A few days after our son, Nico, was born, we had to rush him to the hospital with a fever. The long and the short of it is that we had to be admitted to the children’s ward for a few days because the spinal tap showed he was positive for Spinal Meningitis.
Once I moved past the shock and horror and the tremors had abated long enough for me to calm down and think as clearly as I could over the course of the next five days, I did what I normally do in situations where I lose control and have to watch something hard transpire.
I shut down.
I sat there like a mute, holding my baby boy, alternating between tortured heaving sobs and the still, quiet kind of tears. The strong and steady ones that leave a path of wetness against the dry, unmoisturized skin of your face to fall on the blanket below you.
Drip. Drip. Falling on the blanket and leaving behind a wet patch on the receiving blanket that Nico was wrapped in.
I remember the cute little doctor walking into the room, the physician who would be working with us over the next few days to determine if his meningitis was viral (bad, but manageable) or bacterial (So bad. So very, very bad for a baby who weighed so little and was four weeks early). Dr. Shah was her name.
She took inventory of the room and observed my husband, John, the most Indian looking half-Italian and half-Puerto Rican descended man most people have met outside of Eric Estrada. She next saw my older sister, Kusum, who looked like she was trying to be the calm in this storm, but she wasn’t fooling anybody with the look on her face.
She then turned her attention towards me. I looked exhausted. Since being given the news, I felt like I had been punched in the gut and sat hunched over, holding my child to my chest, just praying they would not take him away from me. It felt impossible that I had managed to keep him safe for 8 long months in my belly, to only make him sick days after giving him life in this world.
What kind of mother was I?
“Hello,” the young female Doctor marched in. She extended her hand to my husband and then to my sister, “I’m Dr. Shah.”
She then turned to me and bent down with her hands on her knees and said really slowly, “Do you speak English?”
Well, I guess it was nice of her to check, but to this day, I am still not quite sure what made her ask me if I could speak my native language.
I nodded my head. I wasn’t sure whether to say, “Si,” “Oui” or “WTF?”
“Good, good,” she nodded her head. “And where are you from?”
I know she what she wanted. You see, Indians will often ask each other, “Where are you from?” to really mean, “What part of that honking big country is your family from?” This helps us size each other up and immediately gives us license to make vague generalizations about each other like, “Oh, her family must be cheap” or “Oh, those people are usually rich, but major wankers.”
“New Jersey,” I said. “Exit 10.”
Take that, Dr. Shah. From her last name, I already was able to guess that she was maybe a vegetarian, she spoke the Indian language, Gujarati, and that she used a lot of coconut in her recipes, because that’s how her people roll. (And by the way, they make rockin’ food).
But really, she was just as American as me. Which of course is very confusing, because most people ask me just that when they meet me, “Where are you from?” And of course they don’t care to know the answer of New Jersey.
But I can’t really hold that against them.
Nico and I were transported on one of those little hospital beds from the Emergency Room to the Children’s Ward. If you want to hear more about what happened there, I wrote a post about it a few years ago, still fresh from the trauma and still overwhelmed by how close we were to life taking a very different turn for us.
But I think about that question, “Where are you from?” quite often. I also wondered why I bristled so deeply when the young Doctor assumed, either through a combination of my disheveled appearance and my Indian heritage that I wouldn’t speak English.
Maybe because that day, I didn’t want things separating me from anyone. I just wanted to be a mother, with no other labels or perceptions tied to me. Just a mother who was feeling lost and wanted a doctor to understand where I was coming from.
I was coming from a place called “Motherhood.” It’s a sometimes sketchy part of town and you don’t want to always go there at night. You could have your diaper bag stolen right from your shoulder if you carry the right kinds of snacks in it. It’s a place where no matter what language you speak, a mother’s fear or grief is evident and is respected.
Motherhood is a place where it is okay to throw on your most unattractive pregnancy shorts as your breasts leak with the milk your son is too weak to drink. A place where you have to rush from your home just an hour earlier, leaving behind your two year old daughter in the hands of your parents and niece.
Motherhood is rich in natural resources, including guilt. It’s a place where guilt is more abundant than even water. It’s a place that most mothers know well because we manage to banish ourselves there for all sorts of inadequacies that taunt us most days. We build massive dependencies on the abundant guilt resources which are hard to break and actually threaten our very infrastructure at times. We try to build dams around guilt so it won’t flood the rest of us, but they rarely work.
Maybe the reason I wasn’t as ok with that question I get asked so frequently, is because that day, I JUST wanted to be a mother. Lord knows most days I define myself as a mother, a professional, a daughter, a writer, a singer, a wife, a friend. An Indian.
But that day, I was just a mother caring for my sick son. And it didn’t matter where I was from. It just mattered where I was.