My Mother, My Shadow
Some days, she stayed in bed with a box fan trained on her face, the white noise a roar. Some days, she baked for hours, the kitchen's prisoner. Some days, she asked me to lie with her in the bed she shared with my father. She'd hold my hand and say again and again, "You're my best friend." Her need was thick and humid, a weight on the atmosphere of my life.
So was her mercurial temper. A word could wound or please, enrage or disappoint. Once, when I was 9, she crumpled when I whined that she'd eaten the last waffle, believing I'd called her fat. Once, when I was 6, singing in the back of our weary old minivan, she turned from the passenger seat and bellowed, "Enough," her glare so murderous I couldn't meet it. When I glanced up, her relentless eyes were still fixed on me, laden with disgust.
I practiced invisibility. Once, I limped around with a fractured ankle for an afternoon until someone noticed. I resolved to stop speaking. I vowed to do better, to be better. If I got an A, she was unmoved; had I done my best? If I did my best and got a B, she was unmoved; one must rise to every challenge. What I remember of my mother from those years is what she wanted from me, which was love and excellence, and what I could give her, which was too little of both.
The year I turned 12, I broke. Every night, I'd lie in my bedroom, which overlooked our quiet street, and sob for hours, watching headlights project tree limbs onto the wall. The pain took the form of a voice. You're poison. You deserve nothing good. People who say they love you are lying. I took it at its word. I didn't tell my parents.
Before long, the voice plagued me day and night—spitting its invective, chipping away, framing death as redemption. You shouldn't exist. Do what's right. Rid the world of the burden of you. When I was 17, I started ditching class. My grades circled the drain. I'd go to punk shows to get kicked in the teeth. I'd go to work at a coffee shop before school, and after, to not be home. I told only my boyfriend—I'd marry him six years later—that my mother was imploding. She went online for hours, chatting up phantoms; she barked at my little sister and brother, at my father, at me, if we got close to the screen; she wore headphones in the car to mute our bothersome voices. She no longer slept. She went to the gym daily, for hours. She didn't know where I applied to college. It didn't occur to me to tell her.
I was 400 miles away, at a summer camp for young writers, when she emailed: "You're a great kid, I'll miss you." I was relieved, for a moment, to feel the heft of her hatred lift. And then I understood. I ran, hard, to a pay phone. I still don't know what she did or didn't do. No one told me, and I didn't ask. I just know that when I returned home a month later, she was our ward. We watched her shower, waited outside the outpatient facility while people in her group described driving off cliffs, gassing themselves in their kitchens. We learned words and phrases we didn't know: psychotic break, bipolar disorder, lithium. The state took her driver's license. She took a leave of absence from work. Many things were taken.
I started college, developed a stomach stitch so gutting I couldn't stand erect for nine months. I saw a doctor in week 3 of month 8, just before I quit school. Class required stillness; stillness was intolerable. I drove my tires bald, blew money on clothes, gained 30 pounds, drank like I was being paid to. I crawled back to school, eked by with a C average. I got married.
The autumn I was 29, I found a book on adult children of mothers like my mother, parents like my parent. I shook as I read: "You squelch your anger and your sadness and your fear." "You find it difficult to accept caretaking when it's offered." "You learned early in life that your needs wouldn't be met." "You fear that while you appear responsible and loving, if you really let someone get close, they'll discover the bad you." I shook and shook and I read, and still didn't see what I was, what I needed.
The February I was 32, the sky shed snow in days-long salvos. I got the job done at work, got the dishes done at home, got high daily. I rarely slept. I went to therapy to discuss my failing marriage. I didn't tell my doctor the voice's allegations: You're a net loss. You're a sort of criminal. Your life is a series of monstrous delinquencies. I didn't tell her I routinely dug my fingernails into my palms hard enough to leave bloody crescents.
Therapy clichés exist for a reason, which is to say that all roads lead to childhood. My wise doctor was a Greek chorus: "I feel like I'm parenting my husband," I said. Like you parented her! "I can't count on people." Like you couldn't count on her! "Right, okay," I said, shredding tissues and thinking about That.
I thought about That in images: the knotted belt, the doorknob. Life, narrowed to a pinhole, then gone. I thought about That when friends asked, "How are you?" and I chirped, "Pretty good, you?" I thought about That when I paid bills, watched movies—when I did things the living do. Then one night I counted it off: weepy at 12, stony at 17, bereft at 24, desperate at 29. Now this. The voice hissed, It'll only continue. What choice was left? A rule all writers learn: The right ending is the one that feels inevitable.
The belt, hung from the doorknob, buckled beneath the chin; the forward pitch; the blood-filled eyes, antic pulse; the thorax close to cracking. Seconds were hours. The sounds were inhuman. What a shame, I thought, fading. What waste. Then, unbidden: My sister's velvet cheek. My brother's wiry hands. My doctor, opposite my empty chair. The dear friend, the proxy mother, who loved me, taught me, telling her child what I'd done. And my husband, and my husband, and my husband.
I rose and, when I could breathe, said aloud, "You are very sick." The relief of those words! The rightness, after all had been so wrong. The deservedness of a designation—sick—on which my mother had no monopoly. I confessed what I'd done, what I'd nearly done, to my doctor. She said, "We're not dicking around anymore." Then the journey back: the proper pills, double sessions, a second doctor to complement the first. The voice grew faint, a mutter from another room. Not long ago, my mother turned to me at a stoplight and said, weeping, "I'm sorry for the way I was." She takes her medication. I take mine. We go to our therapists. We go on.
My marriage finally ended, the vows grown obsolete; a different person had made them. But I've promised other things. That I will let people care for me. That I will save the only life I can. That I won't die before I've learned to live.
That day at her office, Mom asked if I wanted to be like her. I jotted down my answer, then passed the note back. "No," I wrote. "I want to be like myself."