Brian D. Moseley, MD
Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, United States
Photography by Roberta F
Lunchtime began like any other. Attempting to ward off the cold with little shivers, most of the second graders huddled under Mrs. Gerhardt’s umbrella. I remained on the outside, inviting the rain to soak my hair, bulky jacket, and baggy jeans. As we neared the cafeteria, I peeled off to make my way towards the main office. That was where I found my “other” desk.
The desk and lunchtime had become one. Both were found at the far end of a hallway, isolated from the sights, sounds, and smells of the rest of the school.
“So, what are you in for?” I was asked as I took my seat.
Twisting backwards, I saw the new janitor leaning over my shoulder. He reeked of window cleaner. To prevent myself from gagging, I buried my face in the sleeve of my jacket.
“You must have done something bad for them to stick you here.”
I returned my gaze to the desk. I opened my bag, ceremoniously throwing away a soggy, uneaten tuna sandwich.
“Let me guess, you don’t like homework.”
I removed a package of cheese and crackers. Playing with the plastic knife, I began spreading melted cheese.
“Did you pick a fight?” the janitor asked, his voice growing softer.
I intently focused on spreading the melted cheese, nearly breaking the cracker in two. As the janitor was about to turn away, I muttered, “I want to be here.”
“Why? Wouldn’t you rather be with your friends?”
“Not in the cafeteria. The smell there . . . just thinking about it . . . hurts.”
“But it’s Sloppy Joe Monday . . .”
I continued piling on the cheese. No matter how vigorously I swiped, I couldn’t shake the janitor’s suffocating smell.
“Are you nervous?” Reaching into his pocket, the janitor fetched a handful of beef jerky. “Here, take this. If you’re like me, this’ll calm you right down.”
Holding my breath was useless. The smell of the jerky stung the back of my throat, and I struggled for breath. Like the tide, the all-too-familiar nausea flowed in and out between my deepening gasps.
“Those things . . . they make me sick too.”
The janitor reached for my shoulder. His hand sank deeply into the sea of my jacket’s Teflon. He must have been shocked by how deeply he could press without any resistance.
“Anthony, is that you?”
The janitor and I spun around to see my mother standing at the other end of the hallway. One hand was on her curvy hips; the other drummed the flap of her knockoff purse.
“The secretary told me you’d still be here. Have you finished your lunch?”
I nodded my head.
Using my back as cover, I rounded up the uneaten crackers and shoved them into the bag. Before approaching my mother, they were reunited with the tuna sandwich in the trash.
“Anthony, I told you to use an umbrella today,” my mother whispered as we walked away. “You look like a mess.”
When my mother and I reached the school psychologist’s office, we played our usual game. I had nicknamed it “breaking and entering.” My mother would stand a few feet away, on the lookout for nosy teachers or students. If the coast was clear, she would wave for me to come into the office. If anyone walked by her, she would prominently brandish some of my old homework, which she kept in her purse for these occasions. “Oh, boys can be so forgetful!” she would merrily say, even if she wasn’t asked.
My mother and I waited 15 minutes for Dr. Swetz to arrive. While I dangled my feet above the old, stained carpet, my mother preoccupied herself by staring into a compact mirror. She alternated between powdering her face and combing the strands of her bleached curls. However, no amount of makeup could hide the bags under her eyes.
“I’m sorry I kept you waiting,” Dr. Swetz said as he opened the door and hustled behind his desk.
The doctor reached out to shake my mother’s hand. “Ms. Pittman, it’s a pleasure to see you again.”
My mother tugged at the ends of her sleeves. Regardless of whether it was snowing or 100 degrees outside, my mother always wore long sleeves. I used to have problems understanding why. I thought that the cuts on her arms were the most beautiful, honest things about her.
Dr. Swetz swiveled backwards in his chair to claim my inch-thick file from his cabinet. Out of his eyeshot, I rapidly fanned the surrounding air from my face.
“What’s wrong, sweetie?” my mother whispered into my ear.
“He kinda’ smells like a chimney today.”
A wide grin spread across my mother’s lips. She loved talking about others behind their backs. The only time she was silent was when someone asked her how I was doing.
“Well, Anthony sure is a good student,” Dr. Swetz said as he swiveled back around. “Straight A’s again this quarter.” He attempted a smile, exposing his brown-stained teeth.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less from my son.”
“But it looks like he’s had more problems with choking and gagging in front of the other students,” Dr. Swetz said as he rummaged through the file. “We even got a parent complaint last month.”
“I’m really sorry about that,” I said, burying my head in my lap. No matter how hard I tried, swallowing was never easy. Just the thought of food would cause my throat to tighten. Hunger was nothing compared to the fear of suffocating.
My mother tugged at my hand. Looking up, I saw her mouth the words be quiet.
With his head still buried in the file, Dr. Swetz continued, “We had to do something. I came up with the idea of setting up the desk out in the . . .”
“That’s what I’m here to talk about,” my mother interrupted.
“Oh, there’s no need to thank me. Anthony and I thought it might . . .”
“Thank you? It’s an awful idea.”
Dr. Swetz glanced in my direction and furrowed his brow. Telling my mother about the month-old move to the end of the hallway was something I conveniently forgot to do. At least until her surprise lunchtime visit last week.
“My son needs to go back to the cafeteria right away. That desk out in the hallway makes him look like a freak.”
“But, Ms. Pittman, Anthony and I had a talk about this before, and we both agreed that it was for the best.”
