“So what’s new, Anna?”
I’m about five minutes into my weekly phone call to my mother, and she’s asking me for a rundown of my recent activities. It occurs to me I haven’t mentioned my pregnancy to her. I suppose that counts as something new.
“I’m pregnant,” I say.
Matt looks up from where he’s sitting on the couch with his laptop on his lap. He’s frowning at me, mouthing the words, “Who is that?”
I mouth back: “My mother.” Who else would it be?
“Oh my God, Anna!” Mom exclaims. “That’s incredible! Sweetheart! I didn’t even know you were trying.”
“Well, we were,” I say. I didn’t tell anyone we were trying. Matt was the one who told Jake, who told Lisa. I never wanted them to know. I didn’t see how it was anyone’s business but our own.
Mom’s voice lowers on the other line. “I didn’t even know you wanted a…”
I almost tell her Matt was the one who wanted a baby, not me, but I have realized this is not information I should share with people. After all, I don’t want my child to think he or she was not wanted by me.
“We’re just having one,” I say instead.
“Well, that’s incredible,’ she sighs. “I’m going to have another grandchild. Ooh, can I tell your father or do you want to tell him?”
I shrug. “You can tell him.”
“Can I speak to Matt?”
I hand my cell phone over to Matt, who takes it, but is shaking his head. I don’t know why he wouldn’t want to talk to my mother though. Mom loves Matt. When I first introduced him to her, she seemed a little hesitant about the fact that he uses a wheelchair, but he won her over fast. She always thought I’d be single the rest of my life, or else end up with a guy who had the same problems as me, so she was thrilled and surprised Matt is so nice and normal.
I’m surprised too sometimes.
“Hi, Beth,” Matt says to my mother. I hear squealing on the other end. “Yeah, we’re really excited. She’s only nine weeks along, so… yeah, long way to go…….. Uh huh, I know what you mean.” He laughs at something my mother says to him. “We’ll definitely come by soon……. Yeah, I’ll talk her into it. I promise.”
When Matt hangs up the phone, the first thing I say is, “I don’t want to go there for dinner.”
He rolls his eyes. “Anna, they’re your parents…”
“Her food makes me nauseated.”
“Everything makes you nauseous now.”
“Nauseated,” I correct him. “If you say I’m ‘nauseous,’ then you’re saying I’m making other people nauseated.”
“Sounds about right.”
He grins at me. “Look, Anna, they just want to see us. And honestly, I thought it would be nice if we told our parents… you know, together.”
I shift on the sofa, narrowing my eyes at him. “What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s obviously too late for your parents,” he says, “but I thought we could invite my parents over for dinner and tell them then. Together.”
“I’d rather not.”
He reaches over to poke me in the arm. “Well, guess what, it’s not your choice. We’re having them over.”
I sigh. “Fine, but you know your mother hates me.”
“She doesn’t hate you.”
“She absolutely does.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
My mother hates Anna.
Okay, “hate” might be a strong word. She doesn’t like Anna. She finds her unpleasant. She doesn’t like being around her. She occasionally still hints I might be happier with someone else.
But whenever Anna brings it up, I pretend this isn’t the case. I pretend it’s all in her head, even though Anna is surprisingly perceptive about this one. Of course, my mom isn’t exactly subtle.
Before Anna, I hadn’t introduced my mother to a girl since college. I didn’t have any serious relationships in my early twenties, and then when I started to lose my mobility, dating became more of a struggle. After the MS put me in a wheelchair, my mother was clearly worried I would never get a date again. She would make patronizing comments like, You should put yourself out there more, Matt. You’ve still got a lot to offer to the right woman.
It got to the point where I became an expert at changing the subject whenever my mother brought up my personal life.
For obvious reasons, I hadn’t been eager to tell my mother about Anna. I knew the second Mom knew I was in a serious relationship, she’d want to meet the lucky girl, but Anna’s not a people person. But the issue got forced. Mom was on the phone with me, telling me about the daughter of a woman she knew from church, her voice dripping with suggestion. “She’s a little older than you, Matt… divorced, you know. A little heavy, but such a nice girl. You should meet her.”
