Chemistry of Sacrifice

Friday, January 15, 2016

In the spring of 1987, as I was getting ready to go away to college, my mother was preparing to return to medicine. She had stopped practicing eighteen years before, the year that I, her second child, was born; the year she had conceded that raising children and working at the hospital were not compatible, at least with the devotion she believed each deserved. And so, a decade after arriving from Argentina as a newly minted M.D., she had made the decision to sacrifice the latter on the altar of the former, the career for which she had given up so much for the family for which she would. Now, gods of hearth and home propitiated, children fled or fleeing the nest, she was studying to go back.

She’s sitting outside my high school in our old yellow Firebird, the car that we share. A big, heavy clothbound medical textbook lies open on her lap. Her eyes glaze over at the latinate words; the language, Spanish, seems unfamiliar. Instead of reading, she does a simple arithmetic problem over and over in her head: twenty-seven plus twenty-seven, the age at which she arrived in the United States plus the number of years she has resided here. She thinks: After this year, I will have been here longer than I was there. After this year, I will be more of this, less of that. From motherland to adopted one—madre to madrastra, even the word is ugly, clots the throat—mother tongue to second language. That year, at some unforeseeable moment, she would have moved far enough from the fulcrum upon which her life balanced to tilt it irredeemably toward the yanqui. That year, she would have felt the pull of time like a riptide.

I can’t help but think such an equation—27 + 27 = x—would have appealed to my mother. Of everyone I know, she best exemplifies that combination of stubborn rationalism and genuine humanity that makes a good doctor. People are people and chemical laboratories; one can’t confuse the two, but both should always be kept in mind. This is as true for family members as for patients; only the ratio between them changes. So what could appeal to my mother more than seeing her life as such a compound, a ratio of two measures of time? Of course, chemistry at once trades on simple arithmetic and flouts its inadequacy. The properties of compounds cannot be predicted from their constituent elements. Think of baking soda or hydrochloric acid. Think of water. But for my mother, that unpredictability would not have disturbed the crystalline harmony of the ratio. In Cartesian terms, her life that year was a perfect square.

Now, once she had caught this idea in the vise of logic, there was no getting loose of it. And then what could she think but escape? Escape, before she became a yanqui for real, like her naturalized husband, like her native-born children; escape, before the plane tilted to such a degree that she could no longer scramble back up; before she looked up from paddling to find the shore had disappeared. She is on a cusp, a bleeding-space between two possible lives. It’s two-twenty. The last school bell hasn’t yet rung. She quietly closes the book, turns the ignition. Sitting at my desk in seventh period, I hear the Firebird roar out of the lot. She has put on those ridiculously stylish leather driving gloves, the sort nobody here uses. The Washington Monument passes all in a blur. Before long she sees yellow and black tiles spelling Waffle House over the lush Georgia landscape. At the panhandle of Florida, she hooks right, races across the south Texas desert. A cigarette burns in the ashtray like an Olympic torch; Brahms blares from the speakers. She jumps first the Rio Grande, then the Panama Canal—she is Knightrider, KITT with David Hasselhoff behind the wheel—we used to watch that show together, joke about how much smarter the car was than him, and better looking, too. (La única cosa que valía la pena en ese show era el auto.) The swamps of Colombia, the cordillera of the Andes, the steppes of Bolivia—south, ever south, until she can smell the dry, hot plains of her native Santa Fe. And then south again, into the pampas, the battalions of cattle, south, until she sees the tip of another obelisk pointing over a mythic Buenos Aires skyline. The Paris of South America. Home.

Or maybe she leaves the car for me. It is the summer before my first year of college, and we are at Point Pleasant. She has spent the ride down reminiscing about a famous open-water swimmer from Santa Fe she used to see vertical-kicking out in the Paraná every morning when she was a child. He tried three times to swim to Buenos Aires, but the current always got him where his native river met the Rio de la Plata. But that was forty years ago, look at how the human race has advanced: men have walked on the moon; doctors have opened the human heart. Floating just past the breakers, I watch her rise from her towel, tuck her hair into her cap. She picks up a red foam kickboard and walks into the surf. The shore drops quickly; a few moments later, she is kicking past me, over the last chop. When she is a few hundred yards out, she turns parallel to the shore. I watch her cap float like a buoy and the rooster-tail from her kicking feet until they are lost in the scintillating ocean. For the rest of the summer, every time I visit the shore, there will be a bottle waiting for me, bobbing in the waves. From the first Portuguese label, I know she reached Brazil some time before; the bottle, the light from a star. The letters inside all begin: Hijo querido. I am glad the long swim has not caused her to lose her sense of irony.

But no, she never makes it. She barely gets started. She pulls on the driving gloves, her suit and cap rolled in a towel on the back seat, drives one, two, maybe three exits before doing a one-eighty across the grass median. She goes to the Y. The ritual exorcism of her demons, three hours macerating the flesh. Running in circles, biking in place, swimming laps, caught in the successive traps she set for herself—medicine, marriage, family, each enfolded inside the other, all the chemistry of sacrifice. When she gets out of the water, she will not be transformed; the shore opposite the opposite shore is always the same place she started. She has left her towel on this end, anyway; why walk around the pool? And so the year passes, mornings at the Y, just like the one before, just like the one after. Ten years later, during another wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, my mother would be sworn in as a U.S. citizen. On that day, she pledged to put first in her heart a country that had always been second. But so it had been all her life, putting second things first, sacrifice, every step of the way, and all these addictions—to exercise, to speeding, to cigarettes, to coffee, to Brahms—to see it through. By the time she raised her right hand in that stadium full of smiling Americans-to-be, she had already been a yanqui for a decade. She had known it would come to this, should have gotten out while there was still time.

