My mother was expert at identifying illness through visual cues. A trained nurse, she had once correctly diagnosed a case of tonsillitis in me by spotting a tentative swallow. This skill became particularly useful during a stretch of hot summer weather when I was seven or eight years old. It was the late 1960s, and my family attended weekly Catholic mass in our suburban New Jersey town. After a string of stifling Sundays in the church — an upgrade to air conditioning was still a few years away — it became apparent that I was prone to fainting spells. Each week, about halfway through mass, I would begin to feel lightheaded. The full standing-to-kneeling repertoire of the Catholic service didn’t help matters. When my countenance crossed a certain threshold of paleness — recognizable only to my mother — she would skillfully steer me through the narrow pew, past my siblings and other parishioners toward a side exit, sparing me the embarrassment of public collapse.
Forgotten details of the memory emerge like the breezy relief we encountered outside the airless church: my mother’s elegant sheath and square-toed pumps, styled after her patron saint Jackie Kennedy; two dark curls framing her face like perfectly cresting waves (created to military precision overnight with silver criss-crossed hair clips); the scratchy petticoat I instinctively smoothed away from my body before sitting on the warm concrete step. From previous fainting spells, I knew what came next. “Put your head between your knees,” she instructed gently. The unladylike compliance of parted knees thrilled as a rare loosening of my mother’s adherence to propriety, and it also did the intended trick of sending more blood to my head. As I hunched over with closed eyes, my mother temporarily disappeared from view. But she was still there, of course. In those days her presence was a given, a fixed data point, object permanence at work. The knowledge that something exists even when not visible develops early in human infants. It builds up a kind of blind trust and ensures that children needn’t exert effort to track an unseen parent.
In my mind’s eye I can hit the pause button and allow us to remain suspended like this indefinitely —me doubled over the step and she standing nearby in silent concern. Having grown up with four closely spaced siblings, I can linger upon a rare instance when my mother and me were alone together and I was her sole focus. But that’s not the only reason for pause. Her days as a mother and omniscient nurse were numbered. She would contract breast cancer and die within six years.
In reality our time together on the church step lasted only a few minutes. After my dizziness had abated completely, my mother instructed me to stand up slowly. She assessed my complexion one last time to ensure that a sufficient amount of color had returned. We then rejoined our family in the church, just in time for the Profession of Faith.