I was five or six when it began.
“Take care of the baby,” Momma would say. “I’ll be right away back.”
After the first time, I knew she might disappear for several days and for the nights between as well.
I never told how I would pull my folding chair to the side of Gary’s crib and reach my arm through the slats to feel the heat of his body, and how that warmth would make just enough of a safety zone to encircle us both.
Little did I know then, how much more vulnerable Gary was than I.
I used to think back then, that Momma carried with us all those huge unopened cartons from the Bronx, from one apartment to the next, to fill the empty spaces my father and brother had left behind.
But I wonder now if it wasn’t the reverse—that she had packed away all the emptiness, had hidden from sight what she feared most.
And I suppose now, sitting by myself in this empty house, the monsters I imagined were creatures I created to give form to the feeling of alone.
I wish I could remember how much I understood; if when I sat on my folding chair with the ripped leather seat—did I know I was alone even when Momma was at home?
Love is more elusive than fear; love is a sparkle that may twinkle at you, tantalize you from safety as it hides behind a tree in a forest of dark.
“Come and get me,” it teases. “I’m here, and here, and perhaps here.”
I hang up the phone in frustration.
“She can’t be released just yet, they may not release her, and who did you say you are? The doctors have to sign off on her, the head of the department . . .”
I hardly understand why I’ve made this choice. At twelve I left home and however unhappy I was in all those furnished rooms, I was never sorry.
But here I am, struggling with a mental health institution for her release.
Is the feeling in my heart love for the woman who must have given me that when I was still in her arms, before I was old enough to walk and to talk?
Was that enough or is the call of genetic cells responsible?
Why am I fighting to enter the lions’ den, why have I changed my life to do this?
“You have three days in which to come for your mother.”
I recognize the official tone that has denied my pleas in the past weeks.
“But I need time, I haven’t finished preparing for her, I haven’t even advertised for help. And also, there’s been an unexpected emergency . . .”
“She will be released in three days. If you plan to have her live with you, you had better come for her.”
He’s very tall, very dark-skinned and burly; his teeth gleam white in a friendly smile. He’s wearing green and I suppose he’s an orderly.
“You taking her home?”
“Yes, finally,” I answer.
“You gonna have your hands full with that one.” His smile is gone, replaced with a look akin to compassion.
How can that be I wonder, how could he have had his hands full?
I look from the body that towers over mine to Momma, who has become smaller than ever, stooped with her eighty plus years of age, and from who knows what else.
Might she become violent, I want to ask? Will there be physical struggles, will the stitches from my recent surgery open and bleed?
“Don’t forget to stop at the desk and get her medication. She has a month’s supply of Haldol to start her off, and they’ll give you script for more.”
Haldol, my mother is on Haldol—that’s what they give to crazy people!
Momma has only been in my car one other time. I had driven to Brooklyn and brought her back to see my shop, hoping for once she’d be impressed, that she would be proud of me. But she hadn’t noticed my paintings on the walls, the satin of the wood floors, or the dozens of blooming plants in the windows.
Her only comment was, “For what did you need to get a dog?”
This time, I tell myself I have no expectations.
“When will we be there, I need to go in toilet,” Momma asks.
“It’s a long ride I know, but can you wait about twenty minutes?”
She agrees. She peers at traffic signs and reads the names aloud, showing me she’s still in control, and that I’m not tricking her, not taking her to a place she isn’t aware of.
“They have there such wonderful washing machines; I never saw such a thing. They would take away my dresskala and right away, in five minutes, they would bring it back clean.”
“Maybe it wasn’t the same dress.”
“It was the same one.”
“Okay, I guess they do have very fast machines, wow.”
“The whole ceiling was falling by them; big pieces fell from the top.”
“That’s terrible.” I say, but wonder if that can be true? Maybe they suddenly had to empty a ward and decided to send her home.
“We’re almost home; are you okay for a few more minutes?” “I went already.” She says. “Don’t worry, it’s nothing.”
Always my eyes would be drawn to old, abandoned apartment houses. Two, three, even five-story apartment houses, often with one or more walls fallen away, the dismal interior with once-bright paint exposed.
How was it I would sense loneliness occupying the deserted walls within?
Finally, I understand.
A tree, an orange, or the ocean, all are complete in and of themselves. But a building has no need to exist without dwellers; unlike a tree or even a bug, a vacant home is useless.
Momma is home, the mission of this house is accomplished.
