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A Mea Culpa to My Dear Mom

Dear Mom,

I was lying on a massage table today on the third floor of a house that looked like it would be more at home in New Orleans than Oakland — sort of crumbling and regal, a giant palm tree towering into the sky out front. New agey music was playing out of a desktop computer. An Ansel Adams landscape hung on the wall next to cherry, agnostic prayer flags. Tiny, delicate needles were protruding all over my body. My calves were tingling. My head was throbbing. And it hit me: cynicism about non-Western medicine is a luxury.

Which is to say, I’m sorry for all the times I made fun of your alternative healing regimens. I was lying there — 35 years old with an immune system that feels like it’s all but gone to sleep on the job, and realized that people who shun acupuncture or herbs have likely never been forced to reckon with the limitations, not just of their own bodies, but of Western medicine.

I’m in a major moment of reckoning with limitations, Mom.

I remember once when I was snooping around in the attic of our childhood home and found this cupboard with all of your old appointment books stacked one on top of the other. I flipped through them and marveled at the tiny, penciled appointments crowding out every little blank space. There were notes about the carpool and book club, reminders about dropping off food for someone who was struggling and picking up birthday presents for cousins. It all seemed so official. So busy.

At the time, I was confused: Why would you keep appointment books filled with information about the past?

Now I know. These books were the archive of your own daily struggle with limitation. They marked, albeit in a mundane language, the cacophonous rhythms of a working mother. They were a map that you could trace back to your own autoimmune illness — the thing that led you down so many roads less traveled in order to be healed.

You were a woman in the eye of the storm. I was an eye-rolling adolescent. I wished you could just go to regular doctors like everyone else’s parents, let us get antibiotics so we could get better, faster — not carry around those Ziplocs filled with supplements and horse yeast and god knows what else. I wished, of course, most ferociously, for you to be well. But at least if you couldn’t be well, couldn’t you at least be normal?

The acupuncturist asked me, “How’s your spirit?”

I said, “Anxious. Overwhelmed.”

No doctor has ever asked me about my spirit before, which strikes me, now, after all those years and eye rolls, as totally not normal. Why wouldn’t a healing professional want to understand how your emotional life was informing your physical health? It’s like the majority of Western doctors are assessing their patients with one eye closed.

For what it’s worth, I get it now, Mom. My Google calendar is chock-full. My immune system is on the fritz. I’m trying to take care of myself. I’m trying to get taken care of. And I’m lying in a room with needles sticking out of my body thinking about how you are, once again, right. About pretty much everything.

(Though I think the verdict is still out on astrology.)

Love, your daughter,

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