I understand the game we’re playing. It’s how we keep from talking about the present, trading stories about when I was 10 years old and she was still whole.
I take two steps into the foyer and my mother immediately senses I'm home. She comes running down the stairs: a good sign. The last time I'd seen her, nearly two years ago, she'd needed help with them.
"Babi," she says, calling me by my household name. We spend a moment appraising each other. She's lost weight. Her eyes, as they take me in, demonstrate a newly regained focus. Then she comes forward and embraces me.
I try to steel myself against the soft hands that fix my collar, the brush of her cheek against my neck. I ignore her voice, high and hopeful like a child's. Because it's the disease talking. And it will do anything to gain advantage.
She feels my ribs and tuts disapprovingly. "Have you been eating?" she asks, not even waiting for my answer before telling me to wash up for lunch. The house looks exactly as I remember it, but off-kilter somehow. It's as though the furniture has been subtly repositioned to disorient. I feel like a stranger here.
She turns around half-way to the kitchen. "And take off those boots," she tells me. I look down. I've tracked a trail of dirt in from the door.
Seventeen years ago my mother stood as a beacon of possibilities beyond the daily routine. I was 10 years old. Life took place within the rigid confines of school, home, and the odd party hosted by one of the other Bengali families in Montreal's tight-knit community. I didn't fit in, and my growing fear of becoming an oddball was picked up on by my mother, who chose to spin it into a virtue.
She herself was an imperfect actress, never quite reconciled with the passivity that came with being a suburban mom. So she celebrated our outsider status, disrupting school days by yanking me out of class for pizza and sundaes. Once I looked inside my backpack, and found, next to the worn textbooks and neatly-packed lunchbox, a stack of Amar Chitra Katha comic books, an Indian import that I'd loved reading during the months I'd spent there. What I only understood years later, however, was that she used these gestures as a way to start a dialogue. I began telling her the things I couldn't tell anyone else, and slowly, a special bond was forged. When her wild streak got the better of her, leading to spectacular blow-ups with my father or the Aunties in her social circle, she came to me with the unsaid thoughts. She knew I'd keep them secret.
When her father passed away suddenly one fall, I imagined her coming to me and sharing how she felt. But it didn't happen. The enormity of his passing dangerously destabilized her sense of self. From the first phone call from her sister in India through to the airport two days later to attend his funeral, she was stoic. Her face, an instrument capable of expressing the tiniest emotional shifts, became the stiff mask of a stranger. She couldn't let the pain of her father's death in, and in the process locked everything else out as well, including those closest to her. It was the opportunity the schizophrenia, which had lain dormant within her, had been waiting for.
She was gone for weeks, during which time the disease began to rip her psyche apart, fusing scraps into new and terribly different forms.
A different woman returned.
After finishing lunch she takes my plate and carefully places it into the dishwasher. Then she goes about making us tea, meticulously selecting cups, dropping in tea bags, and pouring water from the kettle. For a schizophrenic, these actions form ties to the rational world, a series of threads which must all be handled with equal care to prevent fraying. The routine, which she'd once taken such pleasure in bucking, has now become her lifeline.
"You could never get enough sugar in your tea," she says, placing a cup down in front of me. "When I wasn't looking, you'd try to pour in more."
"I remember," I tell her, though I don't. Most of my childhood exists now in a series of mental snapshots, lacking context or perspective. But it doesn't matter, because I understand the game we're playing. It's how we keep from talking about the present, trading stories about when I was 10 years old and she was still whole.
"I worry about you," she says, breaking the rules.
"I'm fine," I say. But one look at her and I know she doesn't believe it.
"I think about you all the time," she says. "I wonder why you left,"
"And then I say to myself, if you're happy, it's okay."
I shake my head. "I couldn't take it anymore."
"I know," she says. "I don't blame you."
Days slipped into weeks following my mother's return from India. She withdrew into herself, spending most of her time in the bedroom with the blinds closed. My father and I picked up the slack, unconsciously developing the rhythms of a single parent household while waiting for her come out of it. The burst of life and color she'd brought into my life had been stolen away, and I couldn't understand why. All I knew was that sometimes, when she thought no one was listening, my mother cried. When I couldn't bear any more, I'd enter the bedroom to comfort her. She'd turn her head away from me, wipe her eyes, and pretend like it had never happened. Stacks of dirty dishes littered the nightstand. Framed photographs of her family had been removed. These things scared me, because they clashed with the image of the mother I knew, someone who could no more let dirty dishes fester as spend the entire day in bed.
Weeks became months. She paced the ground floor in the middle of the night talking to herself. When my father confronted her about it, she became furiously angry, as though a switch had been flipped. She lashed out at him, both verbally and physically. She spun completely out of control. Her friends tried stepping in, but one by one, she alienated them until they were afraid to call. She began wearing all black, and pulled her hair back in a severe bun. She covered her wrists with jewelry. Started carrying a Bible around and attending Mass, part of a growing obsession with Catholicism. One morning I came downstairs and found her muttering to herself in the living room. When she noticed me, the look in her swollen, red-rimmed eyes was one you'd give to a stranger.
