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  • By the time I was twelve, Mom was nearly an invalid due to emphysema. But she continued to run our family, assisted by a cleaning lady and me. "You're my legs," she used to say to me. I certainly was her legs, running up and down the stairs with laundry, or walking to the local store to pick up milk. And I was her arms, too. At nine, I used to lift my sister out of her crib and back into it when asked. At thirteen, I had to help Mom in and out of the bathtub. She was very clear, between gasps of breath, that I needed to know how to run the household for the time when she'd be "dead and gone." We had different expectations about when that last event was going to transpire. I expected that she'd last until I was in my twenties and never wondered why I was being taught how to run all of the appliances in the house. This isn't to say that I didn't resent it. And what was my problem? What was so important in my thirteen year-old world that I couldn't help my sick mother without fighting about it? And why did she always engage with me? Despite her inability to breath, she retained the will to argue with me, to threaten all kinds of punishments, which I scoffed at as only a thirteen year old can scoff. And then she'd reach out and hit me--slap me, punch me or beat me with whatever she could get her hands on. So, on a typical Saturday afternoon, we were down in the basement, in the laundry room, fighting between the quilts hung up on the clothesline. As usual, I'd had to have the last word, which only made her face go from red to near-purple, and she reached out to grab me and beat me. As I felt her hand grab my wrist and her other hand punch my arms, I realized that she couldn't hurt me. Her punches felt like a kitten running on my arm. But she was yelling at me with the same intensity as usual, promising to "beat the bejesus" out of me. I knew that I could stand up and flick her off of me or punch back and level her on the concrete floor. I knew that letting on that I realized she was weak was probably the cruelest thing that I could do, so I pretended to be hurt.
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