The drive was five hours from the beach house to the hospital. Five hours away from Sophie. I remembered her curly hair, her lightly tanned skin, and that tiny little Gap bathing suit as she ran down the boardwalk not even aware that I was leaving for the day. She was chasing her cousins and my brother who was already down at the shore.
I was in another place. Everyone else was in the ‘real world’, a pretty summer day, cool refreshing beach water, already a bowl of watermelon on the table. But, I was not there. I was in the morning with the atmosphere of dysfunction that I had grown up with. It was a seriousness that stopped the activities of real life. It was the same as a real emergency but it was imagined. All through my childhood my siblings and I trekked back and forth between real emergency and imagined crisis. All the while watching the landscape of normal lives right there, but passing us by. Maybe that is what it is like to have a mentally ill mother: trips to the emergency room, suicide attempts, police visits, imagined dangers, affairs, break-ups, pretend run-aways, sharp objects on flesh. And, what does this all mean? Does my PTSD make me, too, a ‘mentally ill’ mother. But, I do not — or I think I do not — do harmful things. Was my choice to drive to North Carolina that day a choice that came from my mental illness or was it just an impossible situation; was it the internalized obligation of seeing my dying mother? A prisoner. That was how I felt that morning with the southern heat starting up, the ocean-with that horrible undertow-crashing rhythmically outside of the glass doors. The kids laughing and pulling on bathing suits. I remember I was so angry. I was furious with my sister and brother — for not wanting to talk about it. My brother’s perspective was that he had been dealing with it in real life and wanted a break. He had every right. He was the one who took the daily calls from her, kept secret his knowledge of my and my sister’s private lives, visited the hospital, listened to her fabrications and pleas for attention. He tolerated her verbal abuse and narcissism.
The rental car felt flimsy. Once I pulled out of the drive way, memories of other southern experiences returned: the long dirt drive way of my grandmother’s house, the crackle of dry pebbles and dirt as the car pulled out of the dusty drive. The humidity that moistens your skin, I turned the air conditioning on immediately and tuned the radio to an oldies station. I kept driving to the end of the beach town where there was a WalMart and a starbucks. Before getting on interstate 74, I stopped at Starbucks. I ordered a large coffee, a snack and an ice water. I saw a little cup that looked like a bumble bee and I picked it up for Sophie. There was some coincidence between the cashier and me, she had grown up in the same town as my mother. There was more to it, but I don’t remember. I explained to her that I was driving to Winston-Salem. She said “you better have lots of music for I-74 that is a long empty road.” It was: nearly five hours with nothing but pine trees. Nothing but road and occasional cars passing quickly. I thought about what I would do if my car broke down. I thought of my mother’s fear of murderers and all the horrific scenes she had described for me growing up. If it were to happen, it would happen that day, for I was in the world of fiction — -close to her psychosis. Reality was far back at the beach house, kids needing band-aids, and lemonade. Adults tanning and gossiping or sharing legitimate concerns. That was gone, that was my life. Eric Clapton came on the radio, and it felt spiritual. My dad had loved Eric Clapton. And, it was my father’s favorite song, “you look wonderful tonight.” I felt his presence. I felt him beside me in the passenger’s seat. And, I cried because with all of his flaws, I missed him. I missed the power he had to protect me.
The Illusionary Nature of Rational Reality
Always around her was a cyclone of damage and recklessness. When I drove to see her at the Wake Forest hospital in Winston-Salem, I was in an altered state. I summoned the spirit of my father somehow. I remember him / his ghost, beside me in the passenger’s seat. Right where I used to sit beside him as he drove around New Bedford and talked to me about the things he thought were important. I remember his spirit beside me in the car. I knew he was there by the songs on the radio one after another, songs that were “him.” Mostly Eric Clapton or the Beatles. I didn’t count but they must have played over thirty of my dad’s songs on the way to the hospital. My heart was frozen and my senses held vigilant for so long as I drove the empty N.C. highway from the coast to the middle of north Carolina. I thought of all the horrible things my mother had told me would happen to me (she always chose me, in particular, to frighten, as if I was cursed and fated to be one of those mutilated bodies they find on the side of the road).