She said her name was Dorothy.
I knew something was terribly wrong months before my father did. I should have hollered for help. Instead, I allowed fear and the irrational belief that she'd rebound to make me a passive enabler. When the hospital attendants finally came to the house to admit her, against her will, for psychiatric evaluation, my father's ashen face bore the brunt of responsibility. But I blamed myself.
To get a feel for what her daily life's like, I ride the bus downtown with my mother to engage in her favorite pastime: window shopping. Before the illness, she wouldn't even consider hitting the mall without a bunch of Aunties in tow. But they're gone now, along with the tens of thousands of dollars she burnt through on shoes and clothing during relapses. Today it's the little things, a cup of vanilla hazelnut coffee, a few bus tickets to get around, and the freedom to watch people enjoying life, that's enough for her.
"I don't miss the old days," she says. "I was thirty years old. A different person. Today I'm nearly fifty, and there's enough here to be happy about." She gets a spritz of perfume from a lady working a make-up counter, and then just walks away without even pretending to deliberate over purchasing it. I smile at the lack of pretense. Rediscovering little shards of my mother momentarily brings me back to when she was my entire world.
"I still hear the voices," she tells me later, as we walk down Saint Catherine Street towards the subway. The sun is rapidly disappearing beneath the tips of the skyscrapers. "I know they won't ever go away."
"Because working with your father in the garden, knowing we're still a family matters to me. Every time I listened to the voices, I ended up in hell."
Hell meant the hospital, and in the 10 years following her first committal, she grew to know its horrors intimately. In the mental wards where she lived amongst the freakish and raving, overseen by guards looming by the exits and doctors who treated her like just another lost cause, Dorothy was the only friend she had. Dorothy advised her to play along, take the medications until release to a half-way house. Be a good, penitent wife. Come back home. And then, when it's safe, chuck the pills and let me out to play.
I stopped wanting her to come home. She'd chosen very clearly whom to trust, leaving behind a trail of debt and dashed hopes in her wake, and I wasn't about to watch her play through the charade one more time. Dorothy didn't believe my mother was sick, and until she broke free of her egotism enough to stop listening to her, attempts at rehabilitation would always fail. But my father loved her, and no matter how badly she injured him, he always took her back. I grew to resent him for being a sucker. For acting disappointed when the symptoms inevitably presented themselves, and we were forced, once again, to endure the cycle of her sickness. I had to get out. On the day before I left for college in New York I met my mother at the half-way house. We played the nostalgia game. I told her I'd call once I got into the city.
Lounging in my friend Quincy's apartment after a party, lights low, empty drink glasses littered the floor. It's late enough for secret confidences. She confesses her mother was a schizophrenic. When I ask her why she's telling me, she says it's because she recognizes a fellow survivor. You're wrong, I tell her, as my insides race and a hot flush erupts across my cheeks.
Trying to console my girlfriend Sandra, who's curled up on the bed, crying uncontrollably. Like her previous episodes, it came out of nowhere, with a suddenness and intensity I know all too well. I'm sorry, she tells me, sobbing. I comfort her as best I can, but somewhere inside, a cold part removed from the disappointment, I'm already planning a life without her. It hurt me to leave. But not nearly as much as it would have to stay.
I tried to make a virtue of transience. Putting down roots meant a connection, and I was out to sever the only one which ever held any meaning for me. What I didn't count on was the weight of years spent running catching up with me. At a certain point you begin to lose steam, and in those times you look to friends and loved ones to help carry you through. But I'd gone out of my way to burn those bridges, dead-set on going it alone, because that was the only way I could insulate myself from the pain of loving someone and having it go bad. In structuring my life to avoid the fall-out of my mother's illness, I'd only succeeded in emulating the patterns of it. Unfortunately, the depression that comes with prolonged loneliness made appreciating the irony impossible. I sank into the gnashing gears of my mind, spending most days in my apartment. Talking to others was hard. Talking to myself, on the other hand, came surprisingly easy. I began to understand how tenuous our grip on reality really is, and how dependent on others. I didn't see a way out of the hole I'd dug for myself, and the scary thing is, I wasn't all that sure I wanted a way out.
It was her. She was worried about me.
Come home, she said.
She comes to wake me on the morning of my last day. I rub the sleep out of my eyes. The room she once called home during her worst periods swims into focus. Only now she's the one checking in on me.
"I wish you'd stay longer," she tells me.
"I know. I have to get back." And I do. These past few days with her have affected a sea change. Despite everything, the bond we shared remains. And though nothing has been resolved, its succeeded in breaking me out of the stupor of the past. We're still here. And that's enough.
She squeezes my hand tightly. "Don't stay away."
"I'm here," I tell her. "I'm with you."