My daughter, Tammy, wanted a new dress for her sixth-grade graduation. To my surprise, she went for something diaphanous and pastel. Generally, she chose black. When I first met her, she was a four-year-old living in foster care in Miami. I sat down to color with her. “I like blue,” I said. “What about you?”
“BWACK,” she said.
I took her and all her baggage and adopted her. She now said “black” like everybody else and ruled Special Ed like Bart Simpson. I hoped that the filmy frock signaled a turn into a brighter, less turbulent future. After all, it went along with a milestone.
She had neglected her beautiful hair for a long time and just pulled it back into a ponytail every day without brushing it. Abundant and fine, hers was the perfect hair to tangle and mat. When I finally tried, I couldn’t get a brush through it. I took her to the beauty parlor, hoping they might have some cream to make it slimier and easier to disentangle.
Every hairdresser in the place took a crack at the mess, to the cries and shrieks of Tammy Agonistes. Whenever the door to the parlor opened, Tammy screamed, “HELP!” in hope of a rescue from the street. When she yelled at the top of her lungs, “Somebody call 911,” my beautician opted for the Gordian approach and snipped out the two most offending snarls. Tammy had enough hair that the loss was imperceptible. She emerged with wavy tresses bouncing on her shoulders.
The morning of graduation, Tammy was scheduled for her final vaccination. Her appointment was two hours before the ceremony. She looked so lovely in her dress, her flowing hair, and her black flats, that I figured now at age twelve, she was at last mature enough to have a shot without incident. Surely she wouldn’t want to mess herself up with hysterics before the big event.
The receptionist said, “Tammy, you look very pretty.”
“I’m on my way to my sixth-grade graduation,” Tammy replied. She smiled and tossed her hair, the picture of a budding teen.
We took a seat and Tammy began to rock in her seat. Uh-oh. Anxiety.
“I’m proud of you, Tammy,” I said. “You’re so grown up.”
“Yup,” she said.
“You can come in now,” said Carlos, the mustachioed orderly. “Wow, Tammy, you’re all dressed up. You going somewhere?”
The nurse turned to greet us as we entered the little examining room. Tammy started walking backwards.
“Whoa. This way, Tammy,” I said. “Let’s do this so we can get to the school.”
I reached for her hand. She snatched it away. “No.”
Oh no, here it comes. In the few moments we had been there she was sucked back into the black hole of her early childhood. Would this never end? I felt overcome with weariness. Wait until she heard about Pap smears. She’d die of cervical cancer first.
Carlos, a gentle giant, stepped in. “Come on Tam. You’re a big girl. You can do this. It will only take a second, and then you’re on your way.”
“No,” she said and bolted for the door out of the waiting room.
Carlos caught up with her and stooped down so he could look her in the eye. “Tammy, come with me. Right now.” She clutched the door jam, and screamed, “No.”
“No” reverberated down the halls of Beth Israel. A tiny boy snuggled closer to his mother in alarm. So diminutive in contrast to this husky guy, she stared him down. Her firmness astonished the whole room.
How could this defiant terror be my child? I felt a strong surge of failure. Seven years of my nurturing and she was still unspeakably rude. Was it my job to enter the head of this little lunatic? Okay, I got it. Shots terrified her. The empathy I prided myself on was nowhere to be found. Where was the child who tried to meet expectations, to be a good girl, where did she go?
Tammy clung to the jam as the orderly scooped her up. Her body, in all its gauzy elegance, hovered parallel to the floor. Her fingers gripped the jam. She clasped it for dear life. It was the one upright tree that could withstand the hurricane. Her fright made her strong.
The nurse came out to help Carlos peel her fingers from the door jam. Her body still aloft, Tammy wriggled and screamed, fighting to reestablish her grip. The nurse emerged victorious from the struggle and took Tammy’s hand firmly. Tammy screamed and wept. The nurse and I exchanged glances. “The cocoon,” I said. The kiddy straight jacket.
"Tammy, why don’t you sit with Mom a minute and calm down?”
“Come here, Tammy,” I said. “You don’t want to be late for graduation.” My patience was phony. I could have killed her.
I sat down, holding her hand. I saw that she was no longer the 12-year-old I came in with. She was three. I guessed that her inner war between her fear and all I have taught her about how you act had been lost. Fear triumphed. She yanked her hand away and before I could catch her, she backed away laughing, the taunting laugh of a tiny child playing tag. She pointed at me and stuck out her tongue.
“Tammy, this is not a game,” I said.
She darted toward the hall, and ran smack into the receptionist. I caught one hand and the nurse caught the other. She was surrounded.
“Okay, Tammy,” said the nurse, “this is something you have to do so you don’t get sick. It’s very important. Do you understand?”
Tammy looked pensive. I knew she was plotting her next escape. I chimed in, “That’s right, Tammy. It’s something you have to get over with. By now Grandpa is waiting for us at PS 40. Let’s do this, okay?” Get with the program, you little bitch.
She appeared calm. This tricked the nurse, but not me. Under the surface, Tammy now was fully committed to avoiding the shot. The nurse relaxed her grip, and Tammy used all her strength to jerk free of me. As she darted to the door, Carlos and another burly guy snatched her up and plunked her in the cocoon; she knew she was getting the shot. She started to sob in earnest. “You’re hurting me!” she moaned.
The shot took one second.
It seemed nothing had changed since the first time I brought her to the doctor except this time she was much stronger. She was too big for this. I couldn’t scoop her up any more. It took two strong men to get her in the cocoon. I was disappointed in her, angry with her, tired of her. She seemed foreign. I would have been mortified to act like this even when I was five years old. Now I was mortified to be her mother. I thought of what a gypsy said to me so long ago. “You don' like give nobody no trouble.” That was right. It was true. Now I had a child who indulged her fear and gave the whole world trouble. She had regressed. So had I. This was what it was like to be Tammy’s mother. Not fun.
The butterfly emerged from the cocoon.“Okay, Tammy, you got through it. Good for you. Let’s make tracks.” It was over. Metamorphosis. I forgive you, Tammy; I forgive you, Marge. At least she wouldn’t get typhoid or tetanus or whatever it was. We hurried up First Avenue, a beautiful 12-year-old and her loving mother, off to mark a milestone.