Chapter 1 There’s Always a Catch
Not my cross to bear, I think with a wry smile as I stare into my mother’s small craft room at the object that dominates the cluttered space. Perhaps seven feet tall, it is shaped like an enormous black letter X standing on a shallow base, canted backward at a slight angle. If it were a person, it would be standing tall with feet planted wide and arms flung out, its face raised to the sky—exultant, powerful. This is not the image that would occur to most people who are familiar with such equipment, I’m sure. This is a St. Andrew’s Cross, a piece of bondage gear, and it bears witness to my mother’s power, strength, and willingness to defy convention. Yet it also evokes for me her frailties, weaknesses, and shame—the many crosses she’s turned to me to help her carry. Not my cross to bear? This time it’s a question, and I know the answer is, Yes, it will be in the end.
I arrived by train from New York, hurrying here to Philadelphia in response to a series of confusing phone calls that began yesterday afternoon. “Your mom’s in the hospital. She says she’s had a seizure.” That was my partner Will’s message, left for me to find when I returned to my office after class. When I called him back, he had no new information, so I called Mom’s cell. Her voice was shaky as she told me she’d never said anything about having a seizure. She handed the phone off to a nurse, who told me only that she was being admitted for observation for the night.
“Should I come down right away?” I asked when Mom took the phone back from the nurse.
“No, no, Aunt Sarah is on her way. I’m fine,” she told me, and for the moment I let myself be convinced. It was a Monday in early April, a busy time of the semester. Leaving work wouldn’t be easy, and if Aunt Sarah could be there, at least for a few days, maybe I could set my students up with an assignment and obtain some class coverage to get through the rest of the week.
I called again when I got home from work. Aunt Sarah was there. Mom had been taken for a brain scan. What Aunt Sarah had so far pieced together from Mom went something like this: Mom woke up at some point early in the morning, hallucinating, and stumbled from her bedroom to the bathroom. “I might have left a bit of a mess,” she’d told Aunt Sarah, who related the statement to me.
“There’s always a mess,” I said to Aunt Sarah. “How bad could this be?”
Somehow, Mom had managed to call a cab to get her to an appointment with the oncologist who has followed her since her kidney cancer and nephrectomy three years ago. She’d arrived at the office bruised, bloody, and disoriented, and Dr. Campbell had arranged for her to be ushered straight to the emergency department.
Aunt Sarah said she’d call again as soon as Mom was back from the scan and there was more information.
At eight o’clock that evening, the phone rang again.
“I have sparkles in my brain,” Mom told me, sounding sleepy and confused.
Aunt Sarah took the phone and explained that Mom had brain metastases, possibly from the kidney cancer three years earlier, but without further testing we couldn’t know for sure.
“I’ll be there tomorrow,” I said, feeling instantly guilty. On the one hand, I chastised myself for not having gone right away. On the other hand, I started to beat myself up for the immediacy with which I’d drop everything to get there when Mom was sick, given the reluctance I felt about just hopping on the train to go spend the day or the weekend with her. But I think of it as saving my reserves. Mom’s life is so chaotic, I never know when I’ll need to draw on them. Still, I hear her voice in my head, asking why I only come when she’s not feeling well. I can’t win.
Now, hours after my arrival at the hospital, Aunt Sarah and I stand in Mom’s apartment and survey the wreckage. We find the commode she kept for nighttime emergencies overturned near a T-shirt stained with blood from the scrapes she sustained when she fell. Blood drops lead to the bathroom, where we also find a trash bag filled with plastic tubes and bags left over from the dialysis she performs on herself every night. If I were a crime scene investigator, I’d be surprised by the lack of a body.
This is my first encounter with the cross. As we finish cleaning up the mess in the bedroom and prepare to face the bathroom, Aunt Sarah suddenly asks, “Have you seen it?”
Mom has been talking about the cross for months but it’s been at least six months since I’ve been here, despite the easy two-hour train ride from New York. I feel the twinge of guilt again and confess that no, I haven’t seen it.
Aunt Sarah gestures to the craft room with raised eyebrows and something that is not quite a smirk but not quite a grin on her face. She is the elder of the two sisters by just a couple of years, and she has led the more conventional, stable, and seemingly happier life.