I’m not eager to join her first thing in the morning, but I don’t know how she did during the night. I don’t know if she sleeps later than she would when I knew her habits so well.
I don’t know if she is awake at all.
I walk down the steps quietly, but she is awake and she greets me pleasantly.
Haldol is wonderful, I think.
“Who was that young man?” She questions with a smile.
“What young man?”
“The wonderful young man who was making music and all the children were dancing around with him.” Her hands make a circle in the air.
“I don’t know, Ma.” I tell her. “I was sleeping, I didn’t hear him.”
I turn away before she can see my tears, this is not the first time I have hidden tears from her, but it is one of the times I have cried for her.
I must have been ten when she told me she had walked away from the village in Poland without a look back.
Even at that age and with my anger for her in full swing, I cried for the pain of a fifteen-year-old who would walk away from her past.
I cried at the report of the court-ordered psychiatrist during the procedure to appoint me her conservator. He had introduced himself as wanting to help her, and my mother’s recorded response was, “Where were you, I waited so long for you.”
Did she understand or did she think he was her father, or one of her beloved brothers, or my father or my brother?
And now her fantasy of the wonderful young man, what dream was fulfilled in the night?
These tears ache, they rip from my soul for the child and woman who might have been, for the pain she lived with, pain that inhabited her body like a cancer.
“Those dirty bastards.” Momma takes a sip from her mug and I realize I’ve never seen her drink from a cup before, only from the rim of the saucepan.
“I was waiting for the bus; I was going to see Fiddler on the roof, all of a sudden for no reason they grabbed me.”
She hasn’t asked any questions, as if this were the most normal thing in the world; that she and I would be in the same place at the same time, that we would somehow manage to live together.
Didn’t she understand that while I would enjoy the first few minutes on those occasions when I would visit her, that she would, against my most improbable hopes, resort to the old tears and curses and the misery that emerged immediately after her surprise to see me wore off?
Did she not see my willingness to love turn again to the old frustration and anger?
Was she so involved in her own wretchedness that she was unable to see what she inflicted and how that would hurt us both?
But I know the answers, after all I would watch as she drove my brother, her adored child, from her, without understanding she was doing so.
She doesn’t know I plan to hire a caregiver and that I intend to keep watch from afar. How can she trust herself to be happy in this new home and with a daughter she has barely known as an adult?
“And they wouldn’t let me out, how do you like that?” But she isn’t looking at me, or perhaps isn’t asking me the question. And I do as I would back then; I make my face blank and think as I will.
“We have your mother, we have Mrs. Greenberg here.”
“I’m sorry, you have the wrong number; my mother’s name isn’t Greenberg.”
“Sylvia? Isn’t it Sylvia Greenberg? Are you Marsha?
“Oh? My mother is quite short and has white hair. She speaks with a heavy European accent. She has no teeth and would be wearing at least three dresses?”
“Yes, that’s her.”
“Okay, she’s my mother but she isn’t Mrs. Greenberg,” I’d answered.
“Well, we were wondering if you would consider having us keep her for a few days, for observation, you know.”
I’d wanted to say why, I already know she’s crazy?
But I didn’t.
“Why, what’s she done?”
“Well, she calls an ambulance every morning. She says she has headaches, but we can’t find anything.”
That’s because she’s smarter than you, I’d wanted to say.
She gets to ride in an ambulance, she gets a lot of attention, a free breakfast and maybe lunch, and you probably give her carfare to get home! And you think she’s crazy?
“That might be a good idea,” I’d agreed.
“Has she been in need of psychiatric treatment in the past?”
Are you kidding I’d wondered, would you ask if you knew we lived in poverty while she had about forty thousand dollars in a small jar inside a larger jar with chicken schmaltz poured over the two? Would you ask if you knew she left me alone with an infant for days at a time when I was five and six? What question would you ask if you knew she would steal toilet paper from public places and hang her used squares on a string to dry for reuse?
“No, never, but she’s needed it,” I’d answered, stifling the giggles that would bring tears of blood had I let them loose.
“Will you agree then?”
“Yes, it’s probably quite timely. I’m in the process of becoming her conservator, and of looking for a house for both of us so I can keep an eye on her.
At least if you keep her, she’ll be safe for a few days.”
“A lot of the people there were really meshugah.” Momma says.
“It’s a shanda/a shame.”
She nods and looks sad for them.