And if she had kept going? For example: She finishes a last cigarette, watching the waves lap the sand. It’s low tide. Not a ripple in the ocean. As she swims, the migrating sharks piloting her, the water growing warmer by imperceptible degrees, she imagines arriving in Argentina and, like Rip van Winkle come down from the mountain, not recognizing the place it has become. She thought crossing time would be like crossing space, but no, that is another trap of logic. By no navigational technology will those twenty-seven years permit themselves to be recrossed. She realizes that the process of yanquification began the moment she stepped off the plane, the moment her loneliness and nostalgia conspired to create a land that her heart might preserve in amber. The exile she bemoaned has really been a blessing, since the sudden consciousness of loss had enabled her to hold onto something of what her country had been. And this seems unreasonable, and this seems unfair, and she will try to puzzle her way out of it, stroke by stroke, mile swallowing mile. But logic offers no solace, no escape.

She swims until her stroke begins to cease to measure time, time dissolves in all that water, it tastes of salt. Time, uncompounded: salt. She is remembering pictures that I will show her nine years hence, of a little brick house in Santa Fe whose address matches the one in which she was raised, but which she does not recognize. Maybe it is the wrong house, the wrong street. Maybe they knocked the old house down and put up another. Fifteen years hence, this premonition is hazier, depending as it does on the yet-to-be-invented Internet: the website I will show her for Tostado, her birthplace. No longer a little railroad outpost, but a bona fide town, with a web page to vouch for its thriving existence, and a festival to attract the tourists. A festival? In Tostado? Celebrating what, in God’s name? But it is not only there, these invented traditions are part of a general metastasis. Like eating gnocchi on the twenty-ninth of the month, all well and good, but whoever heard of such a thing? She asks her relatives, my relatives, all of whom have become unaccountably foul-mouthed, but they don’t remember un carajo about when it started, or how. And the meat, does it still taste like it used to? Do the cafés serve chocolate and stay open all night? Oh, she knows her beloved Buenos Aires is no longer the Paris of South America . . . but does it look anything like New York?

She is somewhere in Central America when the tank finally goes bust. On a gullied mountain road, she loses the power steering, muscles the car into a ditch. Or she falls through the staircase of the Antilles into the Caribbean Sea. The shore, a distant white level that had greeted her each time she took a breath, has disappeared. Her legs begin to give out; she understands the trial of the hummingbird, those tiny green sparks lost in the gulf. She lets the sea carry her like a bottle over the last stretch, clear and blue and bath-warm. In Panama, or in Costa Rica, she steps out of the water. She takes off her cap; her hair is dry. Pauses a moment on the deserted beach to shake the water out of her ears, hopping first on one foot, then on the other. Another few dozen steps, and she enters jungle. A few more, and she can no longer hear the surf. She thinks of Johnny Weissmuller, the original Tarzan; he had a hell of a kick, too, a real outboard motor. She walks on, directionless, a little giddy, listening to the birds in the trees. The few people she encounters smile shyly at her. She is dark like them, the only dark one in our family, negra, india. She knows she is on the fulcrum between two continents, where two massive histories teeter and brawl, a stone’s throw from the planet’s navel. Here, eggs stand comfortably on their ends, listing only slightly; here, on the equinox, the sun crosses the sky just a hair’s breadth from dead center, calibrating the spin of the earth. Here, time seems to stand still, or at least to move so sluggishly, tangled in this ribbon of jungle, that forward and backward become confused, like in the movement of the tide. Walking, smiling now to herself, she remembers the little farm in Tostado, her mother’s puchero, her father’s hunting dogs. After her family moved to Santa Fe, he raised chickens in the yard. She remembers how, as a little girl, she wanted to be Albert Schweitzer. Had she been just a little younger, she might have been inspired by the young Che Guevara to visit the leper colonies of the Brazilian outback. With the birds ever more present in her ears, she pauses mid-gait, balancing on one foot like a flamingo, steals one long breath from the jungle, and says, Here.

Let me leave her, for now, as she might have been in another now, practicing medicine in some lost village where Spanish is the colonizer’s language, listening to Brahms so loud that it distorts on the tiny speaker of her portable cassette player, drinking coffee and smoking cigarette after cigarette without having to hide a single one, while the vines make a ruin of our old Firebird a few hundred yards away.


She couldn’t have practiced for ten years. My parents left Rochester, where my mother worked, before I was born. I don’t even know if she was pregnant with me yet. How long was it, really? Seven years? Eight? But ten is a nice, round, logical number, it exudes balance and proportion. The second digit, a zero, makes it magically greater than nine plus one. It seems like a reasonable amount of time to have worked after the sacrifice of medical school. Ten is the number I came up with, to rationalize away part of my guilt over feeling responsible for my mother’s sacrifice. Writing about my mother has made it possible for me to understand this.

But writing has done something else: it has given me a mechanism by which to escape that guilt. By writing the stories of my mother’s imaginary fugue, I become not just the cause of her entrapment, but the agent of her release. Of course, she would argue with me. Silly to fantasize about alternatives. Time does not fork or run backward, electrons do not congregate three to a shell, the cores of stars do not turn to hydrogen, and matter and energy do not fall out of sacred proportion. She didn’t go back to Argentina. She didn’t go back to medicine. She didn’t go anywhere. She stayed right here. And yet, I would have her believe that the alchemy of the imagination can undo the chemistry of sacrifice, enabling both of us to escape the traps we set for ourselves and for each other.

Friday, January 15, 2016