by Lauren Westerfield
Today I took my mother to a surgery center in the City of Industry (barren mounds of dirt and construction detours dotting a landscape of strip malls, sprawling business parks, endless parking lots). The plan: a biopsy at the site of a previous carcinoma. Precautionary but stressful, still requiring anesthesia and IVs and scrubs and lots of release forms. Her appointment was scheduled for 9:30 AM.
Last night, we’d agreed to leave at 8:30 AM, super early, to make sure we beat traffic. The surgery center is located just off the notorious 60 freeway, about a half hour east of Los Angeles, where big rigs bottleneck daily and a fifteen minute drive can easily take an hour. But when I woke at 7:30, an hour early was no longer early enough.
“We may have to just get going,” she said, still dressed in her multicolored floral pajamas. She was outside watering her bamboo plants, bare feet on concrete.
“Mom. You said 8:30.” I had just sat down at the computer. Moments like this make me protective of my routine, of plans. “I get that you don’t want to be late, but I need a little time to get ready.”
Mom sucks in a breath of air and looks away from me. “I don’t care how early we are. I just want to get there.” She’s nervous.
“Ok. I’ll look up the traffic.”
Google says the drive will take 25 minutes. Mom calms down, takes a shower, checks her email. I do the same, but feel rushed. I think, not for the first time, on how attached I’ve become to my morning habits: sun salutations, hot water with lemon before breakfast, silence, time to wake up in my body. The luxury of that time. The resentment I feel when it is interrupted.
We compromise. We leave at 8:15. It takes about fifteen minutes to get there, and we are an hour early. Still, when we park and walk up to the building, to the door marked “198,” where the surgery center is supposed to be, there is a sign that says “This Is Not An Entrance.” My mother panics.
“Fuck. What do you they mean, ‘Not An Entrance?'”
“Mom, it’s fine. We’ll just go in the other way.” I start walking fast towards the main entrance, eager to fix it, to find the right door, to move my way through the tension I feel whenever my mother gets like this: reactive, agitated, easily distressed. A shot of tension stiffens my neck, and I instinctively scrunch my shoulders up towards my ears. We reach the main doors.
“I’m sure there’s a directory in here,” I say, reaching for the door handle. I give it a hard yank, but it’s a “Push,” not a “Pull.” “Shit.” I bounce backwards, double down, push harder. The door opens with a piercing digital alarm. Mom jumps.
“It’s fine,” I say again, hustling her forward.
We find Suite 198. The sign on the door says: “Not An Entrance.” We both stop in our tracks.
Mom looks frantically around the office building entryway. I scan the directory, pissed off at this place for its poor signage, its willfully confusing design. I’m pissed off at myself for failing to land on the right entrance the first time around so that Mom could stay calm; so that I could stay calm.
From behind us, a voice says, “Are you looking for suite 198?”
A middle-aged woman with long white hair in a ponytail is sitting on a bench behind us.
“You have to go outside and around,” she says with a smile. “I was just there. Now I’m waiting for the pharmacy to open.”
“Oh thank you, darlin’!” Mom collapses her small body into a kind of thoracic curtsey: her shoulders slump, her chest caves. She beams at the woman, who nods back. I smile, a tight smile.
“Come on, Mom.” I put my hand on her back and begin moving her towards the door. She takes a few steps, then stops.
“I wish you wouldn’t push me like that.”
I stop, exasperated, chastened. The latter takes over. I rest an open palm on her shoulder, rub gently against the soft fabric of her Vera Wang for Kohls t-shirt.
“I’m sorry. You’re right.” We’re still moving, but I’m walking slower now.
She nods. We make our way back to the other side of the building. The tension washes down my neck and shoulders. For the first time today, I realize I’m nervous, too.