“Uh…” I said.
“I told her that you can’t walk,” she said. Well, great. “She didn’t mind.”
“I know what you’re thinking, but you can’t be picky,” she said. “You’ve got to be lonely. And not everyone is willing to date a man who—”
“Mom, stop,” I finally said. “Look, I’m seeing someone. A girl. And… it’s pretty serious.”
For the first and only time ever, my mother screamed with joy.
I told her just enough about Anna. I explained Anna was a bit of a “germaphobe,” which she thought was wonderful, because “young people are such slobs these days.” I left out the part where Anna had to take three medications to keep from washing her hands every fifteen minutes, because, you know, best not to tell your mother than your girlfriend is mentally ill. “Germaphobe” sounds cute.
Anna saw the whole thing going down in flames before I did. She tried to worm out of it, but considering we were planning to move in together soon, it wasn’t realistic for her not to ever meet my mother—even she knew it. I warned her my mother would probably hug her when she came in, and I had to applaud Anna for the way she endured that hug. She looked like she wanted to shove my mother away from her, but to her credit, she didn’t.
“Oh my gosh, you are so pretty!” Mom gushed to Anna. “I see why Matt likes you so much.”
And then we were both blushing.
“Can I help you in the kitchen, dear?” Mom asked Anna.
She opened her mouth, ready to say no. Anna wasn’t a fan of having people in her kitchen. But I gave her a look, and she reluctantly nodded. And the two of them disappeared into Anna’s kitchen while my father and I went to watch football in the living room.
It took fifteen minutes for the shouting to start.
I wheeled into the kitchen just in time to hear my mother saying to Anna, “Well, I think you’re being a little ridiculous. They just touched the table. It’s not like they were on the floor.”
I looked between the two of them. Anna was by the stove, her usually pale face now pink, tapping her fingers anxiously against the countertop. My mother was by the kitchen table, holding some silverware, looking some combination of perplexed and irritated.
“Uh, everything okay?” I asked.
“Your mother put the silverware directly on the kitchen table.” Anna’s blue eyes were darting all over the room. “And now they have to be washed again.”
“It’s just a table!” Mom burst out. “For God’s sakes, they’re clean!”
The two of them stared at me, daring me to take sides. Of course, I took the side of the woman I was getting regular sex from. I was never a mama’s boy anyway.
The next day, I got a phone call from my mother, telling me she thought Anna was a nut job. She started a campaign to get me to break up with Anna, but suffice to say, it didn’t work. She was miserable when I told her Anna and I were getting hitched. I wonder how she’s going to take the baby news.
Still. She’s my mother. This is my first (and only) child. I want to tell her the right way.
We arrange to meet at Luciano’s for dinner, because I don’t want Anna to have to cook for everyone. Anna frets the whole drive over to the restaurant, terrified she’s going to have to throw up while at the restaurant. It isn’t an entirely groundless fear, but I have the feeling she’s just hamming it up because she doesn’t want to do this.
My parents are waiting in the restaurant when we arrive, sitting in the opposite corner of where we usually sit. I can see Anna panicking when she sees they’re not sitting by the windows, and I have a bad feeling.
Anna grabs my arm hard enough to make it hurt. “Look where they’re sitting!” she hisses.
I take a deep breath. “Is there any chance at all we can not ask them to move?”
“No!” She glances at the exit and for a second, I’m scared she might take off. But she can’t. We came in my car and she doesn’t have a key or the ability to work the hand controls. And the idea of Anna calling a cab is laughable. “Matt, please…”
Okay, no choice. Luckily, Freddy Luciano comes out to greet us, and I explain the situation to him, so he can get a new table ready for us. He knows Anna, so he gets it immediately. Then I wheel over to my parents to explain it to them.
“Matt!” Mom jumps up when I come over. She’s in her mid-sixties now, but looks younger, in my opinion. Probably because she dyes her hair. She leans down and gives me a huge hug, then straightens out my shirt collar for me. Dad just claps me on the shoulder. “What’s going on? Why isn’t Anna coming over?”