“A girl was killed out necking with her boyfriend. That bullet was meant for you…” I tried not to turn my thoughts into that terror stricken panic with images of the woods, with images of what the killers would do to me. I feared my car would break down — which I can see now, as one of my old psychoanalytic therapists would call a “wish” not a fear. A wish is more accurate. If my car had broken down, instead of being murdered by a fate my mother would have foretold, I would have just called Ben or my siblings, someone would have come, picked me up and the horror movie script in my mind would have stopped. As we got back on the road,someone would ask if I wanted to stop at Starbucks and I would get a double latte and then we’d start cracking jokes about mom, or rednecks, or who knows what. It would be over. I would have “tried” to see her. and that failed attempt would have absolved me. Oh well, I tried. that would be good enough. But, the car kept going, moving towards her. My mind stayed in that horror script. Why didn’t I know then that I really did have a choice. I owed her nothing. Someone does what my mother did, loses all rights to a relationship with their child. Why had I never learned that — the very moment someone is mean to you — the relationship changes. Why did I always feel I owed respect to those who did not give it to me? There are millions of reasons but the thing I was thinking about was that I was broken, something was messed up inside of me; with all my defenses stripped away, I am hollow, my self is either hollow or it is full to the brim with other people’s projections. No. It was hollow. I didn’t know myself or how to be genuinely true to myself.
It took seven hours. It was still light out and sweltering when I opened the car door in the parking garage at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital. I had parked in the wrong place, in the wrong building complex so I had to walk through raised walkways to get to the building where she was. I’d always felt foreign in the south. The casual nature of things. the way the nurses at the station, both overweight, sat back in their chairs “can we help ya?” — it was my mother’s floor. I had passed many doors with hazard symbols or other little icons warning either about what was taking place inside (radiation) or what was inside the patient and required precautions (chemotherapy.) I felt like I was merely a thin membrane. Not much inside of me, not even a liquid that could grow cold or warm. I moved and I felt stunned, walking in a kind of hyper-experience but with a numbness.
“I am here looking for my mother’s room,” I hated saying “mother” I felt she wasn’t that — but there was nothing else to say.
“Who’s your mother, honey?”
“She is just a couple doors down on the other side. Do you see that door with the cart in front?”
I nodded. I was five years old.
“you have to wear covering so that she doesn’t catch any of germs from the outside. She just had a chemo treatment.”
“Yes ma’am there is a cart with gloves, and a mask, and a paper dress to put on.”
It was bizarre. It was so bizarre. After twenty years without seeing her I was going to walk into my mother’s room, my dying mother’s room, completely covered head to toe in white fabric and a mask? I always hated the irony and nearly supernatural conditions that always surrounded my mother. Yes, she was psychotic, but there was always a little window into another realm of psychology or reality. And it wasn’t just in her mind, some of it was the opening that psychotic people have to the illusionary nature of rational reality.
This has to be brief. Flashes, instants. It has to be brief in my mind because of its enormity, because of its whole. The vastness and incomprehensibility of psychosis. Of Madness of two. At first I don’t follow her logic, mostly I couldn’t during that visit. At first I was protected, covered in a white hospital gown, a mask. The mask, thank God for it and the warm air I felt against my face as I spoke to her, and the cap. Cover me up more, I think, protect me. The hospital door closes smoothly behind me. It is almost silent and it seals the room. Her face is a prune. It sinks in more around her mouth because she hasn’t put her false teeth in. I wonder why.
She answers my thoughts. “Those God damned things are too big. They never fit right. They clack the whole time I’m talking.” The laugh. who is she? “how are you, baby?”
The room, the air is full of germs I think, not leukemia germs, but other things, things I can catch. Things that will kill me. I am afraid to touch the bed rail, why didn’t they give me gloves? I am afraid she will kill me. She has put some bacteria somewhere. I feel cold all over.
“What’s that baby?” She asks.
It is a little album 5×7 that Ben put together. All pictures of Sophie from when she was born till now. four years of Sophie. Four years without my mother knowing she had a granddaughter. It is a tape measures, stretching out, measuring all the time I have kept Sophie from her.
“Why so long since we’ve spoken baby?”
I don’t want to give her the book. I am afraid for Sophie. I am afraid I have cursed Sophie somehow. Her nicotine yellowed fingers turning the pages, on that pure, innocent baby flesh. They are just pictures I remind myself. She can’t hurt her.
“oh isn’t my grand baby precious.” she stops and looks at me for a long moment. She isn’t smiling. She is grimacing. “did you breast feed?”
I nod. I tell myself to remain. Don’t slip into her psychosis. “Yes,” I say.
She looks back down at the picture. “You were the only child I breastfed.” she says wistfully. That is a lie. I know it is a lie. I have my baby records. I saw the formula instructions.
“Really?” I ask. She knows i know she is lying. I want the book back. I want Sophie back. She is mine. The next page Sophie looks so happy. Big bouncy curls, covered in paint head to toe. She is smiling. I want Sophie back.
