Look at What We've Come To

May 27, 2008
By Hana Connelly, Cambridge, MA

My mother is in pain. Through her bedroom door, which is open just a crack, I can hear pillow-stifled groans, small shrieks of surprise, as though she can’t believe there is even more pain in the world and that it has come to pick on her, the barely discernible clunk as her arm reaches over to select a Tylenol from the pile on her bedside table, and the rustling of the sheets as she slowly, oh-so-slowly, turns over in her battle to find the most soothing position. The smell of the mint lotion she rubs onto her temples in an effort to relieve the pain, the delicate scent of the ‘soothing’ vanilla candle that is burning beside her, and a hint of the smell of her chamomile tea sitting untouched on her bedside table escapes through the crack and drifts lazily in the air around the hallway. There’s another smell too. Did you know that suffering has a smell? It does. Or, rather, it’s more of a feel in the air, a presence all around you; the presence of an unwelcome, invisible visitor, cackling in silence as it watches over its victim. It’s all around me, and it’s coming from inside my mother’s room. When I peer gingerly into the room, through the crack in the door, I can see her pitiful frame lying motionless on the large, fluffy bed, lost in a tangle of sheets and pillows. A thin arm is draped over the side of the bed, hanging down so that the tips of the fingers nearly skim the hardwood floor underneath them. Is it reaching for something, or has it given up already?

I linger in the hallway, as insignificant and helpless to relieve my mother’s pain as the mint on her temples. My brow is knit in worry and deep thought. Several times I make a movement as though to open the door and enter the room, but pull myself back just in time. I don’t notice my arms reaching out hesitantly towards the handle of the door even while my body shrinks away from it. I want to go into her room, comfort her, snatch away all the pain and cram it anywhere, even into myself if necessary. But I can’t. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just impossible.

I feel painfully helpless. I can’t go in and speak soothing words that mean nothing at all, I can’t coax her to drink her tea or convince her that it will help. I can’t rock her head gently back and forth while lightly massaging her tensed shoulders. I can’t because I don’t know how.

All I can do is be very quiet, walking through the hallway as silently as possible, drifting around the house like a phantom. All I can do is make sure not to disturb her, make sure to do everything she always asks of me, like empty the dishwasher, put away my cutlery when I’m done with it, and leave none of my stuff lying around. I consider cleaning the whole house for her, but it would make too much noise and she would only feel awkward the next day. Besides, I think she enjoys doing it herself. All that I can do, I do. But it’s not enough. It doesn’t relieve the helplessness.

And for the first time, I know. I’m aware of what she feels when I’m suffering. But it doesn’t make me compassionate, it only makes me understand. The two are different, you know. I feel angry, too: mother and daughter, and yet look at us. Look at what we’ve come to.

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