Mom has a crease between her eyebrows. I told her we had something “sort of important” we wanted to talk to them about, but she didn’t press me. I’m guessing she must have some idea about our news, considering our age and we’ve been married nearly three years.
“Um, we just…” I glance back at Anna, then back at my parents. “She wants to sit over there.”
Mom rolls her eyes. “Oh, does she?”
“Please don’t make a big thing about it,” I mumble.
“Of course not,” Mom sniffs.
She acts like she’s taking the higher road, but I know I’m going to hear about this later. Or else Dad will probably hear about it on the drive home. I hate it when she snarks my wife. I keep telling her I’m not going to listen to it anymore, and she apologizes, but then she just does it again.
We get situated at the other table. Freddy brings over my parents’ menus and waters and utensils, and it’s an ordeal, but par for the course with Anna. I know she’s scared stiff, so I want to make sure everything else is perfect for her.
As soon as we’re all settled at the table, my mother gives me an expectant look. I look over at Anna, who is looking down at the table and playing with her watch. It’s the watch I bought her for our two-year anniversary. She loves that watch. I got her a really great gift, for once.
I raise my eyebrows at Anna. She shakes her head miserably.
Screw it. We’ve got to tell them eventually.
“So there’s something we wanted to tell you,” I say to my parents.
Mom smiles and looks at Anna, who is still looking down at the table. “Oh?”
“Yes, we…” I reach out to take Anna’s hand. “We’re having a baby.”
The color drains from my mother’s face. “A baby? Are you joking? Are you out of your minds?”
Wow. That was not the reaction I expected.
“That’s great!” Dad says weakly. He’s at least trying to smile. My mother still looks livid. “Wonderful news. Right, Sharon?”
“Oh my God.” She’s shaking her head. “This is a joke, right?”
“I’m not joking,” I say tightly. “What the hell did you think our news was?”
Mom opens her mouth and sputters, “We… well, we…”
“They thought we were getting a divorce,” Anna says flatly.
No. She didn’t really. Did she? Why would I invite them to a nice restaurant to tell them that? “Is that true?”
“Well, you have to admit,” Mom says, “you haven’t exactly had an ideal marriage.”
Holy shit. I can’t believe she’s doing this.
“We have a great marriage,” I say, grabbing Anna’s hand again, which somehow got away from me. “Why would you think that?”
“Please, Matthew,” Mom says. “I don’t want to discuss your problems right now, but… my God, it speaks for itself, doesn’t it?”
My face burns. I can’t believe this. My mother always made it clear she didn’t like Anna, but never so blatantly to her face.
“And now you want to be saddled with a child?” Mom looks at Anna. “I’m sorry, Anna, but I don’t think you’re up for it. You’re just… God. And Matt… with all your medical issues and being in a wheelchair, for God’s sake. I can’t imagine the two of you caring for a child. I think it’s a huge mistake.” She looks at me. “You need to think about this more before you start trying.”
“Trying!” I exclaim. “Mom, Anna’s pregnant!”
Her brown eyes widen and she leans back in her chair. “Pregnant? I thought you meant you were going to try…”
Anna manages a weak little smile. “Yes, I’m pregnant. So I guess you’re stuck with me as a daughter-in-law.”
She gets to her feet, swaying slightly. I hope she’s not feeling nauseous. Or nauseated. Whatever.
“Matt,” she murmurs. “I’m going to go sit in the car. I don’t really feel hungry.”
I nod. “I’ll go with you. I’m not hungry either.”
Anna takes off in the direction of the exit, and I wheel back from the table, preparing to follow her. But before I can go, Mom grabs my arm. “Matthew, wait.”
I shake my head. “I don’t care if you think I’ll be a shitty dad, but what you just said to Anna? That was unforgivable. I’m leaving.”
