A Mother’s Journey into the Unknown

Water streams from the top of my head down my back to my heels, then swishes down the drain. My curly hair lies flat and soaking wet in the well of my collarbones. The hot shower lifts the chill of this late March morning in New England.

How does spring come here in Hopkinton, I ask myself. I’ve seen no buds, no daffodil leaf tips, no forsythia.

I tilt my head back to catch the water on my face. Green apple shampoo and Dove soap smell like a new season.

My grandsons’ navy-blue shower curtain closes me in a silent world. I hear no sirens in the Massachusetts countryside, no morning talk show on the radio, no sound from my 42-year-old daughter, Ellen, asleep across the hall with a pillow pressed to the incision along the bottom of her rib cage, the site of her liver surgery.

In the deep blue quiet, I clean my body with its own scars for the day ahead of cheering, fetching, bending, cooking to lure Ellen to eat something, anything—split pea soup or chicken salad, please eat because you are my precious oldest daughter and so very thin now. And it is so quiet here. I miss the morning noises from my urban house in the heart of St. Louis with the sound of our basset hound’s big feet on our wooden floors, my husband shouting “Jerks!” at the broadcast news, the rumble of a trash truck, the squeal of school bus brakes across the street. Navy blue silence every morning outside this village. I scrub my legs, using my grandsons’ white washcloths and towels, stacked in the bathroom closet ready for their homecoming when Ellen has healed.

I hear a deep female voice say, “Mars.”

I jump, startled. Blink. Peek naked out the side of the shower curtain. No one. On the sink top my toothbrush and hand lotion, my hairclips and makeup displace the boys’ superhero toothbrushes and strawberry-flavored toothpaste. My grandsons are staying with their father as I care for Ellen.

“Mars,” the voice says again.

I turn in the shower. My shoulder bumps the curtain. It responds,


Oh my God, oh my God. It can’t be the curtain. I have never heard of. . . of what?

I turn off the water, timidly push the curtain to the side, try to step out without touching it. My toe bumps the bottom hem.

“Pluto,” the voice says now.

Standing at a distance, I throw a towel over my head, and stare at the curtain. Planets with their rings and moons and even the Milky Way cover its dark vinyl surface. In the upper right corner, I glimpse a pocket with a battery. I yank the curtain just to see what will happen.

“Mars,” comes the voice.

And here I am, weeks into my daughter’s recovery, far from my own Midwestern planet, far away in an orbit of healing and health, a new universe that reminds me every morning that my children always and forever bear me to places I have never traveled before.

This new galaxy—not light years away in the heavens but deep in the innards of my child—is my home for now. I have journeyed here unwittingly as a doctor’s voice intones places stranger to me than Mars or Venus, Jupiter, or Pluto. Hemangiomas, dim lungs, discectomy, hematocrits, and biliary tree—too foreign to grasp, too frightening to search on the Internet, on those caregiving days when a doctor asks me to simply reject or accept a new protocol. I pray a prayer I have just learned: Dear God, please let there be stable vital signs.

I voyage into this galaxy beyond galaxies, into the pitch-dark universe of my child’s illness, into the depths of powerlessness, into the black hole of despair. Then a navy-blue morning voice—ignorant of my morning shower ritual to ward off the evil of illness—that voice breaks through my drying myself with an unbidden “Mars.”

I laugh and answer, “Can you fly me there?  Please.”

Spring creeps in here in New England.

Susan Rava, a former French teacher, lives and writes in St. Louis. She is the author of Swimming Solo: A Daughter’s Memoir of Her Parents, His Parents, and Alzheimer’s Disease (Plateau Books).Mars” was first published in The Lindenwood Review.

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