My mother hasn’t made a secret of the sexual awakening that began in her late fifties, and as the daughter who studies sexuality and gender, I’ve been her primary resource for information and affirmation, but I’m hardly the only one she’s shared her excitement with. Aunt Sarah—a politically progressive Methodist who has been an active member of her church since before I was born—has heard Mom talk about her discoveries and adventures and has been anything but judgmental. Later I’ll learn that she’s openly shared her new life with my cousin Jenn and with at least one friend from work, as well. I’m proud of her willingness to be out, though I marvel at her lack of boundaries.
The cross stands in the center of Mom’s small craft room, a room otherwise cluttered with little jars of paint and brightly colored squares of clay, with plastic drawers full of beads and faux jewels and wire, with dirty ashtrays and glasses lined with a sticky residue of chocolate syrup and root beer. I try to look past the mess and examine the cross more closely. Its arms and legs are lined up and down with stainless steel eyebolts, providing a wide array of points to which a partner can be bound for erotic punishment. My mother’s cross is draped in Dollar Store scarves. Bondage on a Budget is one of her favorite books, and she has a fondness for shiny, silky things. A person bound to a cross like this is generally acting out a pretty radical submission, but I can’t imagine my petite and frail mother tying knots that would keep a person restrained for long. Then again, I don’t suppose the men she’s bound to her cross have ever tried particularly hard to get away. These are men who want to submit to her. Feelings of power and pride wash over me as I imagine my mother’s cross in use.
Mom could never afford a St. Andrew’s Cross like this one. It was a gift from Kenny, her very special lover. He brought it with him on one of his many weekend trips from Brooklyn. The cross is so large and the room so small and cluttered that in my initial appraisal, I almost miss the improvised racks hanging on the walls behind it. Some of them, it turns out, are nothing more than plastic-coated wire dish strainers. An astonishing array of whips, canes, collars, and cuffs hang from them. I make a quick mental tally of the hundreds of dollars’ worth of leather, wood, plastic, and steel hanging from the cheaply improvised racks and hope that they, too, were gifts.
Even more bondage gear hangs from a solid and well-organized pegboard on the adjacent wall. The pegboard must have been Kenny’s work, I think, as my eyes drift back to the improvised dish strainers, which are certainly more my mother’s style.
Crosses like these are often permanently installed in dungeon play spaces, but this one is made to be collapsible, for discreet storage. I walk around it, pushing on it and examining its hinges and fasteners, and realize immediately that it, like many other pieces of my mother’s life, is too heavy and too complicated for her to manage on her own. Besides, putting things away has never been her style—so here it stands and here it will remain, until . . .
I let that thought trail off without a conclusion as I wander back through the apartment, noticing the bits and pieces of evidence revealing every interest and hobby Mom has entertained over the decades of her adult life: photography, calligraphy, horror novels, macramé, beading, bondage. The artifacts of all these interests are not arranged in carefully curated displays of books and photos or tidy cabinets of craft supplies. Instead, her apartment gives the impression of having survived a low-intensity cluster bomb packed with assorted goodies from Michaels, Barnes & Noble, and Good Vibrations. Colorful square packets of modeling clay can be found in the bathroom. Beads and wires nest in dishes and trays throughout the apartment. Books sit on shelves, but some also burrow into couches and under pillows, while others lounge on top of or under most tables. Even her sex toys turn up in unexpected places, like the butt plug on the windowsill in the living room or the handcuffs hanging over the coat closet door. My mother doesn’t so much resist organization as she refuses to acknowledge the possibility of its existence.
We finish cleaning up the wreckage of Mom’s bad night, and Aunt Sarah says good night. We agree that I’ll call her from the hospital tomorrow to give her an update. All we know right now is that there is some kind of cancer activity and it has shown up in scans of Mom’s lungs, liver, and skull. Note to self, I think. Always double-check the information with the doctor. The sparkles on the earlier scan were in the bones of her skull, not in her brain, though actually I’m not sure that one is necessarily any better than the other. Is this a return of the kidney cancer we thought was in remission? Is it something new? Is this what caused her delirium, or is there something else going on that is yet to be discovered? There are many worrisome questions, and if my past experience with Mom and hospitals is any guide, the coming days will be as full of ambiguity and uncertainty as they are with answers.