My gaze returned to the carpet. I cringed at the thought of Dr. Swetz’s elaborating on our conversations. Before my first appointment, my mother had made me swear not to discuss unpleasant things, like the late-night visits to the ER for IV fluids. Those were just “traps,” she said.
“I’m glad kids know what’s best.”
“Ms. Pittman, Anthony is getting worse every day. Sarcasm isn’t going to make the problem go away.”
“Oh, is that so?” My mother sighed loudly. “Well, we’ve all seen how successful you’ve been.”
“There’s only so much I can do here at school. I think it’s time Anthony saw a professional outside of school.”
My mother’s fake fingernails dug into my knuckles. Even my attempts to pull away didn’t make her realize the pain she was causing.
“Anthony, sweetie,” my mother said in her sugary voice, “would you please wait outside for a moment?”
My mother yanked me out of my chair and guided me out of the office. Waiting outside was pointless; the thin walls held back nothing.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?” I heard my mother shriek. “Would it hurt you to say something encouraging once in while?”
“Your boy is the thinnest child I’ve ever seen. His teacher can’t even find a spot for him on the bottom of his class’ growth chart. Let’s face it, Anthony is going to have to see a psychiatrist sooner or later. Then your son can be prescribed the medication he needs to . . .”
“Medication?” I could picture my mother’s eyes widening. “Are you nuts? I’ve seen what those things do. I don’t want a zombie for a son. I just want him to be . . . himself.”
“Trust me, Ms. Pittman, if Anthony became a zombie, it wouldn’t be because of the drugs. Have you . . . have you ever considered counseling for yourself?”
Suddenly, the door swung open. Its whack as it hit the doorstop told me that no further games would be played. Like a suitcase on wheels, I was dragged out to my mother’s car in full view of everyone.
“You’re never to see that man again,” my mother said before slamming the passenger door shut. “It’ll give him some extra time to feed off those filthy cigarettes.”
“Come on dear, finish your dessert.”
With an outstretched arm, my grandma offered me a piece of an oatmeal raisin cookie. Although I usually enjoyed my grandma coming over to babysit, mealtimes were the exception.
“I don’t want to,” I repeated between each shake of my head.
“Please, I promise you won’t choke.”
Finally I relented. Placing the cookie on my tongue, I began to roll it around my mouth. My grandma used to say it reminded her of a cow munching on grass. I would do anything to avoid the grainy texture against my throat.
Keys clinked from outside. After three locks were unfastened, the apartment door creaked open. Light flooded in from the hallway to reveal my mother’s haggard face.
With my grandma’s back turned, I picked up my napkin and spat moist cookie crumbs into it.
“Joslyn, you look tired.”
“I know,” my mother said as she plopped into the chair next to me. “But these extra shifts . . . We need the money.”
My mother reached over to smooth down my hair. Turning to my grandma, she asked, “How was dinner?”
“Pretty typical. He had problems with the bigger chunks in his soup. We’re working on dessert now.”
“But I’m full,” I protested. “Honest.”
“I’ll bet,” my mother said dryly as she made her way to the kitchen.
“I heard things didn’t go to well at school.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” my mother said, reaching into the freezer for a quart of vanilla ice cream. Before I could say anything, she was sitting next to me, forcing spoonfuls into my mouth.
“The psychologist there thinks he needs to see a professional shrink. Can you imagine, having to lie on some couch, being stared at like some . . . oops!”
The seeping wetness on my leg hinted at the spilled ice cream.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. Here, give me your napkin.”
I tried sneaking the napkin into one of my pant pockets. I shrugged my shoulders and started to rise.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
Before I could escape, my mother reached into my pocket and snatched the napkin. Spit mixed with uneaten cookie crumbs oozed from between her clenched fingers.
“I thought I told you never to do that again!”
“I’m s-sorry,” I stammered. “It just gets so scary, and I don’t want to make you mad, and . . .”
“Over my knee, now!”
As she raised her hand, I glimpsed my mother’s reflection in the nearby window. Purple mascara was careening over her cheeks, descending into every imperfect crevice.
My mother must have seen her reflection too. She tried desperately to wipe the tears from her eyes. However, she only made the purple mess worse. Mascara now covered both of her hands.
“Joslyn,” my grandma muttered, “you look like a mess.”
By now, the mix of tears and mascara had soaked the edges of her white sleeves, revealing the scars underneath. My mother reached for a nearby box of tissues. Unable to grasp it with her frantic, trembling hands, the table became covered with bright purple fingerprints.
I leaned over to grab a tissue and wipe my mother’s cheeks. She tried to push my hands away, only succeeding in staining my wrists as well.
“My God,” my mom whispered as she looked at my arm and back down at her own. “What have I done?”
“Please don’t cry,” I begged. “I promise I won’t do that again.”
Taking me in her arms, my mom brought me to her breast. “It’s not about that anymore. I . . . I’m just so sorry.”
My mom leaned in to kiss my forehead. By now, her crying had washed away the last of the mascara. As her clean tears landed on my lips, I hungrily licked them.
BRIAN D. MOSELEY, MD is a fourth-year resident and instructor of Neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. For his subspecialty, he will pursue a two-year Epilepsy/EEG fellowship at UCLA in July 2012. He is researching how autonomic changes that occur during seizures relate to sudden unexplained death in epilepsy (SUDEP). He has previously published articles in Neurology, Epilepsia, Epilepsy Research, Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, and the Journal of Child Neurology.