In the Portland Airport on a Wednesday morning, my eyes grazed over gum packages, as I wondered if the cure for my acrid coffee breath was worth four dollars. I decided against it and dragged my suitcase to the gate departing to Newark.
I took my seat. Sweat pooled underneath the four sweaters I couldn’t fit in my carry-on luggage. A woman and her son sat on my right. The high-school-aged boy prodded his mother with questions, but was ignored, as she played Plants vs. Zombies on her phone.
“Wanna piece of gum?” The boy asked me before take-off. It was like a psychic connection. Or maybe he just smelled my breath. Either way, I was surprised by the boy’s kindness in spite of his stone-faced mother.
“Sure.” I shrugged. I popped that sucker into my mouth. Ah, the minty-fresh taste of chemical-laden peppermint juice oozing across my tastebuds. First the taste overwhelmed me, then faded into familiarity, and eventually turned dull. I stretched the gum until it broke, just to ball it back up and repeat. Gum never deteriorates, even in its most strained moments. It’s a lot like love. Hunched forward, the boy tapped his foot, waiting to be acknowledged, while his mother, oblivious, scrolled through her iPhotos.
I thought of my own mother, who told sixteen-year-old me that terrorists were after our family. My schizophrenic mother, in fear of death, evacuated my sisters and me to Oregon’s countryside. She lost her teaching job because the voices told her that Osama Bin Laden was her father, that our house was wiretapped, and that she couldn’t purchase food because my fifteen-year-old sister would poison us. I remembered the day our electricity went out.
Finding balance was the hardest thing about loving someone with schizophrenia; every day we fought the ups and downs. Years later I came to understand that her mental illness wasn’t her fault. But forgiving nineteen years of pain was more difficult than tightroping across the Hudson River. My gum tasted like a latex glove. But I couldn’t spit it out, even when the taste became unbearable. Spitting meant rejecting my mother. So I swallowed my gum.
As a child, I must have swallowed over fifty pieces of gum. My mother used to say each piece would stay in my stomach for seven years. That’s three hundred and fifty years worth of gum lodged in my gut. I reclined my airplane seat, imagining myself in a doctor’s office.
The surgeon arrived with a white lab coat and scrubs, a stethoscope, and a razor-sharp blade. I had an intestinal obstruction, he told me. Before I knew it, he sliced me open and began yanking on a never-ending string of gum, like a magician pulling rainbow streamers. When it was all out, he plopped it in my hand: a knot of gum, the size of a ball of yarn. I felt empty.
Like I do to my matted curls in the morning, I untangled the wad of gum. Peppermint, bubblegum, tangerine, melted together. The surgeon handed me a microscope to look closer. Inside each crevice was an image of my mother. The woman who taught me to fight. The woman who inspired me to create my own destiny. The mother who read me Harry Potter every night before bed. The mother who took my family on road trips instead of paying bills, because she believed we should experience the world. The mother who birthed me at nineteen and took out dozens of students loans to support me. The mother who sent panicked texts about her latest love affairs and terrorist investigations. What I found in each melded piece of gum was pain and joy. What I found was love, buried in my gut for seven years.
The surgeon, eager to discard the waste, extended his hand. I receded. I couldn’t throw away a part of myself. Desperately, I compacted the gum and shoved it back into my stomach. I screamed in pain, but it was necessary. It was the only way to move on. I pinched at my stomach, piecing together broken flesh in an attempt to feel full again.
The plane jolted, interrupting my daydream. Beside me, the boy’s mother glanced at the puffy scratches across my exposed stomach.
“Want another piece of gum?” The boy asked. “I think you swallowed the last piece.”
“No thanks,” I smiled, hoping he’d offer it to his mom. She needed it more than me.