My Mother's Illness
I saw the illness in my mother today. It was projected on a screen in a doctor's office, in black and white, taking up the cavity in my mother's right hip. It was a butterfly—wings extended so that their edges brushed my mother's bones, its eye-like pattern looking back at us with a kind of confident serenity, tens of hundreds of unblinking eyes.
"A moth,” corrected the doctor.
I looked up in surprise, unaware that I had been thinking out loud.
"You can see here that its antennas are feathery,” he explained. The doctor was the best, we had been told. There had been many successful anecdotes, friends of friends who were cured of blindness, cancer, flat feet, even baldness in this very office. We had waited eight months and flown twelve hours overseas for an appointment with him.
I squinted at the screen and sure enough there were furry hairs on the feelers. Everything about the moth was perfection: the two panes of symmetrical wings, the eyes on them spread out haphazardly, like a fistful of rose petals falling carelessly into a pond.
So this was it, I thought, the root of my mother's agony. This tiny thing, with its paper-flimsy wings, was what caused my mother to wake up each morning with shooting pain in her muscles and joints.
"The pain has seeped deep into my bones,” my mother tells me, whenever I am present to witness her morning ritual, her hour-long—on occasions two-hour-long—process of awakening to her illness, of relearning, once again, the stiffness in her spine, the limitations to how far she can twist her torso from side to side, of slowly straightening her back, vertebra by vertebra, so that the pain comes in sharp but manageable doses. She beats at her right thigh with a cupped hand in repetitive blows.
"The pain is right here,” she says, signaling a space beneath her calico pajama pants, beneath her flesh and muscles, signaling a single point of pain in the hollow of her hipbones, where, we now know, lives a moth.
The moth is a queen among its kind, trapped, somehow, inside the cavern of my mother's bones. As I observed it on the projector, noticing its infinitesimal flutter, there was a second of empathy between me and the moth; it was handling its entrapment so regally. Is this how it feels to be a fetus, I wondered, how each one of us begins, confined within a tiny space for months and months, existing in a precarious state where we're neither flying nor on the ground, but caught in midair?
To my mother, this moth was a parasite, encroaching a space in her body, but to the moth, this hollow was its whole world.
"Are you able to tell the color of its wings?” I asked. I felt the need to say something, to break the silence in the office, and that was the first thing that came out. "I mean, is there some kind of a colored-version X-ray?”
"No,” replied the doctor. "But it definitely belongs to the Hepialidae family. Ghost moths, some call them.” The doctor was a small man with small facial features, his hairline receding like so many middle-aged men, though to his credit, I did not see any bald patches. This was a man whom I could walk by again this very afternoon on the street and not notice.
"But what does that mean, having a moth in my hip?” asked my mother. She pounded at her hip, as if to drive away the piercing pain by inflicting further harm on her body. It was an unconscious gesture, like me biting my nails or twirling my hair. "Can it be removed?”
For my mother there must have been relief as well as exasperation in seeing the moth, for now there was a shape to her pain, a physical form to her illness which until now had been but medical jargon—T-cells, B-cells, molecular sequestration, rupture in defensive mechanism—mere words, dissipating as soon as they were uttered.
If there's any cure to be found to your illness it is with this doctor, the online reviews as well as several relatives and neighbors had assured us. He can cure anything.
The doctor shook his head. "Unfortunately, we do not know much about this symbiotic lepidoptera phenomenon. What causes it—we simply do not know—there are only a couple of such recorded cases in medical history. The only thing we know for sure is that it's become part of you, and, somehow, is supporting the ecosystem in your body. You cannot tell from this X-ray, but your nerves and blood vessels have found their ways into the moth. As much as the moth is causing you pain, it is also keeping you alive.”
The doctor leaned against his chair and looked at us with his fingers crossed on his belly. He started to open his mouth and then quickly closed it, suppressing a yawn. The white wall behind him shined with glow-in-the-dark unnatural brightness. We had changed three flights to come here. I wondered what it was about him that made him the best, that filled up his waiting room with hundreds of shadowy faces with that tiny flicker of light left in their eyes.
"Is that it?” I asked. "That's all you're giving us—there's a moth in my mother's hip but there's nothing we can do about it?”
"Nothing that I know of, I'm afraid,” replied the doctor. There was the tiniest hint of a frown between his eyebrows, just enough to convince me that he cared, however little, about his patients.
"Is there any way to ease the pain? Hot tubs? Pain killers? Yoga?”
The doctor shrugged. "You could try. What is medical advice but statistics anyway—recorded solutions that have worked for a relatively large number of people?”
"Come now,” said my mother. She was already getting on her feet, supporting her weight with both palms pressed down hard on the arms of the chair. One of her legs was longer, the result of having been born in a breeched position at a time when Caesarian procedures were uncommon. A midwife with a strong right grip but a weak left arm had pulled my mother out into the world by the legs. My mother limped her way slowly out of the office, the same way she had limped in, the same way she had limped her way through her sixty years of life, the moth in her hip ever as present, ever as preying on her joints and muscles, rippling its effect throughout her body like millions of piercing needles.
At night I share a bed with my mother in a hotel room. Tomorrow morning we will take the twelve-hour flight back home—and then what? There will be another miracle doctor, I expect, another healer residing atop a mountain or in a stony basement, with patients seated along the narrow staircase, taking up so much space that we'd have to tiptoe down the steps sideways, our ribcages jammed against the shaky handrail. I have been in enough waiting rooms in the world to know that the flicker of light in people's eyes is always there if you search deep enough.
My mother snores in her sleep, and when I push her in hope that she shifts positions and breaks her snore, I fail. She sleeps like a dead woman, with the weight of a cadaver, a result of the double sleeping pills she takes nightly to forget her body's suffering for a few hours. Such deep, cadaverous slumber gives her nightmares, nightmares she cannot wake up from until the medication wears off, and she is brought back to the reality that the pain was never really gone. I observe my mother as she has her nightmares: a twitch in her cheeks and hairline, a soft moan in between the snores. We travelled all these miles and waited all this time just to find a doctor who is not afraid to say that he did not know what the solution is, if there is one.
I wonder what the moth is doing—if it sleeps when my mother sleeps—if it, too, is affected by the sleeping pills. The moth is so close by that if I were to slice open my mother's hip with a knife, I would see it, quivering amidst a web of arteries and nerves. And yet, the doctor had said there is nothing we can do about it.
I wonder if the moth will survive my mother, decades from now, when blood no longer pumps from her heart, when her chest ceases to rise and fall, and she is buried six feet under. One day my mother's flesh will begin to rot, little by little mixing into the earth, slowly exposing the ligaments and tendons underneath and giving way to the nerves and vessels, until finally there will only be the skeleton remaining. Surely then, the moth will still be there, majestically waiting, thriving, pulsating, for that moment when it can finally break free.
Vanessa Wang holds an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Maryland. She currently lives in the Silicon Valley. Her writings have won first place in the Bethesda Annual Short Story Contest, and appeared in Kweli Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, and luna luna, among other places.