I saw my mother for her birthday. I was with my aunt, her sister, and we worriedly drove to her care facility because the on-site nurse had called saying that my mother has been complaining about her mouth and doesn’t look good and Mom refuses to get medical attention.
I was driving, talking to my aunt about what we might say, how best to handle my mother’s fears about dentists, their scrapers, their metal hooks, their drills. My mother doesn’t want to go to the dentist because she doesn’t want false teeth. But she never brushes.
If she is suffering from an infection in her mouth, my aunt says, the infection can get into her bloodstream and kill her. I do not say, “Good, this is what she wants; to die,” but I think my aunt and I are both choosing not to say it out loud. I think about how if my mother was a dog, I could have said goodbye to her years ago, the vets agreeing she was in pain, ready to go, and that this was for the best.
Maybe if I talk about how pain meds numb you completely, how you don’t even feel the tooth being pulled, maybe she’ll believe me and go.
Or maybe I’ll let the words I really want to say spill out of my mouth without vocal cord vibrations, letting them pile up, discarded, on the bottom of the floor. The word love the most plentiful. The word schizophrenia right on top. Schizophrenia the reason for everything, for all of this, for always. A pile of invisible dust that only other children of mothers with mental illness can see. An unspoken pile of life’s unfairness, of grief, of longing.
We finally arrive. My mother is in her room and the caretakers hush their voices. “Her face has been swollen,” they whisper, “it’s better today.”
We go into her room. She is resting like we always find her, on her side with the blanket over her head. Tired? Cold? Hiding?
I see her face. The left side swollen, twice its size.
I am startled but catch myself. I try not to look unsettled or alarmed. I don’t want to upset or scare her with the wideness of my watering eyes.
I have always thought, She needs to die because she wants to, and if it’s a blood infection from her rotting gums, so be it. But I didn’t think about the pain. I didn’t realize that to die of an infection is to die an excruciating death.
She is my mother. I don’t want her suffering. “Does it hurt?” I ask.
Her response is garbled words lurched on a roller coaster. We frown our brows, paying special attention to really understand her:
And I try to catalogue what she just said, as I’ve been doing, so that I can turn them into jokes; so that instead of crying, I can laugh. Say something flippant like, well, at least one of the voices in her head is good at imagery; a poet.
But she is angry when my aunt mentions the dentist.
She turns her face to ignore us.
“But don’t you want to go for your birthday treat?” my aunt tempts.
Mom will come out with us, to Starbucks instead of lunch, because she only wants to eat soft foods and doesn’t want to eat now. She orders a hot drink warm. And she doesn’t say much. I try to include her in the conversation, but I’m at a loss, and she’s not interested anyway. My aunt and I catch up; my mother stares at the floor.
My mother asks if we can just drive for a little bit, and I suggest going to the park, but when we get there, it’s crowded. She’s too scared to get out and walk the perimeter.
So I drive through the neighborhood and try to find fun Halloween decorations and point them out to her but I don’t know how well she sees them because she won’t go to the optometrist.
We finish and call it a day, dropping my mother off back to her care facility and try to hug her but her arms stay at her sides, heavy with indifference.
On the way home, my aunt and I talk about schedules, houses, selling condos and property taxes, the benefits of owning versus renting, because the last thing we want to talk about is my mother and how she looked, what she’s going through, how she won’t let us do a goddamn thing about it. We are helpless, again, but more than that, we are hopeless.
I am now back home, my aunt driving back over the hill, my husband still at work. I am alone. And for the first time in years, in years, I think:
This. Isn’t. Fair.
Because as much as I want her to die, to slip out of this broken body and be free of it, I didn’t count on the pain she’d be feeling when she gets sick. My throat peels, folding in on itself, choking me, because she is my mother. Hurting. And she refuses to let me take her to see someone who can help her by prescribing medicine, pain killers, relief.
I can’t help my own mother. My mom.
I think about the future, about how my mother will be cremated, like she’s asked for the last 22 years, how there will be no funeral, no memorial. There will be no place I can go to grieve, to take solace, to feel like, if I go there, she will know and stand beside me, invisible, understanding, comforting, full of love.
I think about her ashes. How I will want some of them. To take them with me to visit my own sister, and together we would go and mourn for the mother we never had; the mother she was robbed of being. To sprinkle them in the wind so that she may be carried off up to the sky, up to heaven, and surrounded with light and love, and be weightless with no fears, no worries, no sadness.
My mother, an angel, maybe smiling down at me and proud. Maybe waiting patiently up there, free of the voices in her head, free of fears, free of all the pain, so that when I die, she will be the first in line to welcome me home, in arms that finally hug back. Her words, instead of on rollercoasters, are on layers of puffy clouds, like a happy Shel Silverstein poem. And she’ll say,