- On the Making of a Mumu
I saw my heart for the first time in a monochromatic machine on the fourth floor of my hometown hospital, number two in the country for treating lymphoma. Strings of light snaked from sticky pads attached to my chest, my abdomen, my back. I watched my heart expand and contract in and out, a steady stream. It floated in a cavity of black fluid, suspended in heart-time. The cardiograph bobbed and pulsed with each breath. All of us watched my heart glow, except for my stepfather, who turned away, embarrassed by my open gown.
I was twenty-six.
Before this, I had been living nine-thousand miles away in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where I had been preparing to teach English-language courses at a small rural school in the north. Now, I lived in my old/new bedroom at my mother and stepfather's house, located in the suburban outskirts of Cincinnati. Before I could begin my chemotherapy journey and rid my body of its disease, I needed to be healthy enough to handle the toxins we would course through my blood. I was sick, but I could not be too sick. So began the paradoxes of illness.
I learned in school that the body had more to do with blood and plasma and bones than it did with tradition, but at home, I was taught that the heart was one of many organs of superstition. My ancestors spent their lives measuring time and their beliefs against a heartbeat, against what they could hear and not see, when faced with circumstances or events they could not control.
My heart was no longer a thing of romance or metaphor but a pulsing muscle I could see, one that connected the rest of my body by way of thick [End Page 155] vessels, all responsible for keeping me going. My heart did not need me to tell it how to regulate itself because it has done this for years. For the first time I thought, I have to do whatever it takes to protect this thing, even if that means destroying my body. And from what is left, create something new. The realization throbbed with the machine: dark, light, dark, light.
Meanwhile, Mama tucked a blanket around my ankles, murmuring something about my feet getting sick. "Mumu will get you if you don't stay still," she teased. Her long chiffon skirt rippled like water against her brown legs when she moved. A bulging clip bound her straight dark hair at the nape of her neck. She wore transition glasses that never seemed to transition either way, or soon enough.
When I was a kid, we had an unspoken agreement: at home, Mama was the Mama. She dictated if I could shave my armpits (I could not) or how late I could stay out with my friends. But out in public, I was the mother. Perched in the passenger seat, I recited where to turn from printed directions; I was the one who leaned over the driver's seat to tell the drive-thru box what we wanted to eat for dinner. I was the one who showed her how to squeeze cookie dough out of the tube like Ariel's mom. I was the one who protected her from the cruelties of a world that made the Confused or Disgusted Face when they didn't understand my immigrant mother. Or pretended to not hear her. I liked showing off my mastery of the English language as much as I resented having to speak for the both of us, as I helped us navigate waiters, cashiers, schoolteachers, and now, doctors. And even as we navigated this new world of medicine with unsteady steps, where neither of us knew the language or the customs, I understood perfectly that any health advantages were the only kind of currency that mattered.
"Your heart is perfect for chemo," the technician said, like a teacher grading me on an elementary-school report card. Your blood work is ideal, they said. Your tumors are slow moving compared to others. Your age and athletic build exceed expectations for treatment...