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My mother sleeps. For as long as she lives with us, in her parent's house, she sleeps whenever she can. She sleeps very late every day, as much as six or seven hours past the time when I get up for breakfast. I stand beside her bed as she sleeps.

Wake up. Wake up. I think the thought so loudly inside my head that it seems as if she will have to rise, she can't remain insensible to my imploring her—my wanting her—as fervently as I do. I never understand that she has fled into sleep, that she seeks comfort in sleep, that sleep is where she hides. I know only that I can't bear to let her do it.

Her eyes closed and hidden behind her satin sleep mask, her face as flat and white as the mask is flat and black: this terrifies me. Sleep makes my mother's face itself into a mask, one mask under another. She draws each breath so shallowly it seems as if she must be dying, that she might never wake.

I go into her bathroom and run the water from the taps. I flush the toilet, pick up her hairbrush and set it down hard on the counter, drop a shoe, close a door. I make any noise I can that might rouse my mother but that can't be judged as a direct and purposeful assault on the fortress of her sleeping. Because for as long as my mother refuses consciousness, she refuses consciousness of me: I do not exist. As I stand watching her sleep I feel the world open behind me like a chasm. I know I can't step even an inch back from her bed without plummeting.

If I dare, I reach forward and gently touch the smooth sheen of her black mask. It looks illicit, almost perverse, bordered by a narrow ruffle of black lace, the kind I already associate with the underwear she puts on before a date. Outside, I hear birds, awake as I have been for hours; their calls sound shrill and pitiless.

If I wake her, she doesn't talk to me. She talks around her room as if enraged, a wild and astonished look on her face. I make myself small; I back into the corner by the door, and often she doesn't seem to know I'm there. She takes a cigarette from the pack left on her writing desk, and then she stands before the French doors that lead from her bedroom to the garden. As she smokes, she stares out, her back toward me, and the light comes through the glass and outlines her body under the thin white gown. Smoke rises from her mouth, her hand. It rises slowly, dizzily, swaying back and forth like a snake charmer's flute.

Her eyes, when they turn at last toward me, are like two empty mirrors. I can't find myself in them.

FROM: Shattering the Secrecy of Incest: Mackenzie Phillips' Follow-Up
Published on October 15, 2009

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