Authors: Kate Axelrod
AFTER the pain and shock had subsided, I still felt a little shaken up, emotional, really, and the first person I wanted to callâas I usually did in situations like thisâwas my mother. And then I'd felt shitty about not having told my parents I was going away to begin with, and hoped that they wouldn't be angry. (
, Daniel had said.
You don't have to call your parents every time you make a move.
) I wondered if I shouldn't even call, but I always felt anchored by my parents in circumstances like this, soothed by the idea that they would do whatever they could to ease my anxiety. My mother was always so composed, so calm in situations that made me panic.
I called home and choked up just at the sound of her voice. (Why did this always happen? Why did I always regress to a five-year-old when I was in touch with my parents and even the tiniest bit distressed?)
“Oh sweetie pie, what is it? Is everything okay?”
“Yes, yes, I'm fine, sorry. I'm totally fine.” I wiped my nose with the back of my hand. “Daniel and I just got into a little accident. I'm okay, but I just feel kind of shaken up and wanted to call you.”
I remembered this moment at the diner with Daniel, as he cut through a stack of pancakes, and I wondered if I would ever again be able to rely on my mother. For anything at all.
MY father was on his winter break from school too, and so for the next eight days, we were both free to roam the open spaces of that strange, dark time. Free to indulge, to pick and dissect, to really embrace all that darkness. I wished so much that things had been different, that instead, we could both be overwhelmed with a thousand different things, constantly coming and going, running into each other briefly at the hospital, trading duties, exchanging information about my mother, her moods, her medication. I'd say,
h they upped her Seroquel five milligrams today
and he'd tell me that she seemed more like herself, even asked for the Arts and Leisure section of the
. But the reality was a little different. He was home a lotâspending a lot of time reading, sitting at the computer, engaged in something, though I wasn't sure what.
We had never spent this much time in the same place without my mother. Once, when I was in third grade, she went to visit her friend Andrea, who was living in San Francisco at the time. They had grown up together, and Andrea was the only person my mother still kept in touch with from elementary school. It was only a long weekendâthree or four days at the most that she was goneâbut I remember those days clearly, how much I missed my mother, how I could never quite loosen up in the presence of my father, and how, unless I was thoroughly distracted, I'd be on the brink of tears, and could have cried at any moment. My father had planned a lot of activities for us that weekend, mostly arts and crafts related; we built igloos out of sugar cubes and melted broken crayons together to make rainbows to draw with. But my mother had left me notes around the house, index cards cut in half where she'd written that she loved me and that she'd be home soon. They were tucked beneath my pillow or beside the breadbox in the kitchen. She traced her hand on a piece of purple construction paper and told me,
Whenever you miss me, you just hold on to my hand, okay, sweetheart?
Each time I was reminded of her, could feel the faint presence of her in the house, I would feel awash in longing again, overcome with despair.
And now, being alone with my father, I was just as uneasy, but this time it felt different, as though it was some conscious decision on our part, as if we'd chosen to team up against her, chosen to leave her stranded in that strange, cold hospital.
THE next morning, the sky was a pale open stretch of gray, the kind of day where it seemed like maybe it wouldn't ever rain. Before we left for the hospital, my father asked me to help him pack a suitcase for my mother. He sounded annoyed. “We should have done this days ago,” he said, and he lifted a black rectangular suitcase from the top shelf of the closet.
“How long are we packing for?” I asked.
“I don't know, really. A few days?”
He grabbed some bras and underwear from my mother's dresserâone of those old, cherry wood sets of drawers, with antique brass handles. Something about watching my father, his callused hands fumbling around with those delicate bras, felt so uncomfortable. A small peek into a life that I didn't want to see.
“A pair of jeans?” I said. “And a sweater or two. That gray turtleneck, and the purple cardigan she always wears.”
We packed more: a pair of Reeboks (in a plastic bag so that the soles wouldn't dirty the rest of her clothing), a couple of booksâa new Anne Tyler novel and
Best American Short Stories
âa little jar of face cream that she applied dutifully every morning, one set of flannel pajamas from the Gap.
When we got to the hospital, a security guard stood beside the elevator on the psych floor. She had a long ponytail that trailed down the center of her back, rested just below her waist.
“Come over to this table,” she said.
My father set the suitcase down as she requested.
“Well, firstly,” she said, “you know you can't just come in here with a suitcase. We'll open it up and go through each item one by one.” She unzipped the bag and opened the flap. “And no plastic bags, either.” She took the sneakers out of the bag and set them on the table. I stared at her nails as she sorted through my mother's thingsâthey were painted a bright, glossy red, except for her two ring fingers, which were forest green and decorated with tiny dots of silver and gold.