“Don’t forget your pill.” My words are deliberately casual as I hand her one, but I watch as she puts it deep into her mouth and takes another swallow of coffee.
She never used to be able to do that, she would poke pills for her imaginary illnesses deep into a banana so that she wouldn’t know they were there and she would be able to swallow without retching.
It had been a relief at first that they had kept her; I had hoped she would be held for a week at least. That for one week I’d be saved the long drive from Suffolk County all the way to Brooklyn.
But going back hadn’t been necessary until that last time when I passed the word to the other tenants, and opened the door for them to take away what they would.
Everything was gone in a flash, the things I’d wanted already gone long before.
For me, Momma’s apartment had been empty before her former neighbors wheeled out the bedroom set I remember from the Bronx when I was three.
Empty of the only things I had wanted: the gold-colored metal box filled with papers, childhood photographs of us three children, the report cards she had saved for all these years along with photos of relatives I’d never met.
Marriage and divorce papers, everything.
Momma had finally thrown away her past.
“She had the fire department come.” Mrs. Wilson had explained.
“She was burning papers in the kitchen sink! After that she was scared to burn, they yelled at her! Instead, she would spend hours in the incinerator room burning boxes of things.”
Momma had left her apartment empty of everything but furniture and roaches.
“Where is all her cut glass, her crystal, her jewelry?” I had asked when I spoke with Mrs. Wilson that first time.
“She sold it, she gave it away; she traded most everything for
food. She would ring your bell and demand you give her food, and if you didn’t she would talk you down to a dog!”
“But she has money!” I’d almost demanded of the social worker Mrs. Wilson had told me about.
“She claims she does have money, but she isn’t able to get herself to the bank to withdraw her funds. The building manager and I drove her to the bank one day, but she refused to get out of the car, she was afraid we would steal from her. She was thrown out of the local food markets for stealing you know.”
But I hadn’t known. Why did it fall to Mrs. Wilson to contact me after so much suffering had already occurred?
Mrs. Wilson with a grown daughter and two grandchildren returned home for her help, a woman kind enough to accept the added burden of my mother, and she was not alone. Momma had demanded and received help from many of the hard-working, struggling families in the building for so many months.
And why had I not forced myself to visit Momma more often, and had I, would I have known what I could not see?
Momma had refused to take the food I’d brought that first time. I’d had to concoct a scheme with Mrs. Wilson to have her come down and fill her shopping cart with the foodstuffs Momma always liked to eat.
“I don’t know who left the food, I think the Salvation Army,” Mrs. Wilson would say. Momma wouldn’t think they wanted to poison her.
“But she would stand in the elevator and hand out the food to the other tenants,” the social worker told me.
I’d paid Momma’s debt of two years unpaid rent to the manager of the project, and thanked Mrs. Wilson for everything.
I’ll never go back.
There are no tears, no cursing my father, and no questions.
Perhaps she is so relieved to be free, to be released from the hospital that she is content.
But more likely, it’s the Haldol.
That being so, how do I explain myself, how to excuse myself for not having stepped in sooner? What in my family was so organically wrong we each responded by complete withdrawal?
My father, who rather than to seek help for the mother of his three children, instead left us all with the woman he had diagnosed in secret and had been warned was unfit.
Both my brother and sister were barely adults when they too, abandoned our mother, fled from her insanity as if they would escape its effects.
My excuses are multiple, all flawed.
It is a line not crossed to have a parent committed, and she would have never gone voluntarily or forgiven.
Perhaps had one more family member walked that line with me … ?
But why on my own did I not have the will, the drive to attempt to have her diagnosed and helped?
Because her greatest fear was of being entrapped. She often quoted a movie before my time, Gaslight, of how the husband manipulated the wife into a sanitarium to rid himself of her.
The truth is, it was easier to ignore her, to run away as my siblings had, to justify myself with a few visits now and then, more than they ever did.
To remind myself after each visit of how it was impossible to deal with her madness.
And so this woman who had found the courage to cross an ocean alone at fifteen, and to come to a new world where she knew not a word of the spoken language, a woman who found work, and a husband, and who wrote poetry to be published with regularity, was allowed to fester in her own psychosis.
And what now?
“Diane, it’s me, my mother fell out of bed and I don’t know what to do.”
“Is she hurt?”
“I don’t think so, but I can’t get her to her feet.” I try, but
I can’t keep the tremble from my voice.
