November 16, 2017
Thirty-seven weeks pregnant and I can’t seem to stop crying. This is unusual for me. I tend to be an optimistic person. Relentlessly so. Probably obnoxiously so. I tend to be not just a glass-half-full kind of person, but a person who may just point out that the rest of the glass is filled with sunlight; an everything’s-going-to-be-okay, go-with-the-flow, isn’t-life-amazing type of person—in the world, at least, if not always in my own head.
Part of the reason my first marriage fell apart two years ago was because I didn’t know how to let my husband know when I was upset. I spent way too much time smiling when I should have been honest with him. I kept so much frustration and anger pent up inside, so many silent things accumulating until they turned toxic under my skin. I’ve told myself I won’t make the same mistake with my new marriage, and it appears my body is holding me to that, at least for now. My habitual smile is starting to fracture; whatever has been hiding behind it is seeping out.
Half the time, I have no idea why I’m crying. I cry at the midwife’s office; I cry at our childbirth class. I cry when I learn on Facebook that my nineteen-year-old son, who lives with his dad, was hit by a car as he was riding his bike. He’s okay, it seems, just banged up a bit, but that’s not the kind of news a mom likes to stumble upon on social media, even when she isn’t deeply hormonal. I cry when I get scared I’ve forgotten how to be a mother. It was so easy and joyful when my kids were babies, when they were young, when I created creativity festivals for their preschools, when we made “color meals” together—red bread with green butter, pasta with creamy blue sauce—when we curled up together with books and crayons and silly songs, when we crawled on the grass together to peer at ladybugs and worms. Now my kids are both teenagers—my daughter is almost sixteen—and parental instincts seem to have fled my body.
I always told myself I would be a mom whose kids could tell her anything, but I fear my kids have as much trouble talking to me as I do with my own mom. I love them both with all my heart and worry I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, maybe by smiling too much, by not acknowledging hard things enough, by not modeling how to be real.
I get another voice mail from my mom, this one saying she is driving to my house, saying she is going to spend the night. I leave a panicked voice mail on her phone, telling her it isn’t the right time; I have grading to do—my Antioch MFA students have just turned in their work and I want to get to it before my UCLA Writers’ Program students turn in their work, want to get to it before the baby comes, which feels like it could be any minute now.
“There’s no place for you to sleep,” I tell her voice mail, belly contracting again. Hannah’s been using her bed as a desk and has been sleeping on the couch.
My mom calls back. She’s turned around; she’s on her way home. I am flooded with relief. Relief tinged with guilt, but relief all the same. There’s no way I could have gotten work done with her there, wanting my attention. She gets offended if I so much as glance at a newspaper when she’s in the same room; if I read my students’ fiction in her presence, she’ll find some way to make me feel horrible about it. Likely by inventing some medical emergency. Or telling me about my father’s latest supposed acts of betrayal.
The doorbell rings around 10 p.m. Hannah, camped out on the vintage leopard print sofa, answers it. “Oh, hi, Nana,” I hear her say, and my heart drops to the floor. I walk out of the office, bleary eyed from critiquing fiction. One of my students is writing a novel where a woman and baby die in childbirth and hang around their apartment as ghosts; another student is writing a novel in which a woman suffers horrific pregnancy complications during the Holocaust. Amazing novels, but not the most uplifting of pregnancy reading. This is reality, I tell myself as I read scenes of blood and rot, the baby twisting inside me—it’s good to be in touch with every aspect of reality. When I was pregnant with Arin, I avoided all the pages about C-sections in my childbirth preparation book, and I ended up getting sliced open. Sometimes we’re thrown face to face with the very things we’re trying to avoid. Like my mom, here in my living room. She has a long cushion from an outdoor chaise lounge tucked under her arm. A few ties dangle down from the sides, like tiny insect legs on a huge thorax.
“I can sleep on this.” She pushes past me and lays the cushion on the floor of my office, right behind my desk chair. When she looks up at me, she says, “You look awful.”
“Thanks,” I tell her. “I was just about to head to bed.”
“Okay,” she says, disappointed. There’s clearly so much she wants to tell me, epic tales of her latest persecution. She’s probably been repeating them to herself the whole seventy-five-mile drive from Oceanside. All she can get in, though, is “There’s something wrong with my furnace” before I give her a cursory hug and close myself up in my bedroom. I hate to leave my husband and daughter to deal with my mom, but I am in no state to handle her. I may be able to face painful realities in my students’ novels—in my own novels, even—but my own life is another story entirely. I lie down and my belly collects itself into a tight knot and the tears stream freely yet again.
When I get up in the morning, as late as I possibly can, my mom is calmer; I am less afraid of her. Michael has already left for work. Two mugs sit on the kitchen counter, encrusted with remnants of hot cereal; my mom’s clearly held grits, Michael’s cream of wheat. It touches me to think of them sharing this simple, pale breakfast. My mom has loved grits ever since we had them for the first time in Colonial Williamsburg when I was eight. She always buys boxes full of the instant packets to give to my sister, who can’t get them in Canada. She buys them for me, too, even though I can find them at any grocery store.
“We didn’t have a meal together,” she says, almost mournfully, as if this had been our last chance to break bread. “It feels funny to be here and not have a meal together.”
“Yeah,” I agree, hesitant to say anything else. When I get near her, words harden in my throat, get stuck there, like the grits I’ll have to clean out of the mug later, stubborn as crystals in a geode.
Her face is softer this morning, more open. In fact, she seems to be pouring love and compassion toward me out of her eyes. It makes me flinch.
“I really have a lot of work to do today,” I tell her and she looks predictably betrayed.
“I was thinking of going to my spiritual class, anyway,” she says, her features closing themselves off again. She attends classes given by Nancy Tappe, a woman who developed the concept of “Indigo Children” and has written such books as Understanding Your Life Through Color and Get the Message: What Your Car is Trying to Tell You. The latter talks about how cars are mirrors of our own “internal warning system,” what happens in our Hondas supposedly a metaphor for what’s happening in our souls. My own internal warning system is beeping now, red lights clanging inside me. Get her out, get her out, get her out now.
GAYLE BRANDEIS is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write and the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement (judged by Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and contest founder Barbara Kingsolver),Self Storage, Delta Girls and My Life with the Lincolns, which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a Read on Wisconsin pick, as well as a collection of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body. Her essays, poems and short fiction have been widely published and have received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award, the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, and a Notable mention in The Best American Essays 2016. She teaches in the low residency MFA programs at Antioch University, Los Angeles and Sierra Nevada College, where she was named Distinguished Visiting Professor/Writer in Residence. Gayle served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014 and was called a Writer Who Makes a Difference by The Writer Magazine.
Excerpted from The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide by Gayle Brandeis (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.