Do all mothers Gypsy-Curse their kids?
My mother, who I miss thoroughly, Gypsy-Cursed me when I was a wee raging ball of eczema and dozens more inflated or imaginary medical symptoms.
When I was seven, I’d routinely wake up at 4am, screaming from a charley horse, which if you are not a child or a hypochondriac, is a spasming calf muscle.
ME: I HAVE POLIO!!!!!
MOM: It’s a charley horse.
ME: IT’S POLIO! I NEED AN IRON LUNG!!!!!!
MOM: I hope you end up with a child just like you.
Since Andrew and I met too old to make children, we figured we dodged a bullet by not mingling my family’s Angela’s-Ashes-meets-Woody-Allen (the Pope of Hypochondriacs) DNA and Bukowski-level predisposition to addictions with his Scottish/WASP predispositions and similar addiction-prone germ pool. Andrew and I are so jam-packed with tricky psychological/biological inheritances, our marriage is subtitled, “When Eczema Met Psoriasis”.
I was such a committed child hypochondriac that I was obsessed with famous sick people. Since mental illness totally counts as an illness when you’re a competitive hypochondriac, my very first crush was Vincent Van Gogh. (I still cannot hear “Starry, Starry Night” without bursting into tears followed by an eczema rashburst.)
My second love was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If I could have papered my bedroom walls with Teen Beat FDR posters- (Franklin shirtless with a bandana tied around his head! Franklin pointing his fingers like a gun! Franklin in a sideways baseball cap, hugging a puppy! Franklin popping a wheelie in his bedazzled wheelchair!)- I totally would have. My first girl crush was Helen Keller.
I religiously scoured Family Circle, Redbook, or Ladies Home Journal for articles about rare but deadly childhood diseases. I posted the Twelve Warning Signs of Childhood Leukemia (click for link!) on the fridge and examine myself daily.
I remember daydreaming in a 4th grade class that I was the President of the Paralyzed Tap Dancer Club. While Teacher droned on about some subject of alleged import, I was mentally shooting a Public Service Announcement, where I tried to tap dance at my desk, using the barely moving tips of my shoes. My teacher hollered at me to stop tapping my feet, quickly whisking me out of dreamland. I still physically shudder when recalling this memory.
Since I was vigilant in finding ways to be tragically brave, I did what any self-respecting hypochondriac would do. I snooped in my mom’s purse and medicine cabinet for clues to my imminent demise that everyone else was somehow missing. Sure I had eczema, but I was gunning for more of a “The Boy in The Plastic Bubble” glamour.
And one day I found it. A Get Well card stuffed deep in my mom’s purse. The card was for me. But hidden from me. I was dazzled and aghast at once. Even though I was going to get into trouble for snooping, I was dying to ask what were they keeping from me, because I was dying to tell people why I was dying.
Finally alone, Mom was driving me somewhere and I burst dramatically into tears to help mitigate my guilt. I urged her to just blurt out my illness since time was of the essence. And Mom burst out laughing.
Laugh-crying, Mom explained Dad was starting a new career. He had to skip work for a few weeks but keep his job in case the new job didn’t work out, so he told his boss I was sick. I was devastated.
Grace is actually worse at four than I was at… ever. She is in more than perfect health. At four she’s the height of a 5.5 year old. She excels at soccer, tennis, gymnastics, running and has the coordination/flexibility/stamina of Usain Bolt and Simone Biles.
Yet… nearly every night she mournfully fake-sobs and drags her body around by her arms.
GRACE: MY LEGS ARE JUST NOT WORKING ANYMORE.
Or she’ll get a hangnail and wail like Etta James.
GRACE: NOW I NEED A NEW HAND!
After an entire box of Lightning McQueen Band-Aids has been enlisted, she still cannot find the strength to go on.
GRACE: I need medicine.
I’ll spray Rescue Remedy for Kids in her mouth.
GRACE: I want the other kind. The RED medicine.
We are cautious about Children’s Tylenol, so I give her homeopathic drops, but when she’s really sick, or really good at making me think she is, I’ll give her a half dose. She’ll suck it down and look at me like Courtney Love after one dose of anything.
ME: You can’t have more.
ME:You can only have one dose at a time.
GRACE: IT’S NOT WORKING.
ME: You just took it. You just can’t keep taking medicine. It will make you sick.
GRACE: (ecstatic) More medicine will make me MORE sick!??!!!
ME: Here we go.
And while I strive to be all How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Your Kids Will Talk, and refuse to mock her fake frailty or holler my rapidly aging head off, I wonder is this a Grace or a kid thing?
Dropping Grace off at preschool, I clock how many other kids sport tattoo sleeves of purely decorative Band-Aids. It’s a LOT. Marty bounces over to show us his latest elbow scrape accompanied by a narrative featuring an evil hula hoop.
Grace meets Marty’s elbow with skinned and bruised shins. Then Hopper raises with a forehead contusion from falling off a bookshelf. Competitive fire lit, Grace yanks off a sneaker to reveal the ankle scar from a playground train. Wandering over, Frankie whips up his sleeve to reveal a bruise from ‘someplace not good’.
By now, many kids crowd me- all of them displaying a scab, bruise or imaginary disease/illness/injury site.
Suddenly Baxter Montessori Preschool turns into the scar scene from ‘Jaws’.
But now I wonder if Grace’s hypochondria is a childhood rite of passage. Maybe it’s how kids transition from toddler-hood into kid-hood.
Toddlers get boo-boos, kids get scars, which are living stories, memories on your body, and they give you a past, which makes you a person.
So, while I pray for patience, all I hear is my mom, laughing with glee, that in my long, slow detour around life, I still ended up with a kid in no way like me, who’s precisely like me.