“I’ll be right over.”
“Lucky she didn’t get hurt,” Diane says.
“She’s so little, she didn’t have far to fall,” I answer, but I’m not laughing on the inside. More than anything, I’m amazed at Momma’s cheerful attitude.
I try and connect the mother I’ve known, the hypochondriac who never wore nylon stockings or panties because the seams hurt too much, with the woman who has no complaints after falling from her bed.
Again, I remind myself she might have led a different life had she been using Haldol all these wasted years.
I thank Diane over and over. What would I have done without her?
This time, I can’t even make the attempt to hide the humiliation in my voice or the begging.
“Diane, she did it again.”
“I can’t help you; you better tie her into the bed or something.”
“I can’t do that to her.”
“I can’t help you; you know I’m on sick leave because I hurt my back. This is the third time and I can’t keep helping you lift her.
Call the fire department.” “The fire department?” “Yeah, that’s who you call.”
My hands are shaking, I am so afraid I’m ice cold on the inside, and my words sound like ice cubes to my ears.
I didn’t know when you call for help, they automatically send an ambulance and that they must then take you to the emergency room.
“Are you on any medication?” the admitting nurse wants to know.
“I have a bad heart,” Momma says.
She means broken heart I want to say, but I remain quiet.
“Ever have any broken bones?”
“She broke her hip a few years ago,” I say.
“I never had a broken bone in my life!” Momma snaps. “Never!”
My eyes meet those of the nurse and I see the question in hers. Does she doubt me or Momma I wonder, but I don’t argue.
I don’t answer any more of the list of questions. Instead I replay my conversations with the hospital, and eventually with the convalescent home.
“She just won’t cooperate; she won’t do the physical therapy,” they’d complained. “She says it hurts too much.”
I’d wondered if she would ever walk again.
“And anyway, how does she know anything about me—you think you know who she is?” Momma looks shrewdly at the nurse.
“You think she’s my daughter? She’s not even my daughter; she’s the daughter of the whore my husband ran away with.”
I feel my face grow hot and my body shrink small, the same way I would feel when I was five, and six, and ten and Momma would start to scream at someone in her bad English, the way I felt when she made me lie in court and say the landlord had chased her and beaten her with a chair.
They leave Momma on a gurney and we wait.
She’s pleasant to me now, either accepting me as the daughter of the whore or as her own.
“I’m cold,” she complains, and I pull a lightweight blanket from an empty gurney.
I unfold it and as I cover her short hospital-gowned body I see she is indeed, as she would always say, hairless.
I always wondered at her pride in this, but assumed she meant her legs and underarms.
“Still cold.” She complains quietly as if to herself, and I leave her side to search out another blanket.
The nurse has come back while I was gone and apparently gave Momma information agreeing with my own.
“How do you like that, I had a broken hip!” Momma’s telling herself this, and I find it ironic she believes the stranger in a white uniform.
“Excuse me; could you get my mother something to eat? We’ve been here for hours and she hasn’t even had breakfast.”
“Actually, she’s fine and we’re getting ready to discharge her. Give me a few minutes and you can take her home.”
Suddenly, truth hits me, and it’s a hard blow.
Take her home to what?
Will she continue to fall from bed more or less often? Perhaps more often now that she has the knack of it.
Will this be a repeat of her daily visits to the emergency room?
Is she better off at home where she is as alone as she has always been, or someplace more social, where there will be crafts and nurses and doctors for her to play her coy games with?
I didn’t think this out, I didn’t have enough experience or support or money. I never saw beyond the step before me.
I have filled the emptiness in my home but at the expense of Momma’s best interests.
“We need you to sign her out now.” The nurse hands me a pad with a pen tied to the plastic backing.
“I can’t take her home, I’m sorry.”
“I won’t take her home, there’s no point to it.” My eyes sting with tears and my upper lip and hands tremble, but my voice is firm.
“We can’t keep her here.”
“And I can’t keep her at home—how many times can she fall out of bed before she gets hurt? How many times will she end up in the emergency room confused and hungry and cold?”
“But . . .”
I hear her words of protest but my eyes say good-bye to Momma. I cannot say the words to her, or even approach her. I cannot.
I turn; I walk down the long smooth corridor toward the sign that spells Exit, my face feels swollen and my upper lip throbs.
I find my car and slide into the driver’s seat where I sit shedding what feels like endless tears.
How could I have been so stupidly unprepared?