“Babe, I want to get my nose pierced like the Indians! You have to do it with me,” my 65-year-old mom announced with excitement. We were strolling down the street in Delhi, India, sipping lattes when she dropped the bombshell. It was a bright and warm afternoon. The smog was absent, which made me long for my home in California. I shot my mother an “Are you serious?” look as her blond ponytail swung with hope.
We had arrived in India a few weeks earlier with vaccine records and visas. We were there for something I couldn’t find at home: a cure. For seven years, my body had been falling apart from late-stage, chronic Lyme disease. My heart raced constantly, I had lesions on my brain, and my body seethed in pain from head to toe. I was almost more afraid of living than of dying. The best doctors in the United States had admitted defeat. I was 28, and no one could help me.
In a tiny hospital on the outskirts of Delhi, a female Indian doctor offered an experimental stem cell treatment to incurable patients. My Internet research returned contradicting results, such as “medical maverick” and “seller of snake oil.” My specialist at home warned that the treatment could kill me. When I told my parents that I wanted to go to anyway, they said, “If you’re going, we’re going, too.” It would become the epic family vacation we never asked for – my parents leaving the country for the first time, and struggling through the ups and downs of my dad’s depression without the comforts of home.
“Come on, I came all the way to India for you. You owe me this nose ring,” Mom joked – or maybe she was serious.
“Let’s do it,” I said. The trip was my last-ditch lifesaving effort and the biggest risk – financially and otherwise – of our family’s life. I did owe her.
We spotted a jewelry shop on the corner. Miming to the Hindi-speaking shopkeeper, we explained what we came for. He clapped, and a barefoot teenager appeared from the back room with a pair of rusty pliers, a small container of jewelry, a blue pen and rubbing alcohol. I felt the weight of this irresponsible decision slam into my stomach. I couldn’t even handle a cold, let alone an infection from a botched pierce job. At least I’m already on antibiotics for Lyme disease, I justified.
In some Hindu communities, a left-sided nose piercing was a way to honor Parvati, the goddess of marriage. After a decade of debilitating illness, marriage was not on my priority list. But before I could reply, Mom was already bejeweled on the left, “just like the Indians.” Within minutes, so was I. “What do you think Dad will say?” she asked. “He’ll love it,” I assured her, because even after 30 years of marriage, he always loved everything she did. We walked out, high on our teenage-like impulse buy. My nose stung, but it suddenly seemed such a small gift for the woman who had lifted me up, pushed me through and traveled with me to a foreign land hoping for a miracle.
When we got back to show my dad, his eyes lighted up.
Two years later, I was back in my old hospital, as not a patient but a visitor. I was finally healthy. That’s where I met Charlotte, who was there from London, also visiting. Charlotte and I spent time riding through the dusty city in rickshaws taking in the sights – cows in the street, monkeys on the roofs and motorbikes stacked with families of four. On our last evening together before I went home, Charlotte and I sat on the steps outside the hospital. I hated to leave. I didn’t know if I’d ever see her again. I was not sure how I would live without Charlotte. How had I become so intrigued by someone in such a short period of time? I wanted to never stop seeing her.
I had only been in relationships with men before and never even thought about being with a woman, but it was clear: I was in love with Charlotte. Finally, brave enough to tell her while we were in different countries, we made a plan to meet in Boston for our first rendezvous as a couple, confirming what we already knew from afar. From there, with a nervous fluttering heart, I told my mom. “I’m in love … with Charlotte,” I said, and waited, holding my breath. “Maybe it was the piercing,” she suggested.
Charlotte and I spent the next year and a half traveling thousands of miles to be with each other. When I asked her to marry me, she said yes! The henna was ordered, my dad was set to officiate the service, and we wrote our own vows. I promised to never to stop surprising Charlotte if she promised never to lose her British accent.
By the time Mom walked me down the aisle at our wedding, she was newly widowed. I was without my dad, whom I always dreamed would be there to give me away. I had just found my spouse, and my mom had just lost hers. Still, our sparkling, matching left-sided nose rings glistened as bright as the day we got them. I can’t say if my love story had anything to do with the Hindu goddess of marriage, but I do know that there would be no happy ending without my mother by my side through it all. Now, it was my turn to stick by hers.
– – – Scher is the author of “This Is How I Save My Life: From California to India, A True Story Of Finding Everything When You Are Willing To Try Anything and the forthcoming book, “How To Heal Yourself From Anxiety When No One Else Can.”