“What the fuck is Bengay fever?” I shouted through the phone, thinking the louder my voice the more in control of it I’d be.
“Dengue, Lena, dengue,” my mother corrected with a weak tremble. She sounded like a tiny bird.
“Spell it!” I barked, flipping open my laptop.
It was late Christmas Eve morning when I realized I hadn’t heard from my mom, who lives in the Virgin Islands. No, we are not Caribbean. We hadn’t talked since I “got snippy” with her a few days earlier.
The afternoon I snapped, I’d been waiting in line at the FedEx (read the ninth ring of Dante’s Inferno) and called Frances to double-check her home address. Anyone with a chatty mother knows you can’t have a phone quickie — ever. She’ll say “goodbye” then fire a complicated round of questions immediately afterward — and repeat.
So when I said, “Okay mom, I’m at the front of the line, so–” instead of answering, “All right, darling daughter of mine, I’ll talk to you later,” my mother goes, “Do you have a cold? You sound like you have a cold. Is it cold outside? Are you eating? Is Rob feeding you properly? How is Rob? When are you guys getting married?”
“Ma, I’m at FedEx like RIGHT NOW. I have to call you back. GOOD BYE.”
“Okaaaaay,” she said, as if I was the one being a nut.
Of course I felt bad cutting her off because she’s my mother and as such she’s got the right to ramble. But Jesus if it doesn’t get on my nerves. So when I realized she hadn’t called since then, I phoned her up to apologize by asking if she got the present we spent a small fortune shipping. See what I did there?
My mother answered the phone while leaving the hospital. She’d gotten sick with dengue fever, a viral infection common in “the tropics” that’s similar to the flu and caused by mosquitoes — the Devil’s butterflies. There is no vaccine or “cure.” You just get over it with rest, fluids and Tylenol. Still she sounded like an old lady and not at all like the fearless woman who moved to St. Croix “just because” on her sixtieth birthday. I was terrified, so naturally I yelled at her.
“What do you mean the emergency room?!”
This is what freaked me out about her moving more than a cheap plane ticket away in the first place. I’m an only child. There is no one else to take responsibility for my mother besides me. There is no one to take responsibility for me besides my mother. We are each other’s person.
And because I’m my mother’s daughter, fear in the face of anything scary manifests itself as a controlled, “So what now?” and never, “Oh my god the sky is falling!” But if your mom’s sick, the sky is definitely falling when you can’t get to her in time with an umbrella.
I’ve called her more in the last 72 hours than I have all month. Reprimanding her every time she lets 10 minutes lapse between the time she woke up and the time I said to call me. I don’t know what else to do. I’ve reassured everyone, from my 84-year-old grandmother who was ready to hop on a plane with her oxygen fanny pack to my friends who think Frances is the best part of knowing me.
Thing is there’s no one to reassure me, which is usually my mom’s job. I assume this is what people really mean by growing pains.