The Bargains We Make
By Enlik Tagasheva
What sacrifices did we make during the pandemic to sustain our parental relationships? What kind of person have you become since then?
My phone lights up with a Facebook messenger notification from my mom. A message appears when I glance down to unlock my phone:
Can u work tmrw night?
It is a Thursday morning, and I am in my 10:10 a.m. class. There is no way I can travel from where I am, Bard College, in upstate New York, to NYC without planning a few days in advance. One of her aides most likely canceled last minute, and now she’s asking me to cover their shift. I want to type back, “Why are you asking me so late? Don’t you know that I can’t just leave whenever you need me? I don’t even think Amtrak has tickets right now.” But I can’t type all of that without cramping my finger so instead I say:
no its too late n i have a lot of work to do
Her request for me to come home is not unreasonable. Shortly after arriving in the U.S., my mother fell down a flight of stairs and broke her neck, resulting in a spinal cord injury which left her paralyzed from the waist down. She was an interpreter traveling abroad, working in the U.S., and her paralysis forced the rest of my family to move from Kazakhstan to New York, where my mother was being treated at Mount Sinai Hospital. I had “officially” remet my mother when I was five after she was hauled into the rec room with a wheelchair. Plopping myself on her bony lap, we introduced ourselves to each other again.
A few years after my mother’s paralysis, my grandmother left to go back to Kazakhstan because she was “sick of this country.” I don’t think she was entirely talking about the U.S., but the exhausting climb back to normalcy that seemed impossible to reach. After years of taking care of her eldest daughter in an unfamiliar country, unable to work and dirt poor, the overwhelming mixture of anxiety and pressure was too much, and it broke her. I cannot blame her. The circumstances would break anyone who was forced to leave her life behind and spoon feed her daughter like she did twenty five years ago.
I was handed a new set of responsibilities after her departure. The last adult familial caretaker was gone, and it meant that I was next in line. I was thirteen years old. It was 2014.
In 2017, my mom ignored a cough that led to pneumonia, and then a hospital bed, where her chances of recovery were less than 10 percent. As I sat at home waiting, I distracted myself by making food to leave for my mom when she came back. The thought of eating for one was too much. The containers of stored food neatly lined up against each other was a conscious mantra that her return home was guaranteed.
The March 2020 lockdown forced me to once again begin opening the kitchen cabinets and discover that there is a backbone to the cupboards. Thanks to the internet, I downloaded dozens of compressed, one-minute videos on how to make tofu-based General Tso or traditional Uzbek plov. Virtual learning was no deterrent to my explorations; I adjusted the woks and skillets to be carefully out of sight from my laptop’s camera as I cooked and idly listened to my teacher’s voice in the background.
Meal time became an intimate routine between my mom and I. The lockdown forced my mother to limit the amount of people coming in and out of our house, including the nurses and home attendants that came to assist her with her basic needs: eating, showering, getting dressed, dressing wounds. As numbers of infected elderly and disabled residents soared in nursing homes, it was clear to my mom and I that we weren’t far behind from getting hit. The restriction of caretakers in the home left me to pick up after day and night shifts, sometimes both. I woke up, made breakfast, fed my mom, fed my dog, cleaned the dishes, and finally sat down at the dinner table, alone. I ate, swatting away thoughts of losing my mom to a virus she couldn’t fight like fruit flies to a rotting apple core.
Fourteen years later after her injury, I have realized that it is time to reintroduce myself to my mother again. I am somewhere far enough away where I can, for what feels like the first time, breathe. When a message from my mom: “can you come home asap” doesn’t result in me pushing and shoving through half of New York to get home on time, all because she wanted me to walk the dog.
The lockdown made me reenvision the world as an opposing force, and my mom and I were a team surviving to beat it.
But I don’t want to keep on surviving. I am tired. So when I open my phone to type the message no, I cannot bear the weight of guilt on me too. I made the choice to leave, despite my mother’s protest to stay. She told me it would have been easier had I stayed and attended college nearby, but our relationship was choking me.
We had struck a bargain. I had taken care of my mother through a deadly year, and in exchange, I could go to college wherever I wanted. That was how she could reciprocate the relationship. To take care of me, she had to let me leave.
The Elegance of Editing with the Penguin Random House workshop inspired me to take on the role of an editor for myself. I began hashing out drafts, letting myself write as much as I wanted to because I learned that I can always go back and cut. Working side by side with my mentor helped hone my thoughts and focus on central ideas and themes I wanted to convey in my essays. Receiving feedback from workshops allowed me to focus on what important thoughts are taken away from readers when they read my essay. The editing workshop encouraged me to focus on word choice more and that helped me polish my essay by getting into the nitty-gritty of sentence structure.
Enlik Tagasheva grew up in The Bronx after immigrating from Kazakhstan when she was five. She studies Written Arts and Russian at Bard College and is a 2021-2022 New York Times College Scholarship recipient. Enlik has previously interned at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, doing social media for their educational programs and continues to work in media at her college. She loves exploring the nature of the Hudson Valley and hanging out with her dog. In the future, she hopes to travel back to Central Asia and document the lives and stories of the people there.