“No, please.” Mom stands up to try to block me. When I was fourteen years old, I grew taller than my mother for the first time. It was weird, but at the same time, I was proud of how most women finally had to look up to talk to me. It made me feel respected. And now, because I’m always sitting, I have to look up to talk to my mother again. Every fucking person is taller than me now.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” I say. “Anna’s my wife, whether you like it or not, and you can’t treat her that way.”
“I know,” she says in a tiny, pleading voice. “I’m sorry, Matt. I never would have said that if I knew she was already… look, please let me apologize to her.”
I glance behind me. Anna is already out of the restaurant, but I’ve got the keys to the car, so she’s probably pacing around the parking lot. I’m really angry at what my mother said to us, but at the same time, I love my mother. She’s my mother. I don’t want to cut her out of our lives. What I really want is for her and Anna to figure out a way to get along. If that’s possible.
“Fine,” I say. “Go apologize. But make it good.”
My mother nods and walks out of the restaurant like she’s being led to her execution.
I hope Matt believes me now that his mother hates me.
It’s ironic because part of the reason Sharon Harper hates me so much is because she is, in many ways, as anxious as I am. She worries about Matt a lot. When he first started to use the wheelchair, she told him in no uncertain terms she thought he should move back home, and she wasn’t happy when he refused. I hear him talking to her on the phone, patiently answering her questions:
Yes, Mom, my appetite is fine. I’m eating fine.
I was just at the doctor. The MS is stable. I’m fine.
Yes, I just got a raise. I’m not going to lose my job. Don’t worry.
Perhaps that’s part of why he’s so good with me. He’s gotten lots of experience dealing with anxious personalities via his mother.
However, while Sharon is anxious, she at least falls into the realm of normal. She doesn’t need medications to keep her from having panic attacks. She is functional. She managed to raise two children—a feat she believes me to be incapable of.
That comment was hurtful.
Especially because I fear she could be correct.
I see the door to Luciano’s swing open and stand by the car to wait for Matt. But it isn’t Matt. It’s Sharon.
Come to make peace, I suppose.
Sharon is one of those women who always appears very stylish. She dyes her hair and wears subtle makeup to subtract years from her face. She’s attractive, but also makes the most of what she’s got. I understand she believes her son could do better than me. She thinks he has “settled” for me because he’s in a wheelchair.
Sometimes I wonder if she’s right about that too.
“Anna,” she says as she strides toward me. I try to look away, but she has Matt’s kind brown eyes, and they capture my attention. “Can we talk for a moment?”
“Yes, fine,” I mumble.
She takes another step toward me, and I back up, hitting Matt’s car. I don’t know why people must stand so close when they talk to you. I can hear her just as well when she’s three feet away from me. Better yet—five feet. Actually, I could hear her perfectly fine if she stood by the restaurant and I stood by the car, and she just raised her voice a bit.
“I was wrong,” she says in a breath. “I should never have said you couldn’t manage a child.”
I shrug. “Why? You meant it.”
“Well, you have to admit…”
I look away from her. She may have Matt’s eyes, but none of his kindness. “Yes, you’re right. We’ll probably be incompetent parents.”
“Oh, Anna,” she murmurs. “Don’t say that.”
“It’s not you, Anna,” she sighs. “I just… I look at Matt and I still see the kid who would make me chase him around the house buck naked to get him in the bath. I forget he’s a responsible adult sometimes. You’ll understand someday.”
I look down at my hands. “I don’t think I’m going to be a good mother,” I admit.
A crease forms between Sharon’s eyebrows. For a second, I’m worried she’s going to try to hug me. I still cringe when I remember that hug she gave me four years ago. “Who’s a good mother, anyway?” she snorts. “Look at what I just did. What sort of mother tells his son’s wife she can’t handle a child? A terrible mother, that’s what.”
I don’t answer her.
Sharon frowns at me. “Are you okay? How are you feeling?”
“Tired,” I admit.
“Are you nauseated?”
Nauseated. She used the word correctly. I’m grudgingly pleased. “Yes, at night.”
She shakes her head. “I bet you still have to do all the cooking, don’t you? Matt can’t cook worth a damn. Always TV dinners or fast food.” She smiles. “Another way I failed as a parent.”
