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  • The Cataclysm of My Mother’s Spine
  • Jamison Rankin (bio)

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Photo by Stuart Randall Saffen

[End Page 10]

My mother doesn’t usually get out of bed until five in the evening. This is because many of her nights are spent staying awake until the sun rises well above the swimming pool, the slate-black roofs, the curl of oak branches. Her internal clock doesn’t know an appropriate time to become tired. After she’s spent both day and night awake, it’s easy to hear the jumble in her speech—syllables becoming manic and distorted, sentences snapping in two, tongue twisted like a sheepshank knot. She doesn’t ask for anyone’s help if she’s struggling to say something; she just figures out how to do it herself. [End Page 11]

She says she’s got to keep moving or else she’ll feel her brain rust over. It’s been a decade since the doctors told her she had multiple sclerosis, a disease that attacks nerves, stripping them of a fatty fiber called myelin, warping the brain’s information to and from the body. My mother’s symptoms grew so subtly I didn’t recognize them until I was fifteen, when her eyes were heavy and sweat poured from her forehead at my cousin’s wedding in July. She drank through several glasses of sweet tea and excused herself early. She then retired to the couch in the living room for a couple of days—the only piece of furniture she doesn’t describe as a bed of nails.

It’s a blue couch, dark in hue and about as soft as a cotton swab. The cushions are thick and slope to my mother’s shape and her shape only. The only time my parents sleep in the same bed is on their anniversary, when they go out to eat at some restaurant like Red Lobster and rent a hard-to-find decent hotel room that allows smoking. The day after, when they return, my father gets ready for work and says goodbye to my mother, who lies on the couch in the living room. I ask her how things went, and for the past three years she’s said the same thing with a gritted smile: “Fine.”

She takes me to my counseling sessions because my father is too tired from the early shift or he’s getting ready for the late shift. On one November night when the sun set early and the roads were black, I drove us in my truck, a Dodge Dakota handed down from my father. She told me she doesn’t like driving in it. She tried to tell me it’s too small for her, makes her feel boxed in. But this isn’t what bothers her. The truck reeks of my father: sweat from long shifts, menthol embedded in the cloth seat fibers, the dark stain on the driver’s armrest. No matter how many times I’ve gased the truck with Ozium spray or pulled out the seats and steamed them, my father’s musk won’t lift—it has become engraved.

She rolled the window down as we passed through Moncks Corner. She told me how she hummed a song by the Police during her spinal tap, a procedure that draws milky fluid from the lower vertebrae. By now she probably won’t remember what song it was, but she’ll tell you that it helped with the nervous tremor, the initial jolt. It wasn’t this procedure that sealed her diagnosis but the MRI. She didn’t tell me this until I was almost sixteen, in the driver’s seat coming back from a session. Maybe it was a way of prying, or in her mind a trade-off: I’ll tell you this personal thing if you tell me a personal thing. [End Page 12]

So I lied and told her this session had focused on how to cope with anxiety, or stress, or depression—something like that. Then, I brought up a song by Genesis, the song “Mama,” a song I hadn’t heard in...


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pp. 10-17
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