I settle in, carving out a small, orderly space around my mother’s bed, warding off the encroaching chaos. Despite my exhaustion, on this night it seems I’ve also warded off sleep. My mind spins medical details about scans and metastases together with a visceral fear for my mother’s life and sprinkles in some generalized anxiety for good measure.
Having created a relatively orderly nest for myself in the bed, I don’t want to subject myself to the mess around me—not even to get a glass of water. Instead, I scan the books on the headboard bookshelf. A couple of vampire novels share space with titles like The Topping Book, which makes sense given her newfound sexual dominance, and A Hand in the Bush, which doesn’t. It’s about vaginal fisting, and as far as I know, Mom’s partners are all men and she never allows them to penetrate her. Maybe that latter rule no longer applies? I flip through the pages of a book on the use of needles and ribbon to make elegant designs on a submissive’s body. The images are lovely pen-and-ink drawings and the text is instructive, but it certainly isn’t making me sleepy.
There’s a dense hardcover about the Civil War next to Women Who Run with the Wolves, which Mom has always wanted me to read. My feminism has no room for some spiritual claim about a natural and instinctive femininity. I’ve always felt dismissive about the book despite her love of it, and I don’t feel compelled to pick it up now. The last book on the shelf is an old paperback copy of her favorite book, Catch-22.
I open randomly to a page on which Yossarian is raving about the injustice of being forced to fly an increasing number of missions just to enhance the reputation of the status-hungry Colonel Cathcart. He’s begging Doc Daneeka to declare him mentally unfit to fly because of his disabling fear of death. The answer, of course, the catch in Catch-22, is that his terror is evidence of his sanity. Only the crazy would be so unafraid as to fly such dangerous missions without complaint. He loses either way.
As I flip through the pages, I think about how often I’ve understood my mother to be caught between mutually incompatible states of being. She’s always believed herself to be the victim of some cosmic injustice, some catch she couldn’t escape. Until this moment, lying awake in her bed while she lies in the hospital, I’ve always attributed her denial, irresponsibility, and avoidance to her alcoholism, but Yossarian’s outlandish reactions to his own insurmountable stuckness cause me to wonder about another possibility: What if your response only appears irrational, Mom, because the rest of us have accepted as sane a situation that is actually entirely crazy?
As I curl up in her bed and skim her favorite book, I think about the number of times my mother has made choices that didn’t lead where she expected. Born at the beginning of the baby boom in the summer of 1945, the second daughter of working-class parents, she went to college to be a journalist. In love with her chosen career, she was also in love with a dental student and with the idea of becoming an upper-middle-class wife and mother. I imagine she’d have enjoyed it more if she hadn’t developed alcoholism along the way. She enjoyed staying home to care for my sister and me and she loved entertaining, especially the drinking, but in 1978, after only ten years of marriage, she found herself divorced and facing single motherhood without a clear path back to her profession. Eight years out of the newsroom made it impossible for her to step right back into journalism. Even getting sober wasn’t without its catches. She needed sobriety in order to function as a single parent, but obtaining it required so many meetings that, for years, between work and AA, I felt like we hardly saw her. There seemed to be no conflict in her life that had a clear and uncomplicated solution. No wonder this book resonated so deeply with you, Mom. No matter what you did, it never seemed like things would ever be as they ought to be.
I ought to be sleeping, but sleep is not going to enter my magic circle of order, so I give up, abandon my little nest, and return to the craft room. The imposing cross still makes me smile, but now my smile is edged with sadness. I’m glad my mother had some fun, but what if it’s all over now? I wander around the room and touch braided whips and studded collars, leather cuffs and metal clamps. I sit amid the clutter and pick up a wood-covered album, the kind with the black paper pages that require the use of little adhesive paper corners in order to attach photos. I haven’t seen this one before, and it turns out it doesn’t contain photos. Instead—I’m surprised to discover—it holds articles from The Trenton Times written by one Judy Newton, my mother’s name before she married my father. The dates, all from 1963, reveal that she wrote them when she was a senior in high school. You were a journalist in high school? Published in The Trenton Times? How can I know all about your sex life and not know about this?
The articles reveal a talented young writer, at turns funny and serious, who annotated her early accomplishments with note cards on which she recorded details about the stories. One note card, accompanying a humorous column about the material culture of student lockers, exclaims that the cartoonist Frank Tyger, whose illustration graced her article, talked with her for a whole hour and that she earned her first bonus—$5.00—for the piece. I can feel her pride and excitement as I trace my fingertip across the small, neatly looping script.
