When my mom came to visit me in Boston, along with her clothes, her suitcase was heavy with books and a flashlight and a fossil I found while we were camping in the Ozarks. She used to tell me the story about how I found it – how I was three, in a sling on her back while we checked the gravely shore of a creek and that I was the one who pointed out the ancient ammonite. She likes that story. I can tell, because she has always finished it with the fact that “we were just about to turn back!” My sister later tells me that she was up every night for weeks before visiting me, searching the apartment for things to bring me in my new life. Such a strange assortment of things didn’t strike me as odd until later.
My mom gave birth to both my sister and I, at home, before her 23rd birthday, and has loved us generously ever since. Her love for us has always been vulnerable and messy and fierce and felt. I know also that she has consistently done her best to navigate the rough terrain of raising two girls by herself. The older I get, the more I understand this fact – that parents do their best with what they know and what they were given. Every year that we gain on the messiest ones, I understand that the arguments between fourteen years olds and their mothers are just hard lessons in love.
Even when we lived with my dad it always felt like us three – my sister, my mom and I. Us three driving to the library on a Sunday afternoon, us three at soccer practice, us three listening to the Canadian radio station that would sometimes come across the border into Bellingham, us three at the beach, at the park, at the second hand store. When my parents split up, to keep things amicable and easy, my mom first moved us twenty minutes away to a yellow house abutting the owners who had goats and chickens and a trampoline. It was the house where I had my first period (that she has always called my “moon,” subsequently making my sister and I cringe with embarrassment!) and when I told her, she did the silliest little dance in the kitchen. All that normalcy, all that level-headed parenting makes our current state feel so surreal.
During recent therapy appointments I always find myself repeating to the therapist the fact that my mom was a Girl Scout Leader and a Kindergarten Teacher, as if these facts bring her unwaveringly into my current life – a level of mom anyone could understand. I want them to know so desperately that she existed happily in the world of childhood with us, spent her days immersed in it. She was there on field trips and camping trips and basketball games. There are other details about her that I have been hanging onto as tokens against the reality of her new situation. The fact that she listened to Car Talk on Saturday mornings while she cleaned the house, how she secretly wrote poetry and loved to dance, that she never questioned a daughter who loved skateboarding and Star Wars and Legos. She sometimes baked bread that took all day, played Emmylou Harris on her guitar, always had in her room prayer beads and a Buddha, knew about plants and found God in nature. Every single one of my friends loved her. A Cool Mom. To me, all of these details make her condition so hard to comprehend.
Two years ago, she called me in the middle of the night and begged me to go outside, to leave my apartment, that she was rescuing me. I listened hard for the woman who raised me, in between this odd, new voice that was thinner and less convincing. I responded rationally until I realized I wasn’t really talking to that same woman. I paced back and forth, my body shaking with an uncomfortable new agitation I had never felt before. I knew she had changed in the past few years, was aware of, and had experienced, her recent alcoholism, but I hadn’t really understood what had really been going on up until that night. She had sent the S.W.A.T team to my new apartment, told them a wild story about my boyfriend kidnapping me. There they were in my hallway. We had to rush to open the door and stand in front of them in our pajamas. I thought the episode was the result of losing sleep or had some connection to her recent depression or heavy drinking. In the years before this call she would anger quickly and spent late nights drinking and smoking on the back porch. I had a small room near the kitchen and remember the quiet whoosh of the back door closing behind her as she snuck out to buy more beer. Later, I would learn about her diagnosis of schizophrenia. I still don’t know what to believe. I have spent countless hours trying to piece things together in a way that seems rational. How did she go from the mother I knew to the woman on the phone? I have examined everything for signs and symptoms, combing her life for clues.
