By Anne Trumbore

The facts are indisputable.  On a Friday evening in the late spring of 1977, in a small house in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a 35-year-old woman with multiple sclerosis fell while taking a shower.  She screamed for her husband. He did not hear her.

She clutched at the shower handle on her way down and turned it all the way to HOT.

Three ribs, weakened by 12 years of steroids, snapped on impact. The scalding water draped her back like a blanket. She could not get up.  She screamed and screamed and screamed until her husband heard her.

They did not go to the hospital until the next morning.  She came home with second degree burns on her torso and two more prescriptions.

They returned angry, my father’s mouth in an iron line, my mother in the wheelchair she refused to use, head down, weeping softly. He cornered me once the new pills sent her to sleep. “Did you hear what happened last night?” he asked, brows pulled down, eyes predatory.  “Did you know what was happening?”

No, Dad. I didn’t hear anything.

“Really?” His voice went an octave higher in disbelief.


My legs at eleven were long and straight and suntanned, twinkly in the sun with fine golden hairs. My body was long and lean: a brown wiggly line.  The neighborhood mothers called me “a stick.” My mother said I had a fat ass.

Since she said I had a “fat ass” with a cigarette clenched between her teeth (she had to smoke like a longshoreman because her hands shook so much from the MS that she was always setting fire to the couch), you might think she had close-cropped steel wool hair, thick shoulders, broad hips and a balloon waist. You might think she had dropped out of high school and worked at a canning plant at some time in her life. You might think she wore a hair net to sleep and scrubbed the kitchen floor on her hands and knees.

You would be wrong. She had dual degrees in history and French, porcelain-pale skin, blue eyes, and soft black hair. Her cheekbones were softly sculpted and I never saw her without her lipstick, one red and one coral, which she kept in an enamel bowl right next to her crystal ashtray. She dieted in high school, in college, throughout both pregnancies, during her diagnosis, confinement to a wheelchair and her last stop in a hospital bed in the dining room. She allowed herself half a cup (we measured) of Coke from a glass bottle each day. Every month, my father would drive to a beverage distributor and pick up a wooden flat of it.  She never ate chicken with skin, bread with dinner, or dessert, except on birthdays. In later years, when she pretty much just sat on the couch all day and my father was doing well at work, she allowed herself a single Godiva chocolate at 4 p.m., right after her Prednisone.

And I did have, at least in comparison to the rest of me, a fat ass. Also my father’s nose, which looked broken, small eyes and a strong jaw.  I hated brushing my hair, which she used to have shaved by the barber on the corner when I was small. “I can’t take care of it,” she would cry with me while he buzzed my scalp. “You have an enormous head,” she would say afterwards. She was right. The only hat I have ever tried on that fit belonged to her father, a former small-time Irish boxer.  “What a sweet boy you have,” women in skirts would say when I helped her out of her black VW bug with red leather interior. “She’s not a boy,” my mother would sniff. “It’s a pixie cut.”

This fact is also without question: I listened to the whole thing. My bedroom shared a wall with the bathroom, and the painted wicker headboard of my bed was flush against this wall.

“Jack!” she screamed. “Jack! Jack! Oh God help, Jack!”

My fifth grade math teacher gave the class brain teasers on Friday afternoons, and this was the last one of the year. Although most of school was very easy for me, I was stumped. An old man said to a young man, "I have a daughter. She has as many brothers as she has sisters. Each one of her brothers has twice as many sisters as he has brothers. How many sons and daughters do I have?"

He has to have at least two sons and four daughters, I thought. But that’s not the answer, not yet.

“Oh God. Oh my God, Jack!”

Let’s see. If she has as many brothers as she has sisters, and she is also someone’s sister, then brothers equal sisters minus one (herself), or  B=S-1.

“Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack.”

Where is he?  Can’t he take care of her for once?  It’s not my fault.  I didn’t do it.  I don’t want to see her naked anymore, and she is going to be really mad at me, I don’t want to I don’t want to I don’t want to…..

“God help me God help me God help me.”

Got it. So a brother has twice as many sisters as he has brothers, not including himself who is a brother. So 2 times the brothers minus one (himself) is the number of sisters. 2(B-1) = S.

“Anne?” my father called. “Anne, what’s going on?”

My stomach flipped and I grew cold. But he was not talking to me. My mother and I have the same name. She choked on her tears now and did not answer him. Neither did I.

He took the stairs two at a time. I counted his steps. I stopped breathing when he opened the bathroom door.

“What the hell?” He turned off the water.

“It hurts. Oh God, oh God, it hurts.”

If you combine the two equations, 2S-4=S.

“I don’t think we need to go to the hospital right now,” he pronounced. We never went to the emergency room unless a doctor told us to. My mother whimpered something I couldn’t hear.

“Anne can stay with Mark in the morning and we’ll call Dr. Haase. Can you walk to the bed?”

If you divide 2S by S, you get S=4. Four sisters. I had figured it out at the beginning! My heart jumped. I couldn’t wait to see the faces of Danny and Matthew, the smart boys in class. We called Matthew “Encyclopedia Brown,” because he always seemed to know everything. I never called him that. I knew a lot more than I ever told. And I knew this. The old man had four daughters and three sons, because B=(S-1) or 3= 4-1 and my mother and father were safe in their bedroom. I fell asleep, my brain jangling and my heart jumping.

Since my mother fell on Friday night, my father spent the weekend circling around her while she mostly slept. Monday came and he went back to work. So, it was just my mother and me on those sun-hazy afternoons, the unwatched TV buzzing game shows in the living room. “Oh my God, how gauche,” my mother would sniff, when she caught sight of a contestant, jiggling and breathless, after having won a month’s supply of dishwasher detergent. “She should use that money to buy herself a decent bra.”  And then her attention would turn back to me, and how I washed the clothes, and ironed the shirts, folded the laundry and stripped the beds. My brother was allowed to go out and play. I changed her bandages.

My mother never asked me if I heard her. She knew I did, just as she knew my most shameful secret, the one I tried to deny for many decades: I had a mother who didn’t love me. And so she never begged me to be gentle when I changed the bandages and sprinkled the foul-smelling white powder onto her weeping yellow flesh. She knew I did not go to her, or get my father, because at eleven, I finally hated her, too. And I think that was what she wanted. Because love can fade and disappear when you are fat, or crippled, or crazy. Hate is constant. Our bond was now beyond words: I would always hate her. And that hate was deeper, more powerful and more vital than our love could ever hope to be.