Flipping slowly through the pages, I read articles that range in focus from a feature on two blind students to a piece documenting a skydiving trip. Later there is a complete issue of The New Hampshire, UNH’s student paper, where, by her sophomore year, the masthead tells me, she was the news editor. This issue is the only one she’s saved—at least in this album—and it’s dated January 7, 1965. Under the full-page headline “WE PROTEST” are four front-page stories raising concerns about a new computerized IBM registration process opposed by students and faculty alike. In 1965 you were writing about computers? How, after such a powerful start, did you find yourself not a writer but someone who said so frequently, “I always wanted to be a writer”?
The question leaves me profoundly sad. I consider the deep ambivalence my mother must have felt about the catch-22s of career and motherhood, of marriage and divorce, contradictions that may have fueled her drinking and that were certainly part of her inability to fully commit herself to the tasks of adulthood. Whatever the root of my mother’s astonishing lack of boundaries and the strangeness with which she has interpreted the roles of mother and daughter, the resulting chaos permeated my childhood. The disorder that bled through her life brought us very close to one another while also causing pain and creating problems for me. It’s been hard to tell at times whose crosses are whose, I think as I look back at the enormous piece of bondage equipment in the center of the room and wonder at the ties that have bound us together. Not so hard now, is it?
Looking at the cross again, I’m filled with awe. So much power and so much responsibility are required to use such a thing well, and clearly you could do that, couldn’t you? The rest of the chaos be damned.
I put the album back in the same disorderly pile from which I extracted it, stand up, and stretch my tired body. Looking around the room, I wonder again at the sheer riot of color, texture, and mixture of interests displayed in one small space. I run my hand over the cross and smile sadly, and then I return to bed.
The cross takes up a lot of physical space, but as I return to the craft room with my first cup of coffee after too few hours of restless sleep, I still find it oddly reassuring in its affirmation of my mother’s power, and right now I need that reassurance. I’m exhausted already, and I’ve only been here one day. The mess, the worry, and the uncertainty are combining with the lack of sleep and the caffeine to create a kind of edginess that is eased a bit by the power I see in the solid substance of the cross. The emotional crosses, invisible and ethereal, feel much more frightening and imposing. Will Mom be able to draw on her newfound strength to fight off the disease that is dominating her right now? Will I need to find a way to care for her, to incorporate the disorder of her life into my own carefully constructed and controlled day-to-day routines, for years to come? Will she get to play in this room again? Can I keep her chaos contained here? Will she survive this crisis? Will I?
I sip my coffee slowly, despite my need to get back to the hospital. I’m stuck between my distaste for her mess and my fear for her life. The apartment is a wreck, but its horrors are familiar, and while I don’t enjoy them, I know how to navigate them. The hospital is clean and orderly but also, at the moment, frightening because of what as-yet-unknown horror might be revealed there. How will Mom seem when I arrive at her bedside today? What will her doctors tell me about these new spots of cancer?
The caffeine works its way into my bloodstream as I shuffle some of the clutter and papers. Picking up a square of clay and placing it with a few others that are also not where they should be, examining a paper and putting it back down, I’m not making any real attempt at order. I just want to feel busy, because to slow down would be to start sinking into the mess and all its associated anxiety and despair.
I was forty before I realized that every attempt I’d ever made to instill order in my mother’s life essentially created new wells of guilt, forcing her to face another thing she couldn’t or wouldn’t maintain. Another cross for you to bear, I think, looking back at the object dominating the room. Even your biggest symbol of power and control is surrounded by chaos. She’d ask for help because the mess embarrassed her, but when it came right down to it, she preferred chaos to order. It was just easier that way.
The room begins to feel too close. Shuffling papers and little colored blocks of clay is starting to make me feel incompetent instead of busy. I’m a person who needs two cups of coffee in order to feel fully human in the morning, but I gulp the last of this first cup and decide to buy my second cup on the walk to the hospital. I suddenly need to be outside. I need to feel like I’m really doing something. At the hospital, even if there’s no new information right way, I can act like the responsible daughter in front of an audience that knows what that means. Even if the news is bad, we will discuss a path forward.
At least that’s what I think as I fumble with my shoes, grab the keys and my bag, and head out into the April sunshine.
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