“I don’t mind doing the cooking,” I say.
“I never told you how impressed I am that you cook every night,” she says. “The stuff in those fast food places… God, I feel sick thinking of Matt eating that junk. Or my grandchild.”
“I know.” I shudder. “The workers don’t even wash their hands in those places when they use the bathroom. Or they handle raw meat, then don’t wash their hands when they handle a prepared food.”
“My friend Denise found a hairpin in her salad at McDonald’s!”
“I’d take a hairpin over the mold you can’t even see that’s caked in the soda nozzles.”
“Soda is bad enough! I tell Matt all the time—it’s just empty calories!”
“There’s no soda in our house. Only filtered water.”
A smile touches Sharon’s lips. “You take good care of my son. And you make him happy. I know you do, Anna. I’m sorry I… well, you know…”
She raises her eyebrows hopefully. “Do you think you might… come back inside? Have dinner with us?”
I’m thinking about it. I really am. Except then a wave of nausea hits me, and I have to run to the nearest bushes to throw up.
I don’t expect Anna to cook for me every night. At least, I wouldn’t. It’s something she wants to do, mostly because she doesn’t trust food that comes from outside the kitchen. Still, I wouldn’t mind getting takeout. Or heating up a TV dinner. That’s what I did every single night when I was single. Still, I have always felt lucky to have a wife who was a great cook who made dinner for me every night.
At least, until now.
I have been chewing this bite of chicken for the past five minutes. No exaggeration. It’s like Anna wasn’t sure if the chicken was dead, so she was trying to cook it extra long to make absolutely sure. And this is a woman who can present a juicy, well-seasoned chicken breast without batting an eye.
Anna is chewing her own chicken across the kitchen table from me. She doesn’t seem to be having much more luck than I am.
I want to tell her. But how can you tell your wife that she cooked an inedible dinner? And that last night’s steak was a virtual hockey puck? And P.S. I’m starving to death.
“Anna,” I finally say, “um, is there something wrong with the stove?”
When in doubt, blame the appliances.
“No,” she says around the hunk of meat in her mouth. Anna usually doesn’t speak with her mouth full, but if we waited for her to swallow, it could take another ten minutes. “Why?”
“The meat is just a little…” I hesitate, not wanting to tell my pregnant wife that the dinner she cooked is any less than perfect. “Chewy.”
“Well,” she says, “I cooked it twice as long as I usually do.”
“Oh.” Mystery solved? “Why did you do that?”
“Because I’m pregnant!” She shakes her head at me. “I want to make sure any bacteria is good and dead. You don’t want the baby to be infected, do you?”
“No…” I bite my lip, looking down at the chicken. “But this is… I mean, I think you could cook it a less long. Right?”
“No, I can’t,” Anna says tightly. “I won’t take that risk.”
Well, great. Apparently, Anna is going to be cooking all our meat until it nearly disintegrates.
I push the slab of chicken around my plate. I’ve taken two bites and I don’t think I can take a third. I know there are starving kids in Africa, but I don’t think they would like this chicken either. It’s really bad. I think it might make me sick.
“Would you be really upset if I ate a TV dinner?” I ask.
She glares at me. “No.”
She means yes, but I don’t care. I’m really hungry. I bought a few TV dinners for the times when Anna is visiting her sister or parents without me, and it looks like I’m going to be buying a bunch more.
I wheel over to the refrigerator and open the freezer. Even though I buy the groceries, Anna unloads them, and of course, she put all the TV dinners way in the back. I reach for a package of Salisbury steak and my fingers fall about two inches short.
I mentioned how I hate this house. Well, I also hate the appliances. This is not a great refrigerator for a guy who can’t stand up. Fifty percent of the freezer is out of reach for me. I want one that’s shorter and fatter, with the freezer on one side and the refrigerator on the other. But there’s no room for a fridge like that in this kitchen, and again, Anna is resistant to change. I always figured since I didn’t use the freezer much, it wasn’t a big deal, but right now, it’s feeling like a big deal.
