Choking Up

By on May 6, 2013 in Fiction

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Pregnant mom with toddler and scolding grandmother

I’m folding Sam’s undershirts upon the curve of my belly when my mother sends me a text to come to the nursery. My husband tends to sleep late before rushing off to work, so I tiptoe down the hall.

“He smells a little sick,” says Mom. “Know what I mean?” She’s rocking Sam in the glider, smoothing the cowlicks matted to his scalp. I sniff purposefully, trying to grip the air with my nostril hairs.

“Yes,” I lie.

Sam’s cheeks are two bright circles of red, as though he’s dabbed them with rouge. He coughs, then mumbles into my mother’s shoulder, “Cook! Cook!” She has christened herself “Cooking and Caregiving Grandma,” martyring herself to the cause of Sam and his unborn sibling. My OB/GYN said I shouldn’t lift over 25 pounds “in an ideal world,” so my mother forbids me from holding Sam. Bending over, I brush my hand across his forehead and my heart cups to receive a plop of dread. And then I do smell something.

“Diarrhea!” I cry, perversely proud.

“Oh, God!” wails my mother, stricken at the tragedy of Sam falling ill — contracting something (no doubt) from my in-laws, those unscrupulous vectors of disease. She is still furious from my brother-in-law’s wedding last month, from which she’d sheltered Sam as best she could: the hibachi rehearsal dinner with its hazards of smoke inhalation, the raucous reception with ear-splitting DJ. He only stayed for the ceremony, during which misfortune struck.

“That stupid flower girl shoving petals up his nose,” she says. “He’s never been the same.”

“I’m so glad we have you,” I say, reaching up to smooth her hair, its raven sheen concealing threads of silver.

She carries him to the changing table, which he’s almost outgrown. Soon a newborn will lie here, and Sam will move into the adjoining room, freshly painted blue with “SAM” spelled out in baseballs. The painter my parents had hired, a hippie type with blonde frizz, asked to hold Sam’s favorite ball before she started to work, just to get the vibe she needed. My husband had chuckled at the sight of this strange woman with stained chambray shirt caressing the stitching with eyes squeezed shut; but over the course of the day, he had grown resentful. “Just because they bought us the house does not entitle them to decorate it,” he said, as I shifted my weight. He had wanted to slap upon the wall a six-foot decal of Albert Pujols, leaving intact the green carpeting that had come with the house. He had wanted to buy furniture at IKEA to display the mitt he’d bought on impulse, not realizing until he’d rushed through the door and jammed it on our son’s hand that it wasn’t meant for lefties.

My parents laughed, then cried, at Jordan’s notions.

“A decal that belongs in a freshman dorm? A mitt for righties? That threadbare carpeting? IKEA?” squeaked Mom. “Not for our grandson.” 

“Not for our southpaw slugger,” said my father. “Trust us. We know what we’re doing. We’ve been around a little longer than you.”

I told Jordan, straining to sound nonchalant, that my parents would furnish the room, but we could still pick the colors.

“We can put Pujols in the closet,” I said, running my fingers through his arm hair.

Now I open Sam’s sock drawer, find a thermometer and brace myself for my mother’s accusatory wrath.

“Yesterday,” says Mom, opening a tube of cream to rub on Sam’s rash. “He got sick yesterday. No wonder he was so clingy this morning.”

Every Sunday, we’re obligated to see my in-laws; and every week, my mother applies her statistician’s mind to yoking any misfortunes that befall Sam, from diaper rash to crankiness, with some imbecilic action or omission on the part of Jordan’s family. My mother is not invited to these Sunday get-togethers, but her spirit hovers as histrionics echo in my head. The eczema, she’s convinced, is due to my in-laws’ cat, Sherri’s perfume, and/or a pastry from Starbucks.

“Couldn’t he be allergic to pet dander?” she asked our pediatrician, who allowed it could be, but only a blood test could prove it.

“So let’s prove it,” said Jordan, after I’d echoed her concerns. “I want evidence.”

“Why should I put him through a blood test?” I counter, wringing my hands. “Poking and prodding and pain! Besides, you’re allergic, too!”

“But I’ll live. And so will Sam!” His dismissal reminded me of something my father had said, when discussing Jordan’s poor eating habits and irritable bowel: “Surviving isn’t the same as thriving; is it, Melanie?” And so, from my parents, I’ve learned vigilance and worry, dependence and deference, aggravation as the language and fallout of love. Sam’s rash is only my mother’s irritation made manifest.

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Melissa Pheterson has written for a decade about food and fitness, only recently venturing into creative fiction and memoir. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bacopa Literary Review, Jelly Bucket, Jerusalem Post, Talking River, on the websites and, and in the anthology Have I Got a Guy For You. Melissa lives in Rochester, New York, where she volunteers at her son's preschool and cooks resolutely for a house of picky eaters: her husband and two children.