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After a lifetime of living with her mother’s mental illness, our writer reckons with the love of a parent who longs to say good-bye.
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Mother’s Day has always been difficult for me. My mother, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, is the only mother I know. There are pieces of her, like faded fabric, scrapped together in my mind from before she had her first nervous breakdown when I was 6, but the colors are dull, washed out. She was vibrant and healthy and happy before I could keep memories.
With her sister, Sira, she was different, I do remember that. We could always tell when our aunt called: Mom laughed. Perfect, tinkling wind chimes caught on a summer breeze. A laugh she shared only with her. Never with us.
Now, as she and I are driving in my car, I am thinking about my mother’s life, what’s left of it. I’ve taken her out for a late lunch because my mother gets nervous around crowds. On the way back to her care facility, I am sitting in peaceful silence while my mother is busy talking to the voices in her head. If I could, I would climb into her bed with her and hold her, stroke her hair, kiss her forehead, while a doctor injected something into her arm that would at last quiet the outside noises, the inside voices, her beating heart.
For Christmas one year, my mother expressed interest in keeping a journal. I was 10. I saved up my allowance and bought her one that had on its cover a woman staring out into the ocean. I found it a few months later. She had written one entry: her obituary. Her chosen year of death was that same year. Every day I feared that I would come home from school to find her bloody and bloated in the bathtub, or slumped over in the kitchen, her face blown off by her own hand. Violence is the only option if you want to die. At 10 years old, I was resigned to cleaning her brains off the cabinet so my dad wouldn’t have to see it when he got home.
My fears weren’t unwarranted: My mother did try to kill herself—three times. Each time, I was thankful she didn’t succeed. This woman, no matter how sick, no matter how unhappy, was still my mother. And I still wanted my mother here, alive, even though she didn’t want to be.
I was selfish.
I still am.
My mother has wanted to die for a very long time. She tells me every time I visit. But we don’t allow that in our culture. We make our parents live and live and live and live even though their bodies are tired, even though their minds are gone, even though to keep them alive is making them live a life no one wants.
Our pets don’t die like that. They die with dignity. We let them go peacefully so that they don’t have to tremble in pain. We hold them, we stroke them. The last thing they see before they close their eyes—heavy with sleep—are our faces. They feel our hands on their bodies. Safe. Warm. Loved. Peaceful.
The heavy argument on what to do with a suicidal loved one who isn’t of sound mind has more than just two sides. There are several, and I have thought about them all, gently proffering the pieces of my heart on the scales to see which side is more compassionate, which side is sympathetic, which side is kindest. If, after decades of different medicines and therapies still fail my mother, and she pleads with us over and over again to let her die, why does my throat grow barbs when I begin to agree that maybe giving her what she wants is the most humane?
My mother can’t think of the words she wants anymore and gets frustrated. Her right eye follows slowly after the left. Her teeth are rotting and chipped. She can’t see but is terrified of the eye doctor. She suffers. She tells me she suffers. I see it.
The voices in her head are calm for now. Friendly. But for how long?
When I picked her up for lunch today, she told me she thought I was in jail. The voices told her.
“I told you the last time I was here that they let me go because they had the wrong girl. Mama didn’t raise no jail bird!” I laugh it off so she knows it’s not a big deal. That everything is fine. To argue with her: “No, that never happened! I’ve told you!” makes her world scary.
In the car, after lunch, I think how different life will be for my children. I don’t know what my mother was like at my age, as a woman in college, as a teenager. I can’t imagine her getting ready with her girlfriends for a night out on the town. I can’t imagine her in pigtails and flannel about to hike a mountain.
Now we all have pictures like that of us. Videos of us doing silly things. Our children will have pieces of us we don’t have of our own parents. They will see the connection, see the vitality, see our youth.
There are so many things I wish I could have seen about my mother. Instead, all I’ve seen is a very tired woman, ready to be done with the world.
And so: Mother’s Day.
The best gift I could ever give my mother is a final good-bye. I’d bring balloons and flowers and cake. I’d say, “This is it, Mom! The day you’ve been waiting for!” I’d give her a cup filled with whipped cream and a spoon and let her go to town cause it’s her favorite. Then I’d climb into bed with her, and hold her, kiss her forehead, take her small hands into my much larger ones. I’d squeeze three times, and feel her squeeze me back. A doctor would take the needle out of her arm and let us have our final moment together.
“Is this really it?” She’d ask me.
“Yes. It really is.”
And she’d smile and close her leaden eyes. “Thank you,” she’d sigh. I would place her hand over my heart, so she could feel that although it’s breaking inside me, she knows I am doing the best I can to be strong. She knows the heart connection between us, she’s felt my heart, heard my heart inside her own body. She gave me life, and I, in return, am giving her death. I would let my tears fall. Then, slowly, the voices in her head would stop chattering. Everything is perfect. The only voice she hears is mine: “I love you.” And she would let out one last breath and be still. Finally, finally, at peace.
But I can’t give her that.
I can give her orchids; I can take her out for pancakes. I can make jokes and pretend that the gibberish she’s saying makes sense so she’s not frightened of how easily her mind betrays her. I can hold her hand when we walk slowly to my car. I can make sure the air conditioning or the heating is just right. I can make sure she knows I’m here.
And I can hope, with every single cell that makes me, I can pray to all the gods in the heavens, I can wish on every star and dandelion and eyelash, that she will die, and that it will be soon. That everything will be nothing. And instead of worrying about how much pain she is in, I will feel her on the wind, see her in the stars, and hear her tinkling wind chime laugh over and over again in my dreams.
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