing floors and soaking clothes in buckets of cold water for days on end. All for a woman who had never once told me she loved me. As a child, Gena had always blamed me for my father leaving. She had told me that if only I had been born a boy he would have stayed. She tried and tried to get pregnant again and when she finally had David it was too late; my father had fallen in love with another woman.
Some nights I would hear Gena calling out for David. She hadn't seen him since October 1983 when he drove off with her car. I missed him too. It was hard not knowing if one of the homeless men begging for change on the corner was my sibling. We kept hope that he was still alive since we hadn't yet received a call from the city morgue.
"Megan! Megan, I'm thirsty!" Gena cried out from the bedroom.
"I'm coming, Gena." My feet carried my tired body into the kitchen. Wasn't this what I always loathed? To become my mother's slave? Yet here I was. I had had to quit my job and move back in with Gena. Because Snowball's fur had given Gena allergies I had had to give her away. Now I had no one. No one to talk to to share my pain. I was trapped in my mother's shadow once again. I was the little girl who did everything her mother asked, craving just a smidgen of love in return.
My elbow bumped the cup and apple juice spilled onto the floor. I kneeled down and looked into the cabinet beneath the sink for a rag. For a moment, my hand paused over the rat poison. Wouldn't it be easier for me --for Gena-- to just end it now? No more pain, no more torment. Just give her the release I knew she wanted so I could get on with my life!
"Megan!" Gena's yell woke me from my reverie, and I snatched up the paper towel, slamming the cabinet door shut. My hand shook as I poured another glass of juice and served it to Gena. I watched her drink it and drift off to sleep. I wondered how easy it would be to just take the pillow beside her and....I rose and leaned over Gena, picking up the flat, white pillow. For a moment I paused. My mother was once a beautiful woman. Her once thick, black locks had begun to fall out and her usually glistening, dark skin had become withered and rubbery. Just then, I noticed a frame. It had been lying beneath the pillow. With caution, I picked it up and turned it over. Inside the frame was a picture of a tall, thin girl with long, thick brown curls and braces. She was smiling in her royal red cap and gown. Beside her was a woman, a few inches shorter, with short black locks and a smile as wide as the sea. The girl was me. At my graduation. The woman, of course, was Gena. I could barely remember that moment. I could just recall Gena stroking my head and smiling. She was proud of me that day.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. I dropped the pillow onto the floor. Quietly, I left Gena sleeping peacefully, unaware of my thoughts, and went to answer the door. My eyes widened as I stared into the bony face of my baby brother. David was as thin as a twig. Dressed in a greasy gray jacket and ripped jeans, he grinned at me. I hauled off and slapped him right then and there on the front porch.
"How dare you!" I screamed, pushing him off the steps. He landed on his back and scrunched his face up in pain. "How dare you come back here! Don't you even know what you've done?!"
He stared at me in disbelief. I had never attacked him before. I had never attacked anyone before. I had always been the quiet and polite Megan Lovett. No more.
"Don't you know what you've done?!" I repeated. "Our mother is dying --dying-- right now! And you left her! You took her car and everything of value and you left! How could you? Why did you even come back? You should have just stayed out there. You should have just died!" I exploded into tears and David did too. He slowly rose to his feet and climbed the stairs.
"Megan, I didn't know! I came back because I love Mom! I don't want to be like this anymore! I don't want to steal and hurt people! Please, Megan. Please." He sank to his knees and I reluctantly took his head in my arms and hugged him. We cried for what seemed like years. Maybe we cried for those lost years. For the first time in my life I felt a connection with my brother. A kinship.
I led him into the bedroom to see Gena. She was still sleeping; rather than wake her, I brought David back toward the front of the house into the kitchen. We sat at the small wooden table with uneven legs in silence.
"What does she have?" David finally asked. He was staring down at this hands. They were rough and cracked. Dirty street hands.
"It's called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Or AIDS for short." I murmured.
He nodded although I know he didn't understand. Large words confused David. At the age of twelve he had been diagnosed with dyslexia.
"It's a virus in her blood. It breaks down her immune system, which makes her weak and vulnerable to lots of colds and flus." I explained.
He began to tremble. "How long has she got?"
"I don't know. Doctor Carrigan gives her a few months." A tear trickled down my cheek. "You know, at first they all thought it was a gay person's disease but...it's a blood disease. Anyone with blood can get it."
"How did she get it?" He asked; he slowly began rocking back and forth in the chair.
"Do you remember two years ago...you overdosed and Gena took you to the hospital? You probably don't because you were so weak you needed a blood transfusion. She gave you blood."
David's head snapped up, his eyes wide. "Me? Be--because of me? Does that mean that I--"
"I don't know. You should go get tested. They gave her a dirty needle. A needle that someone with AIDS had used. Can you believe that? Those stupid small town doctors! Stupid, f***ing doctors!" I balled my fist so tight my knuckles turned white. He would never know what it was like. Having to take care of your parent as if they were the child. Watching them die a death that was not their fault.
"I'm so sorry, Megan. So sorry."
Regena Corinne Lovett died February 2, 1985, two months after David was diagnosed with the AIDS virus. After Gena's funeral David took off again. I haven't seen him since. I moved back to Rochester and adopted three cats. I work at Genesee Hospital Laboratory, researching HIV and AIDS. Maybe one day I will find the cure.