5.09.2010

My Mother Tongue.

It is somewhat of a Mother’s Day tradition for me to come back up home and help my Mom plant flowers. Much like the baking and decorating of Christmas cookies, I seem to be the only kid interested in helping with such work. I don’t mind though; these are memories that belong to Mom and me. When you’re nearing 30 and you have two younger siblings, Mom & Me memories are hard to come by.

My mom was a nurse for many years. This simple fact paints much of what I remember about my childhood. Staying home sick from school usually meant going with Mom to the hospital where empty beds were made available for employee’s sick children. I remember cuddling up in the large hospital bed and watching television. Nurses came by to check on me and take my temperature all day until my mom’s shift was over.

When I was older, I volunteered weekends and summers as a Candy Striper. I delivered flowers to patients’ rooms, took others to X-Ray, wheeled mothers with their new babies out to the curb where new fathers fumbled with car seats. The hospitals I see on television shows scare me; the hospital I grew up in was, in a way, as familiar as the church we attended or the stretch of highway between school and home.

Mom hasn’t worked at the hospital for a long time. She travels the country for a pharmaceutical company now, educating nurses and doctors about how to treat cancer patients. Indications of her many years spent on the ground still show, though. Yesterday when I asked how I should open a large bag of soil, she suggested laying it on the ground.

“I usually cut it open like I would an autopsy,” she said, matter-of-fact. “Cut it once long-ways and then once across the middle.”

Yiiiikes,” I thought to myself. “That is quite a description.”

I also noticed that she still uses nurse-speak on things as banal as the grocery list. She writes a C with a line over it to mean “with.” She leaves notes about H2Oing the plants while she’s away. Medicine is not a language that I speak, but it is one that I certainly understand.

And yet the concept of Mother Tongue extends far beyond linguistics. Mother Tongue is, in so many ways, the way a mother sees the world and how her children learn that example second-hand. My mom will spend hours on the phone helping someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer. These candidates for help can be anyone: a woman behind her on line at Sears, someone from church, the mother of someone I know. She brings pamphlets to recently diagnosed friends and talks my great aunt through biopsy scares and radiation scars. Cancer is the unknown. My Mom makes it less frightening.

It occurs to me that I have picked this up from her as well. Not so much the cancer knowledge (though I admit to having some basic knowledge of the drugs and treatments related to the disease). Last weekend I spent over an hour talking to a young woman headed to live in France for the first time. She randomly ran into my brother in Washington and within a minute he suggested talking to me for tips and advice. “Holy crap,” Chris said when I hung up the phone. “That was a long conversation!”

In the world of everyday people, living abroad is unknown. I like making this experience seem less frightening. The young woman thanked me at the end for taking the time to talk with her and I insisted it was totally my pleasure.

What can I say? I speak my Mother Tongue.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. I'm a nicer person because of you.

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