“Little trees,” she said, catching my look. “Just trying to stay festive in this damn place.”
“They're cute,” I told her.
“Look, sweetheart,” she began, and it seemed she was talking to both me and my father, “you guys can carry these things in yourself or you can get a paper bag downstairs. And you can bring the sneakers but I have to take the shoelaces out. And no hardcover books either. And not this lotion, sorry about that. No glass.” She was matter-of-fact, methodical, as she set the contents of the bag on the table beside her, separating them into two different categories.
“These are fine,” she said, gesturing at the pile of clothes and one hefty paperback.
Inside, the hall was actually decorated warmlyâdoorways were strung with red and green beads, tinsel was draped over the long oval desk at the nurses' station, and one of those plug-in plastic menorahs ornamented a waiting area. That year Hanukkah fell early and was over by the second week in December, but the menorah was still there, the elongated orange bulbs lit up dully. All of a sudden I felt so grateful that we didn't actually celebrate Christmas. I imagined how much more depressed we'd all feel that day if we were missing out on some sweet family tradition. Daniel's father was Protestant, and though Daniel had a bar mitzvah and went to Hebrew school for nearly a decade, his enthusiasm for Christmas was palpable. He'd spent the last month at school ordering presents online, compulsively checking eBay, bidding on rare books for his father or signed copies of his sister's favorite albums. I rarely saw even the slightest hint of sentimentality in him, but there were a handful of traditions for which he felt a lot of affection. That night his family was throwing their annual Christmas Eve cocktail party, and Daniel told me they'd hired a caterer and a string quartet to accompany their carols. It all sounded so nice, but I just didn't know if I'd be able to go, be able to stomach all that festivity.
WHILE my father was talking to the doctor, I walked into the common area and saw my mother in there by herself, pacing the room's short length. Her feet were padded in thick, gray woolen socks, and I worried she was going to slip on the linoleum floor; something about her gait was a little off. She looked different than she had a couple of days before. More alert, less dazed, her hair combed, the buttons on her sweater properly aligned. I wondered if they'd given her some sedatives the other day that had now worn off.
As soon as she saw me, she said, “You have to get me out of here. I mean, this is ridiculous. You know I don't belong with these people. I was just trying to protect you, protect us, our family. This is crazy!”
“Please, Emma! Don't do this to me. Please, please, I'm begging you. I'm asking you very seriously. I'm asking you nicely. I can't, there's just no possible way that I can stay here.”
I thought of Visiting Day the first summer that I went to sleepaway camp, almost a decade earlier. I had been so desperately homesick and remembered begging my parents in a calm, tempered way. Like if they only understood how absolutely impossible it was for me to stay there another month, they would then have no choice but to bring me home with them.
I had never seen my mother like this. And in denying her what she so desperately wanted, I felt as if I were being forced to do the cruelest thing any daughter had ever done. I felt like I couldn't breathe, like I was choking, or worseâthat I was choking
“This is too much,” I said.
“I know,” she whispered. “But please, Emma. I know that you understand me. We've always understood each other in a way that other people don't. Daddy loves me, I know he does, and he's a wonderful father, but it isn't the same, he doesn't understand. I know that you can help me, please.” There was an urgency in her voice, but it was slightly dulled, a muted version of how she'd been in the house that day, frenzied and a little wild, ripping strips of silver duct tape with her teeth.
I swallowed, clenched my teeth so that I wouldn't cry. “I can't. I don't know what you want me to do. I just don't have any choice in the matter.”
“But you do, sweetheart. Just explain to Dad that I don't need to be here. Please. I'm begging you.” She brushed my hair out of my face. We hadn't touched in days and her fingers were freezing. I didn't mean to, but I flinched just the slightest bit when I felt her fingertips skimming across my forehead.
“And if you're not going to help me,” she said, and her voice was so icy, “you'll have to leave.”
I got up and left, didn't even try to argue with her.
LATER, my parents were in a conference room, meeting with a couple of doctors and the social worker. I sat cross-legged on a bench in the hallway, and even though the peach-colored blinds were pulled down, I could see my mother through the slits of plastic. I started to wonder if there was any way that she wasn't delusionalâcould she possibly have been right about poison seeping into our home? It was unlikely, yes, but it was still plausible. There were crazy, malicious people,
, living in this world, and maybe my mother was on to them. But immediately, I wondered if my willingness to believe her was proof that I was headed toward that same kind of psychotic thinking. Could I somehow be persuaded into madness?