Don't cry, I thought harder. Don't cry don't cry don't cry. But my mother had her arm around me.
"You've been so good," she said. "It's okay, you don't have to be strong anymore today."
Don't have to be strong? Since when did she ever use words like that? The spot on the carpet dissolved into a uniform blur and I buried my head in her shoulder, bewildered but relieved.
"You're so warm," she said after a few minutes.
I lifted my head. "It's fine," I said. I reached for a tissue and glanced toward the door, hoping my father, who usually spent the evening watching TV on the couch just outside the room, couldn't hear us. "This fever's not as bad as the first."
My mother frowned but said nothing, a hand still holding tightly to my shoulder as she surveyed the suitcase on the floor, the airline ticket stubs on the nightstand. "You've had a long day. Now you should just rest."
I pulled the robe she'd lent me closer, leaned my head against hers, and closed my eyes.
I remember getting sick as a kid -- flu, strep, bronchitis, the usual. All of which meant long mornings at the pediatrician's office that smelled like old vinyl seats, worn-edged board books, and that nose-wrinkling soap you found only where there were doctors. We never said it aloud, but I don't think my mother or I particularly liked that place.
My mother tended to look worried during those visits, but not because of me. My father would be irritated when he got home. While he doctored the sick every day at the hospital, giving his all to an endless string of cardiac patients, he didn't tolerate illness in his own house. Most of the time, he'd just ignore the problem, leaving my mother to handle all the nursing duties -- administering medication and fluids, keeping track of symptoms, cleaning up vomit. On occasion, he'd pop his head into the bedroom doorway to assess the situation, but he never crossed the threshold.
He did, however, expect my mother to keep the rest of the house running as usual. A hot meal ready to serve, the newspaper waiting by the couch, bills paid, phone calls made, my younger sisters bathed and fed. If things weren't as he felt they ought to be, he'd whine -- at me ("Are you still throwing up?") and at her ("How much longer before dinner? It's getting late."). My mother couldn't help growing annoyed in turn. She never said anything directly to me, but the look on her face when she was caught between my needs and his said plenty: he wouldn't cut her any slack. Couldn't I?
Hers was obviously wishful thinking, but I felt guilty all the same. So I learned to downplay how I was feeling, even if I was miserable. It was better than feeling like a nuisance, even if I wished deep down that it didn't have to be that way.
My body remembered this as I leaned against my mother, so many years later, in the dimly lit guestroom of my parents' new house. The mattress on the bed was old, but the comforter was brand-new to match the pillow shams my mother had sewn. "To update things," she'd said a few weeks earlier on the phone, telling me how much she couldn't wait for me to see what she'd put together. She'd wanted to work on the room sooner, but in my parents' nearly four years in Panhandle, she hadn't gotten around to it until then. It didn't matter to me -- being with her, no matter what kind of bed I slept in, was what made home feel like home. Though I did like what she'd chosen, knowing that I would be the one to curl up there.
And how I wanted to do just that. But I didn't want to move while she sat next to me, holding me close. How I'd wanted this too, in those moments when she'd been forced to choose between me and my father. Even early that evening, he'd only grunted, when my mother mentioned I'd been ill, and then complained about what had taken her so long at the grocery store, where she'd gone to get the fresh fish he'd wanted for dinner. Nothing seemed to have changed.
But my mother's arm stayed around me as I glanced toward the door, listening for sounds of the TV, long after the meal had ended. "He's gone to bed," she said. "Don't worry about him."
I dabbed at my eyes, not sure what to say. But for once, she seemed to understand how much I needed her, even more than I'd realized.