• Vol. 05
  • Chapter 07
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She would read the encyclopedia as she cooked, stirring the contents of a heavy-bottomed pot with her left hand while holding the book aloft with her right. I always wondered how she did it; it was difficult for me to lift the book, even with both hands. I should have known—my mother was one of the strong ones.

“I’d also like one of these,” she’d told the bored cashier in the saggy red apron-vest. With grimy hands, the cashier had rung up the leathery volume, dumping it into the bag without regard to the fragile tomatoes and plums and bread within. My mother had promptly removed the book, tucking it deeply under her arm, without a word of complaint.

When the book sat idle, I’d open it, pressing my nose into the pages, breathing in as if I could smell the trees that had birthed them. I imagined blue sky, cracked leaves, ebony soil, a scent as fresh as the mysteries the volume contained. Flipping through, I’d chance upon a set of pages that were thinned and crinkly, where red sauce had splattered and had been carefully wiped away. I'd lay my cheek on these pages, knowing my mother had laid hands on them. It was a secretive, shared experience, one without words between us, but with words nonetheless.

“Cuboid. Navicular. Cuneiform. Metatarsals. Phalange.” Her soapy hands would glide down the length of my feet as she washed them, naming each bone. Balancing me carefully, holding me firmly, a soft, satisfied smile on her face. Bath time was more than just bathing, getting clean; it was a daily anatomy lesson. Yesterday she’d been in the E’s—and I’d heard words like lobule, helix, and auricle, as the warm towel traced my ear.

She probably thought I wasn’t listening on those nights. I was.



I wash her feet now, and whatever else needs washing. I prepare her meals, most often holding a recipe book, not an encyclopedia. On her lucid days, she asks me about my patients, the goings on at the hospital. She likes to hear me speak the jargon. The proud smile that I remember finds its way onto her face, even as her eyes close in rest. I am the doctor she should have become.