I glance at Anna, wondering if I should ask for her help or make more of a concerted effort to reach for it. She’s still glaring angrily, so it looks like it’s all me. I lock my wheels, scoot my butt forward several inches on the seat, and hold one wheel while I reach as far as I can with my other hand. My fingers graze the box, but it’s one thing to reach it, and it’s another to get a grip. I’ve got one of those mechanical reachers that would come in handy now, but I left it in my car from my last trip to the grocery store, and I really don’t feel like getting it.
“Anna,” I finally say, “could you reach this box for me please?”
She stands up but doesn’t move to help me. “I can’t believe you think that is more appetizing than my home-cooked dinner.”
I’ve had enough of this. I’m tempted to storm out the door and drive to McDonald’s. “Well, it is.”
“Do you know how long it took me to make that dinner for you?” she snaps.
“I don’t know,” I mutter. “Twice as long as it usually does?”
Anna’s eyes widen. At first I think she’s going to start yelling at me, but instead, she clamps her hand over her mouth and races in the direction of the stairs. We’ve got our bathroom downstairs, but she’s really freaked out about puke, so she only vomits in our upstairs bathroom. I’m worried this will eventually create a situation where she won’t enter our upstairs bathroom either, but maybe that will be incentive to finally move.
Anyway, I should probably go out and get some food.
I go to grab my jacket when I hear Anna’s weak voice calling from upstairs, “Matt!”
I wince. It can’t be good that my wife just threw up and now she needs me. And of course, she’d have to be upstairs. Now I have to deal with this goddamn stair lift.
“Matt!” she calls again.
I wheel myself over to the stair lift. It’s already swiveled out from when I came down the stairs this morning. I transfer my butt into the seat, then move my legs over to the footplate using my arms. I can still (mostly) feel my legs, but I can barely move them at all. My ankles and knees—zip. My hips just a little. But at least my trunk is strong. The lift has a seatbelt but I never bother with it.
I press the button that swivels the chair into position, then flip the switch so that the chair will go up the stairs. And it goes. Very, very slowly. Faster than I could drag myself up the stairs, but not by very much. And the lift is making a suspicious grinding noise, which grows increasingly loud as I ascend the stairs. Louder and louder until…
The lift stops.
This is just fucking great.
“Matt!” Anna calls for the third time.
Hey, honey, remember how you didn’t want to move to a house that was one story because we could just put in a stair lift? Well, I can’t help you right now because this stair lift is a piece of shit.
Frustrated doesn’t even begin to express how I’m feeling right now. And I’m starting to worry this isn’t just an Anna freak out and something is actually really wrong up there. Maybe it’s not just vomit. Maybe Anna’s bleeding. Maybe she’s lying in the bathroom in a pool of blood and I can’t get to her because of this stupid stair lift.
Okay, to hell with this. I’m getting out.
I scoot forward on the seat and lean forward to put one arm on the nearest stair. I build a little momentum, then transfer myself onto the stairs. Now all I have to do is bump up the remaining stairs one by one. Basically, I lift my butt to the next stair, then pull my legs up after.
“Matt! Please come!”
“I’ll be right there!” I yell back.
Of course, my left leg goes into spasm, as if on cue. As if anything could make this more challenging. But I try my best to go as fast as I can, with a right leg that doesn’t move and a left leg that won’t stop moving. By the time I get to the top of the stairs, the spasm has calmed down, but I’m still on the floor. I’ve got to get from the floor into my chair, which takes me another good two minutes, because it’s not a transfer I do very often. I’m drenched in sweat by the end of it.
My upstairs wheelchair is cheap and shitty. It’s a hospital wheelchair we got on eBay. I would have bought a better one if I’d known how much I’d really be using it. It was good enough until last month, when the left footplate got loose and now my left foot is always sliding off.
But I’m not going to worry about that now. All I can think about is Anna. I’ve got to get to Anna. I’ve got to make sure she’s okay.
Please let her be okay.
To be continued....