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by Kate Robb, '12

I mentioned to my mom that I was having trouble writing about her.

"I was reading the obituaries the other day, and there were some really good ones. Maybe you should write it like an obituary," she responded, papers shuffling in the background. "That could work. That could be like me."

At the time I did not think to ask how, exactly, an obituary could be like her.

"I can't just write about you being nice, that's not right, it misses something."

"No, I get it." More shuffling.

"But if I write about you being THE bitch, that doesn't work either. People don't get that."

"I'm telling you, obituary. I really think that could work."

My mother enjoys reading the obituaries. She and my dad have a running game with the universe, checking to see how many people they have beaten, how many of their peers they have outlived. They don't compete with kids, or with young adults caught in tragic accidents. They compete with their fellow baby boomers, overweight alcoholics and threepackaday smokers. They comment on longevity, especially when it accompanies a name that betrays its era: "Oh look, Elmer made it to 103. He really hung in there, good ol' Elmer."

My mother is not, as it turns out, particularly tactful in dealing with death. As a physician she has certainly seen her share, and I have reason to believe she is compassionate and caring for the families of the dying. At home, however, she is more or less a disaster. When I moved away after high school, my mother became my source of hometown news. When her daily perusal of the obituaries revealed a familiar name she would call me at college, opening the conversation with, "So, do you remember soandso?" When I said that I did, she promptly cut off my reminiscing with a matteroffact, "Well, he died." Despite multiple impassioned pleas that she change her approach or, preferably, leave the relaying of bad news to my father, a welcome foray into more humane methods (specifically, obituaries hidden at the bottom of giftfilled care packages) was shortlived, and more recent demises have again been prefaced with her standard opening line. The absurdity of her approach has become something of a disturbing running joke, and my brother, dad, and I remain fairly certain that, should one of us meet an untimely death, the other two would receive a phone call, "Hey, do you remember Kate?"

It is not easy to describe my mother. She is strongwilled and outspoken, unapologetically highmaintenance and bordering on obsessivecompulsive. She is intelligent and independent, a perfectionist who seeks out challenges and loves to learn. These traits undoubtedly both contributed to and were reinforced by her decision to pursue a career in medicine in an era when physicians were overwhelmingly male, and despite the current acceptance of female physicians, she remains somewhat defensive, as if she still feels that she has something to prove. She is proud of her ability to accessorize, as demonstrated by her impressive collection of brightcolored jewelry and array of eyeglasses that can coordinate with any outfit. Compliments on said eyeglasses, her youthful appearance, or her latest haircut can make her entire day, a tendency that is oddly endearing in a woman who spends her day interpreting lab results and analyzing heart sounds.

A few days ago, I was headed out the door of my parents' house when my mom found out that one of her patients had delivered a healthy baby boy. My mother no longer delivers babies, but once a baby is born she will gladly assume care of the newborn, and she offered to show me how she does a newborn exam. I am easily convinced to hang out with babies, so I followed her to the hospital.

When I was a kid, I learned fairly rapidly that my mother was not the parent to go to for help with my home work. She was a miserable teacher, impatient and easily distracted. She was annoyed when I didn't understand things that she thought were simple, and her rushed explanations often left me more confused than when she started.

Standing in the exam room on the maternity floor, the mother I remembered from my youth was nowhere to be found. In her place was a woman who talked calmly to a squirming infant while simultaneously describing the components of a neonatal exam. She pointed out normal findings and primitive reflexes, patiently showing me how to examine the back of the throat and palpate the palmsized belly. Where I was awkward and hesitant, she was completely at ease, confidently turning the infant's head and straightening his limbs, hunting for tiny signs that something might be amiss. She taught me how to make a resistant baby open his eyes, and gently encouraged me to push harder on the tiny legs to test the hip joints. She walked me through each step of the exam, warning me about potential abnormalities and offering the wisdom she had acquired over the past 30 years. Here, surrounded by the tools of her trade, she was completely comfortable, a patient, knowledgeable teacher excited to share her skills with me. The woman I had known my entire life was suddenly unfamiliar to me, as fascinating and mysterious as the sixhourold infant clinging instinctively to my finger.