Shortly after I was born, my mother’s heart failed. While I would like to think that it was the overwhelming beauty of my entrance into her life that caused it to burst, posterity suggests it was actually a series of benign health events that led to its collapse. My mom was born with a delicate heart though no one would have known it to look at her. She was athletically-built and physically able from the beginning. She was even among the first to try aerobics in its heyday. So audacious a person that even she was prone to forget its fragility as it thudded in her chest the way every heart should.
Just after giving birth to me, she went in to the dentist’s office to have her teeth cleaned. Don’t ask me why she was concerned with the state of her teeth considering I could barely be bothered with the cleanliness of any part of me after I birthed a child. What should have been a routine cleaning ended in catastrophe. The bacteria that hides in every human mouth was set loose into her bloodstream and stealthily swarmed her valves until her heart stopped.
Being a newborn, my memory of these events is non-existent, but I’ve heard the elders of the family whisper enough about it over the years to feel as though I was there and profoundly affected. The retelling of those days always brings the perspective around to my father, a man who – prior to that time – had never known defeat.
He was a professional ball player whose ERA — or EKG if the ladies of the family are doing the boasting — had been the lowest in the nation among college players. He had a masculine gait and sturdy jaw, either only outdone by his handshake. He had a way of filling up even the largest of rooms with his wide-legged stance and his bellowing laughter.
As he stood over her hospital bed — so it’s told — staring down at her shrinking body, he began to wither himself. As the physicians shuffled in and out, different ones in various stages of doctordom, to check her vitals and to scratch their heads at why she wasn’t responding to medication, his control of the life he’d made began to swirl like the sands of the southwest outside her plated window. Beyond the weight of caring for a wife who lay dying, he had the responsibility of a newborn.
This is the part that he likes to recount with a great deal of bravado: Holding my mother’s hand and whispering into her subconscious, “This wasn’t the deal, my dear, that I would raise a baby on my own.”
He usually points an accusatory finger at me from across the room and thunders, “Especially not a little girl!”
Everyone eases into the comfort of the foregone conclusions of the story at this point because they see that I, indeed, was raised and that my mother – miraculously – pulled out of her nosedive.
The doctors eventually struck upon an antibiotic that could fight back against the insurgency, but not without great trial and error. There were pills that made her green and pills that made her head scream. There was even one that made her deaf. The thing her healthcare team found that worked best of all wasn’t medicine at all — it was frozen yogurt.
It was the only thing that my mother could tolerate eating, the only thing that stood a chance at returning her robbed pounds and vigor. Every day she waved off oatmeal and tuna salad until someone — usually my father — would set a bowl of frozen yogurt in front of her. She was released from the hospital weeks later, overjoyed to learn that you could get frozen yogurt at stores, not just hospitals. You could get frozen yogurt by simply opening up your wallet, not just your chest cavity. From that point on, I never really saw her eat anything else again.
When my friend and I decided to open a frozen yogurt store in Camden last year, I knew that there was one person out there who wouldn’t think it crazy. One person who would cheer us on no matter how steeply the temperature dipped. One person who would understand that the demands on a single mother to raise three children would assign frozen yogurt life-saving properties. After all, frozen yogurt had saved her life once so why couldn’t it save mine?
I roll my eyes and laugh aloud when I see her slink into our store – sometimes twice in a day – to get her fix, her “fro-dependency” operating at full-tilt. I joke about charging her, since she is our best customer, but then I remember how she paid so dearly for it long ago. And so I let her ride.