“Does she mind you?”
“Yes.” I say. This whole conversation is artifice. She is trying to trick me. but, for at least a few moments, I remain in my own consciousness.
“I have to take a shit.” she says. She closes the book.
“Do you want me to call the nurse.” I say.
“No.” she says. “you worked with me in a nursing home. You can help me.”
“I should call the nurse.”
“Help me up for Christ sake.” I help her stand, the commode is right there. She pulls up her nightgown and sits. She strains as she makes a bowel movement.
I turn to move to the other side of the room.
“what are you doing? Do you want me to fall on my ass? Stand here and hold it steady.”
The rental car felt even flimsier when I got back into it after visiting my mother. It was an oven. The hot air roaring out of the car as I opened the drivers side door. It was 5:40. I had only spent 40 minutes with my mother. It felt like an instant. I was injured and as I got into the car and pulled the door shut and remained in the heat. I wondered. What would happen if I stayed here? Just stayed in this hot car. In a way the heat made me feel the suffocation that had taken place.
I started the car and looked out into the southern landscape. Flat and the colors looked dull from the humidity in the air. There must have been a haze over head, keeping the sun from pulling the colors out, making them bright. Instead, it was hot flat and pastel.
The steering wheel seemed large. I felt like I had in dreams where although I was moving it from side to side, it was out of control, flimsy and not connected to the car. Somehow there was no way to steer and the wheel was just a loose disconnected remnant of the mechanics of what controlled the car. I felt scared and unsure of even how to drive. I looked down at the stick, I knew to put the car into reverse to back out, but backing out was foreign and unfamiliar. I tried to turn the wheel and the car turned slightly. When I put it into drive I was sluggishly moving out of the parking space. All I saw was unfamiliar terrain: pine trees, little houses as I drove the access road along the highway. The highway itself looked like a river with white caps. I had no idea how I would navigate the semis whizzing past. Or the little cars that were speeding across lanes. I moved slowly on the access road and feared its end which I could see was down near a waffle house where there was a turn around and an entrance to the highway.
I pulled into the waffle house parking lot. I didn’t know how to drive any more. I looked at my phone. I knew I could call my sister and brother and Ben, but I was 5 hours away. That was too much of a drive for the kids.
I had the image of climbing up a mountain and not being able to get myself down.
I couldn’t drive.
I sat for twenty minutes watching the freeway from the parking lot, wondering when I would be able to do it. When I would muster the courage.
Finally, as dusk approached, I ventured on to the highway. I realized instantly, when I saw the signs on the curved entrance that I had entered the wrong way. Again, it was like a dream. Was it true? Why were all the signs facing the other way? Would a semi truck come barreling off this exit that I was entering. I pulled to the side and slowly backed off. When I got back to the access road, I couldn’t tell if that was an exit or an entrance. I started to cry. I didn’t know how to drive.
I called Ben’s cell. I was crying and he was trying to help talk me down.
“You know how to drive.” His voice was full of compassion. He was speaking softly, trying to get me to calm down.
“I can’t. I went the wrong way on the highway.”
“Where are you?”
“At a waffle house.”
We both laughed. Why was this funny?
“Do you want me to come get you. I can leave right now?”
“No. I don’t want Sophie to have to drive all that way.”
“She can stay.”
I was afraid of her staying. I was afraid of the undertow.
Finally, he convinced me that i could drive. “Just put your oldies station on and sing along. Don’t get freaked out by the trucks.”
I was freaked out by the trucks. They sped up so fast behind me and then quickly passed me, I didn’t know to break or change lanes.
Finally, I was on the highway. I stayed in the slow lane and I drove for two hours listening to oldies. Remarkably, none of my dad’s songs were with me. My dad’s spirit was gone. In a way that was just like him.
As it grew dark, my disorientation started again. The headlights were blinding and the trucks were menacing as I watched them approaching in the rear view mirror. There was no way I could drive for three more hours, and not that long stretch where I was certain I would break down and be killed.
You see, my mother had gotten to me. Seeing her re-ignited a curse that she had on me.
After talking with Ben a second time, I decided to stay in a hotel and get up early and drive home. It was a conference type hotel, fancy. As I walked through the lounge area where a table was set up with a gorgeous buffet on silver chafing dishes, I felt partly elated. I felt safe as I walked through a world of people who-for all I knew- didn’t suffer a mental illness. People in nice clothes with nice hair. I walked up to my room and felt the silence. That same summer silence after seeing my mother in one of the mental hospitals she had stayed in when I was a child. The cognitive dissonance between childhood and psychosis.