When I was seven, I saw my mom fall on her bike – a vintage yellow Schwinn. I had been following behind her up a hill. I can remember that I was so angry at her although I can’t recall the reason. She cried when she fell and, because I had been so upset with her a moment before, my heart felt like it burst into a million pieces. She was so vulnerable and human and I was shocked that I could ever have been angry with her about anything. After learning about her potential diagnosis, I have felt this feeling over and over and over.
She is the only person that fully understands my humor, our humor. All the goofy faces and details of it. It is lonely not to be able to laugh at the same dumb things with someone, not to have someone to talk to who made you and then watched you grow for surely they know you more completely than anyone outside of yourself. We haven’t spoken in over a year. I moved away two years ago and there are so many instances when I desperately want to call her to tell her the most menial things. She has remained unreachable, hasn’t sent any letters or texts back to me nor called on my birthday or any other day. The last few conversations we had were from the psych ward. She told me heartbreaking things about the food being good and the fact that they had Maeve Binchy books – an author whose cozy tales about Ireland we both used to check out at the library. The last I heard she is living with a man I have never met and has slowly gone from beer to vodka, but really it’s the diagnosis I am most afraid of. I am convinced she won’t call me because she believes she is protecting me from her. This is how she is. A grizzly bear mama protecting me from everything she can, even herself. Recently, in an terrifying demonstration of how far she feels from me, as I was texting my sister, I wrote out her full name and then stopped to stare at it. Was that right? Did I spell her name correctly? Does this name belong to someone I know? How can the familiarity of her existence have been punctured so easily by alcohol and something else I have such little knowledge of?
The sadness of her present sits heavy on my chest like an ugly gargoal only I can see. Sometimes I can feel it grooved into my ribs or taut against my stomach. It is a patient and determined feeling that demands my attention at the strangest times. One moment I will be working and suddenly remember a small thing, how she placed a mint on my grandmas pillow before she came to visit, and my body feels like it is weightless with worry and will float right up into the clouds. For my entire life, my absolute worst fear was and is losing my mom. It feels like an impossible, impossible thing that might cave my being in on itself. I was afraid to think about this when I was a child. I wonder many times if I’ve told her this enough or if I can ever tell her this again where she will understand. It is a strange oblivion to feel that I have lost her while she is still here. The first time I felt this, I doubled over on the hardwood of our apartment, the terror an intense blooming up from my knees.
Recently, I attended my second Al Anon meeting to try to find some comfort in the mutual experiences and particular limbo of alcoholism as I am convinced it is a major factor in her situation. Right after I said my name and everyone chorused back the friendliest “Hi!” you will ever hear, my voice shook in a way that teaches you the meaning of the phrase – that the shaking comes from your heart beating fast and loud. Your voice shakes over the thump, thump, thump that makes it sound like you are having a hard time breathing. I ended my story by doing something I thought to be the pinnacle of embarrassment, by crying in front of twenty strangers. It was awful and then it felt really, really grand. Afterwards, I walked home lighter. I could finally start to picture my mom coming back. “Of course” I told myself as I walked to the train. How can it be any other way? This is the way forward from now on. I think that the confusion, disbelief, and acceptance will keep coming in spirals. Right now it feels like ten suitcases of meticulously packed emotional baggage sits in the middle of the apartment. I have no interest in examining it and want to walk past it everyday, but I have to unpack or those suitcase get heavier and heavier.
My boyfriend, Ben and I, talk about our own someday-babies. We are at a point where we talk about it often. I always thought my mom would be there to shine her fierce love on them. It was a given. She is so mad about babies. She once told me “when you have children I will be at your house so much that Ben will have kick me out!” There are moments when I am so utterly afraid that she won’t ever come back and that, if I ever become pregnant she will hear from someone else instead of being the first person I call. I know she would have the best mom advice and there are things she’s already told me for the future like “nap when the baby naps!” Despite all this, I am consciously creating a life that she will be proud of and can fall into comfortably if she will. For now, I keep the fossil on my shelf and the flashlight under the sink for emergencies. I’ll keep going, waiting for our lives to run parallel again.
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