Mami lifts her head as I find her crawling up the staircase. Our eyes meet and a sudden surge of despondency invades me. As if dragged by a heavy burden of shame, her gaze falls to the ground and she mumbles something under her breath.
“Ay, dear son!” I can barely hear her say. “You’ve caught me.”
Despair immediately turns into a tumultuous torrent of jumbled emotions that freeze me to the ground. In life, precisely as a result of the example that the woman in front of me has provided, I have been quick to offer my help, attend the needs of others, or generally respond to critical situations with a degree of equanimity that astonishes people—including myself. This time, however, the heartrending experience is too close to the core of my being and its acerbic pain overpowers me.
Mami sees one of my fallen tears splattering on the linoleum-tiled step of the staircase and quickly shifts from her vulnerable state to a protective motherly role.
“Look, dear son,” she tells me. “I am getting better. I don’t even need a cane.”
Her astute reframing of the situation helps me regain some composure. While I lean to offer my help, I remember the times when psychological concepts such as this were easier to understand during my university studies through the analogy of her behavior. She gently pulls away.
“No, no, no!” she says. “Let me do it alone. I have to get better on my own. Or is it that you don’t want me to recover?”
Projection, I think, faintly smiling.
Moving around me, Mami uses the railing for assistance in her quest to the top of the staircase.
“You came to visit me,” she continues. “Not to take care of me.”
Projective Identification, I continue to think, smiling openly. As a child, there were instances in which I despised this type of behavior because it possessed the guilt-inducing elements of emotional blackmail, but I have grown to accept it over the years, especially now that she struggles with the anxiety-provoking losses associated with old age. In accordance with the basic ways of her upbringing, she is using these maladaptive coping mechanisms to convey the message—perhaps more as a way to persuade herself than any others—that a stroke will not prevail in breaking her unwavering character. Instead of eliciting guilt, however, her responses generate a form of unconditional affection and I simply walk along with her, ready to provide a similar kind of emotional support like the one I remember she provided to me as a child when she chose to become my mother when her daughter—my biological mother—emigrated to California.
“See!” Mami says as we reach her bedroom, which are my sleeping quarters during the visit. “All I need is a little exercise.”
I nod and open my arms, offering a hug, which she gracefully takes in a manner that I do not remember from childhood. The timing of the hug, as well as its duration, feels precise. She lets go and begins to make the bed, her right arm acquiescing to a jumbled link of nerve communications with the brain. I assist her and the collaboration feels natural, like a dance in which both performers foresee and respond to in accordance to the movement of each other.
“Thank you,” Mami says. “It’s just this arm—and this dumb leg. They simply refuse to cooperate.”
“You are doing extremely well,” I tell her. “Soon, you are going to be running after me. Like you used to every time I ate all the sweet bread. Remember?”
She laughs, in a manner I recollect from childhood, but which I had not seen in years.
“I don’t think so,” she manages to reply after her hearty laughter subsides. “Can’t you see that I am already too old for that?”
Mami begins to walk away and tells me that my room is ready, just in case I feel like resting or taking a nap.
“I don’t understand why you insist on sleeping elsewhere,” I say. “This is your room. Besides, we both fit on the bed well.”
“You mean you would not mind?” Mami replies.
“Of course not.” I say. “You probably would. I snore pretty loudly.”
She laughs again.
For the rest of the trip, we share the bed and countless stories before going to sleep. There are times when I snuggle close to her, in a manner that I do not remember from childhood, but that I appreciate in adulthood and will cherish for the rest of my life.