My husband was a thousand miles away on a business trip, and our 22-year-old daughter worked a subway ride away from the dentist’s scalpel.
“Ask her,” my husband encouraged.
“No, I’ll just come home myself,” I insisted.
“You’ve done plenty for her,” he reminded me.
True, but I didn’t start chauffeuring my mother to and from doctors until she was in her 80s. Nothing prepared me for the awkwardness of becoming my mother’s mother. At first I just hung out in the waiting room, pretending to be engaged in gossip magazines. Later, when she was suffering from Lewy body dementia, I began accompanying her into the exam room. I felt like a voyeur probing into her private medical life.
When my daughter was an infant, I stood next to her pediatrician, trying not to shed tears as vaccination needles stabbed my tiny baby. I wobbled next to a plastic surgeon who was sewing my daughter’s chin back together after a fall at summer camp. Briefly the doctor looked up at my wan face, inquiring, “Are you okay?” I wasn’t, and I wasn’t okay again years later, feeling faint just watching my tween being fitted for contact lenses.
By the time my daughter was 13, the pediatrician kicked me out of the exam room. I understood why. She wanted her patient to be free to talk about sex, birth control, drugs — any issue that a doting mother hovering above an adolescent in a medical gown would stifle. I was banished to the waiting room, alongside toddlers playing with blocks. I wanted to tell their mothers how brief this time together was, how much they will miss it.
Back in the present, I forced myself to overcome my discomfort and asked my daughter to be my official post-surgery escort.
“Of course!” she said. “I’ll hop down on my lunch hour. You did it for me. Now it’s my turn.”
She was talking about her wisdom teeth removal. When they called me in afterward, my teenager was zonked from painkillers and couldn’t utter a coherent sentence. It was disconcerting to see my child stoned, albeit legally. Thankfully I never saw her in that condition again.
On the morning of my oral surgery, my daughter assured me, “Everything will be fine.”
And it was. Yet I still couldn’t adjust to the shift in our roles. I felt old, weak, embarrassed for her to see me stagger into the waiting room after being assaulted by drills, scalpels, and sutures. It was difficult for me to accept that this was only the beginning of a paradigm shift. I’d nurtured my daughter for decades, through illnesses, injuries and different stages of development. I’d held her little hand when she was learning to walk, and now I wouldn’t always be the one to stand alone on two feet.
That night, after my Novocain wore off, she made me caramel custard from scratch. Cheese soufflé was on the menu for Recovery Night Two, the same dish I’d made for her after her wisdom teeth removal. She was a better caretaker than my husband, who is a kind man but relatively clueless when it comes to nurturing; he’d bring me a requested bottle of Advil without a glass of water.
My face turned black and blue, a common side effect of dental surgery. The oral surgeon wasn’t alarmed, telling me that strangers approached some of his post-surgery patients to give them information for services for battered women. I was hesitant to be seen in public this way. My daughter led me into the bathroom, whipped out her makeup case and gently painted my bruised face with concealer, as if I were at the makeup counter in an upscale department store.
“There,” she said, proud of her handiwork, “you can hardly see it.” And she pronounced me presentable enough to return to work.
In two weeks my bruises abated and the surgeon proclaimed his work a complete success. I wanted to point out that his handouts for post-surgery recovery never mentioned how to adapt to being taken care of by your own child. In spite of my initial reluctance, however, I was relieved to discover that my daughter could take such good care of me. I felt a new sense of pride in her maturity and capabilities. Our role reversal was far from permanent, and I vowed to do my best to keep it a long way off. But how comforting to know that if necessary, she’ll be there for me.
Candy Schulman is a writer whose essays have appeared in many publications. Follow her on twitter @candyschulman.