Mom smiles at me, but even on the small screen of my phone I can see her trying to hide the pain in her hands by clutching them together. Rheumatoid arthritis has been giving her a run for her money for a few years now, and it’s gotten so bad that I know she’s in constant agony; not that she’d ever admit that to me.
After all, Lynette’s trying to be discreet, but I can see the way she’s just barely moving her fingers over each other, trying to massage the swollen joints, and it makes me sad. I’ve watched my mom take care of everyone around her for as long as I can remember because as an ICU nurse in Nebraska, that’s her calling, and has been for over twenty years now. I even remember that Lynette won the VIP Staff award multiple years in a row, and I was so proud.
But long stretches of hard work and raising me as a single mother have etched fine lines around Lynette’s eyes and mouth. She says they’re just from smiling so much every day, but I know the truth. Life is difficult for her, and I worry sometimes. After all, my mom is getting up there in age, and she’s starting to really feel her years. I know she’s on her feet constantly for twelve-hour shifts every day, but that’s just what happens when your patients are seriously ill.
“How are you, Mama?” I ask in a gentle voice. “Feeling okay?”
She laughs, her gray-brown bob shaking.
“Oh, honey. I’m fine. Don’t you worry.”
But I frown.
“Mom, have you been taking your meds? I mean every day, not just once in a while.”
At first, my mother tries to parry.
“Well, you know I’m not feeling so bad,” she begins. I merely pin her with a look.
“Are you rationing your arthritis medication?” I ask in a blunt tone. “You know I hate that you do that.”
Lynette shakes her head quickly then.
“Oh, definitely not, sweetie. These new meds are the best, so actually, I don’t need to take them every day. So it’s not really rationing,” she explains in a cheerful tone.
My heart drops as I look around my tiny apartment, trying to keep my mom from seeing the distress on my face because I know Lynette’s suffering without her daily dose of drugs. That shit is expensive and she’s basically living in constant pain because we don’t have enough money to buy a full supply for each month.
“It’s such bullshit that even working at a hospital, your meds are so expensive,” I seethe with barely controlled rage.
Lynette merely smiles again.
“No, it’s fine, honey. It doesn’t hurt too bad, and as long as I’m able to do my job, then it’s okay. Besides, I count myself lucky. I could be one of my patients, and those are the folks that we really need to pray for.”
I swallow hard around the lump in my throat because trust my mom to try to put a positive spin on things. But I know the truth. Those new lines around her mouth are from constant discomfort, and even now as I look into her eyes, I can see the shadow of pain.
But I don’t want Lynette to see how sad I am, even if at this very moment, I’m trying not to cry. Being so far away from my mother wasn’t easy, but when the opportunity to move to New York City appeared, I jumped on it. I thought living in Manhattan would be my dream come true. It would be bright lights, big city, and I’d have tons of opportunity to pursue my passions while getting a degree as well. I’d meet new people, frequent the hippest clubs, and take part in intellectual salons with cool people who wear striped turtlenecks and berets.
But instead, I’m a penniless student in NYC working part-time as a bartender. Yes, the gig pays well and I’m able to afford an apartment on my own because of it, but it’s not enough to cover four figures in medication every month for Lynette. I need to make more, and I grit my teeth. I’m going to find a way.
“Listen honey,” Mom says, interrupting my thoughts. “Don’t worry about me, okay? How are things going since Natalie moved out?”
I smile at the mention of my friend.
“It’s quiet and I miss her, but you know how small our apartment is. I kind of like not tripping over each other all the time.”
It’s true because this place probably isn’t more than five hundred feet. Even better, Natalie fell in love with her boss at work, and moved out to be with him. Even crazier, they have a kid now, so she’s a new mom, which is mind-boggling, seeing how my buddy used to be a party girl.
But at that moment, my mom raises her coffee mug to her lips, only for her arthritic fingers to tremble in a worrisome manner. Then, sure enough, the mug goes crashing down, and coffee flies everywhere. But Lynette isn’t concerned about the scalding liquid. Instead, her fingers spasm and clench together as pain etches lines all over her face. One thing is definitely clear: Lynette is not fine. Even if her new arthritis meds are more effective, they can’t work if she doesn’t have enough.
I stand up, alarmed.
“Mom, Mom, are you okay?”
She grimaces while still clutching her hands, quickly lowering them so I can’t see the gnarled fingers on-screen.
“Don’t worry about me, sweetie. I’ve got this under control,” she manages in a strained voice. But my eyes are wide and I’m alarmed.
“Mom, I know you’re not okay. You’re as pale as a ghost and your joints look like gnarled tree branches. I’m going to send you some money and I want you to use it to refill your meds so you can take them daily, like you’re supposed to.”
Lynette shakes her head, forcing that smile of hers back into place.
“Oh no, you don’t need to do that, Sierra. I’ll be just fine. Besides, you’ve got your own bills to take care of, and I know New York is expensive.”
I shake my head stubbornly.