In a certain way, I had a dangerous childhood. Physically, it was safe enough, suburban, low crime, mothers at home during the day, someone always around. Materially, it was a bit fragile from time to time, such as the summer my father’s union was on strike from Memorial Day through Labor Day, which meant no paycheck for twelve long weeks. My parents were children when the Great Depression hit, and young adults during the rationing of World War II, as well as the eldest boy and girl respectively of their large families. So they knew a thing or two about surviving lean times. Make do, make over, don’t buy it if you don’t have the money, fix it up and fix it yourself. Those lessons have stood me in good stead through our current national and global economic woes, and I’m grateful for them. But my mother was mentally ill all her life, and her illness and its consequences pulled the rug perpetually from under my feet.
One thing you learn about mental illness when you live with it is that almost no one is crazy all the time. In some ways, it would have been easier to adjust to if my mother had been ubiquitously, consistently crazy. It was inconsistency that made my childhood dangerous. My mother was, thank goodness, at heart a kind and loving woman. It was her illness that made her sleep too much or not enough, that convinced her that she was the target of social conspiracies perpetrated by neighbors or relatives, that prompted her to pull down the shades throughout the house when I was in high school. My father was not mentally ill, at least not in the same dramatic way. He was simply unavailable. Thus it was that I learned early on to exist without any reliable source of emotional solace at home. When I was ten, we had a dog who became my pal and protector. He was very comforting. And I was a quick study. I made do.
The one thing that could cause my mother to pull herself together and behave lucidly was the need to take care of me when I got sick. I have vivid memories of being extremely and unpleasantly ill with measles, mumps and chicken pox, but I also recall that those were the times when my mother acted like a mother. She was available, accessible, attentive, comforting, nurturing. She was lucid. She was uncrazy. She brought me soup and extra pillows. She went to the library and replenished my supply of books. She left an extra light on at night when I went to sleep. I had a real mom when I was sick.
My mother died in 1994 at the age of 72, but in a real sense she had died several years earlier. Age and my father’s death nine years before did not improve her sanity. During the last several years of her life, I learned to give up hoping that she would marshal her lucidity. It was painful to give up that hope. It was the hope of my childhood self and I had carried it around with me all my life and the weight of its unfulfillment hurt. In the end, she was not my mother anymore, but my patient, my social work client. I was her case manager, not her daughter. But I was glad to do it. She was a dreadful, uncooperative, self-neglectful patient. She made me absolutely crazy every single day of the last five years she lived. But I loved her and I was glad to be able to be of use to her when she needed me and I wished I could have done more.
Since I was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly a year ago, there have been many, many moments when I have felt like a small, frightened child, left all alone and lost. I wanted someone to scoop me up and be the grown-up and promise to make it all better. “I want my mommy,” I would say to myself during the worst of those moments, and chuckle sadly. Had my mother been alive during this past year, I know it’s unlikely that she would have been much help to me. She could scarcely help herself in her last years, not so much because of physical frailty, but because without my father’s daily presence anchoring her to reality, she no longer had the strength to hold her mental illness at bay. It grew in psychic strength even as she diminished in emotional strength. She existed mostly in a tempest of her own making, a strange, nervous cloud that jittered around her all the time. And yet every now and then, when someone tried to put one over on her, she could still gird her loins and do battle for herself.
So I wonder. I wonder what she would have done had I been able to call her up the night I found out I had cancer. Perhaps because her little girl was sick, she might have been able to blaze fiercely and lovingly one last time, prepared to help me do battle with this monster that was trying to put one over on me. Even though she couldn’t drive anymore, she could have kept me company during all those endless excursions to the cancer center and the radiology department and the surgeon’s office. She could have brought me soup and extra pillows. Maybe. I’ll never know.
The night I was diagnosed, I fell asleep with the light on. My dog, who’s like a big teddy bear, lay at the foot of my bed that night and guarded me, as he’s done every night since. I’m still a quick study. I’ve learned a lot about what I’m really made of and how to make the best of things. I’ve been falling asleep with the light on for almost a year now. I make do.
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