Star-Shaped Glial Cells: A Micro Collection

1. The Screws that Held Her Together

We had a routine: Mother showered first while I set up the blow-dryer, laid out clean towels, and her cucumber-melon lotion. Once she was done, I would hop in, using the rest of the hot water while Mother dried her hair, lathered her legs, and brushed her teeth. We slid by one another in our Jack and Jill bathroom with our reflections distorted by steam on mirrors.

Some evenings, I would break the routine and brush her still-wet hair. I’d take a fine tooth-comb and pull the teeth through her dark waves, careful not to nick her scalp or pull too hard where her hair had thinned from the scar tissue of her three brain surgeries.

I’d pause and look at the way her skull was raised. I’d trail my fingers over the bone that had been cut, pausing at the bumps and looking through the few strands of hair at the four screws that held the once removed bone intact. They were hazy and grey and small but felt big to me, dark against her light skin, sticking out between the bumps of bone and thin, blue veins. They were noticeable through the strands of her hair. I knew this. Or I felt this. But I also knew the screws held her together, and a part of me wondered if they hurt, if she could feel them digging into her skull, the heads of the screws piercing the underside of her skin.

I always wondered if they were as noticeable as I felt they were.

2. Brain Plasticity

Once, after my mother had fallen and taken another seizure, her doctor’s demanded CT scans, but upon consultation, the neurologist technician could not read the results. There is so much damage, she said.

It’s from the tumor, my grandmother told her. Tracey’s brain will never regain its normal plasticity or shape.

And the tumor was surgically removed, the technician asked?

No, Grandmother said, her surgeries de-bulked the size of the mass, but it could never be fully removed. It was too close to the middle of her brain.

So where did it go?

Some doctors think it was hormonal: it appeared while she was pregnant and disappeared once the baby was born.

The technician turned toward my mother, but her eyes landed on me. So, she said, this was your fault then?

3. Damp Curls

I never thought Mother would ask to be a mom who did mom things. Never thought she would act as if she were taking care of me. I understand now she was just trying to fulfill her role. I imagine she wanted, for once, to try and care for me in the way I cared for her. A thank you of some sorts.

That evening she asked to dry my hair. She uncoiled the hairdryer and plugged it in, one hand gripping my right shoulder, the other shaking the dryer back and forth. Hot air flooded my neck. I remember wanting to tell her to stop, but she kept running her fingers through my hair, her nails catching the curls at the end, tangling them, and saying “no, still wet.” By the time we were done my shoulder and neck had gone numb. Pink skin and red splotches arched up the side of my throat and down my shoulder blade.

I slid my pajama shirt on and whispered a thank you to her.

“No,” she said, “thank you.”

4. Good as Expected

It was 2018 and the tumor had been gone for twenty-three years, but Grandmother and doctors were always worried, so Mother needed another MRI. A simple test would provide them with answers. After scans and consultations, the MRI came back clear. Mother’s brain was fine. As good as can be expected, her doctor said. But wasn’t Mother’s longitudinal fissure still shifted to the left? And weren’t her optic nerves still crushed? Didn’t her scan come back with extra grey matter and shadows from the topography of the damage from the tumor? I guess “good as expected” was safer than bad.

5. Remembering the Blood

I can’t remember the first time I noticed the blood. Was there a particular moment? Was it when we switched from electric to standard razors?

Grandmother had signed me up for health class in school, and after I told her I wanted a real razor to shave with: the pink ones with three blades and lotion between them. Mother found them somewhere behind the Suave shampoo bottles and began shaving with them as well. She nicked herself behind the knee and at her ankle bones. Blood dripped down her legs and stained the white carpets of our bathroom. Green towels turned rust.

Was it only then that I noticed the blood? Or had she always cut herself, even with the child-safety locks on those old, re-chargeable, purple razors? I cannot remember.

MACEY SIDLASKY graduated with her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of South Florida in 2020. She currently teaches English and Creative Writing at Dr. Kiran C. Patel High School in Tampa, Florida.