I’m at a hospital in Houston, Texas, spooning puréed carrots into my mother’s mouth and catching the dribbles at the corners with a plastic spoon. She’s beginning to come around after overdosing on what one of the doctors called “a dangerous cocktail of marijuana and benzos.” The ziplock bag of prescription medications that traveled with her to the hospital sits on a shelf across the room. The orange plastic bottles, now empty, once contained an assortment of pills: Prozac, Seraquil, Haldol, Clonazepam and several other medications. One of the bottles has someone else’s name on it.
My mother is like another country I used to live in, familiar but no longer a place I call home. When I visit, I don’t stay long; dysfunction is the official language, the terrain is a desert of constantly shifting emotions, and the weather is grey when it’s not dark and stormy. Estrangement is so much easier.
When she opened her eyes a few hours earlier, it was the first time she’d seen me in a year. She recognized me, of that I felt sure, but her eyebrows were slightly cocked, her large brown eyes were opened wide and rounded, in them a look of profound disbelief.
I’m also surprised to be here: this is my first live overdose. In past years, a husband or a boyfriend would have attended to her. Some hospitalizations I didn’t even know about until weeks or months later. Others I monitored by phone from my home in Washington, D.C.
So why am I here? My mother has struggled with mental illness for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never before dropped everything and flown across the country to be by her side. I’m her only child and I know that at some point children are supposed to help their infirm and aging parents. Being here could be a logical next-step in our familial evolution. If we were a normal family.
Her mental illness has impacted everything—marriages, relationships with friends and family, financial stability. Over the past several years a series of bad choices and circumstances—losing her house to foreclosure, moving to subsidized housing, an eviction and criminal charges—have sent her over the edge. When she was young, she relied on men to save her from herself. But men began to respond to her differently as she aged and she began to lean on me when she was in crisis. Which was—is—all the time.
I have never been very good in the role of savior. I find it counterintuitive: mothers are supposed to love unconditionally and provide safe harbor for their children, not the other way around. So, I shut down. Cut her off. Become clinical. This frustrates her and she lashes out by calling and leaving me angry messages. I keep all of her voicemails—including the ones in which she calls me arrogant, heartless, a pig of a daughter. I might need them one day, to shift the burden of proof to her when she claims she’s well, to unearth the goodness that must be there. Maybe this is why I’m here at the hospital: to seed a happy memory in the midst of chaos, to write a new narrative in which it makes sense for me to save her.
I scoop another bit of orange mash and offer it to her. She is injured. Her lips look mashed and swollen, the color of eggplant skins. She takes her time moving them over the spoon and raking the food into her mouth.
Because she can’t form long sentences yet, I’m unable to piece together the exact events that got her here. Even if she could tell me, she’d spin a story. The doctor is putting me on too many medications. I took a few pills so I could sleep. I accidentally took the wrong medicine. What she doesn’t know is that I have a mole who keeps me in the loop, more or less. She’s a caretaker dispatched by the state to take care of my mother and her live-in boyfriend who has Multiple Sclerosis. When she found my mother unconscious on the floor the day before, she called 911 and then she called me. My mole tells me she finds empty bottles of vodka in the oven, behind the couch, and under the bed and that my mom takes a lot of pills. She tells me about the neighbors who complain about my mom and her boyfriend screaming at each other at all hours, that the police are often called to the apartment to investigate, that a friend brings them pot on a regular basis, that my mother has bought crack from a neighborhood dealer. “I’m so worried about your mom,” she says, “she’s been falling a lot. It’s all those pills she takes.”
When her gown falls away or rides up her body, I see that she has many bruises on her arms, legs, and torso, like she’s a piece of fruit that’s been banged about inside of a lunch pail. There’s a small gash near her left temple clotted with dried blood. If her boyfriend didn’t have MS, I’d think he was beating her. Instead I wonder if she’s been hitting herself to get attention, throwing her body against door frames and kitchen counters, punching her thighs and midsection with closed fists. Once she had a boyfriend arrested after falsely accusing him of assaulting her. He spent several weeks in jail until the charges were dropped. It’s strange to know that your own mother is capable of such duplicity. It’s even weirder to feel a compulsion to protect yourself and those you love—maybe even occasionally people you don’t love—from your own mother. Especially when she can be so damn charming.
After her meal, she says, “Haaaaay, Baaaaby.” She slurs it like she’s drunk. She says it over and over again, and not just to me, but also to the orderly who sits in her room to keep vigil over her, to the nurses and cafeteria workers, to the parade of psychiatrists and shrinks-in-training who stream in and out of her room at all hours. They chuckle. Flirt with her. Smile and tell her how good she looks. “Hey Baby” is a marked improvement after being admitted to the ER semi-conscious and babbling incoherently. Even I love that this is the first thing she can manage to say.
My mother has never let me in on her treatment, diagnoses or therapy. At the hospital, I have a chance to intervene, advocate for her, maybe even get some information. I talk on the phone with the psychiatrist who’s been treating her for the last year or two and prescribing all those medications she came into the hospital with. When I ask him about her diagnosis, whether she might be suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder—something I’ve long suspected—he tells me that her diagnosis is “almost irrelevant…probably bipolar or something or the other.”
“You mean you’ve prescribed all of these medications but you haven’t given her a diagnosis?” I ask.
“Have you met your mother?” he says.
The hospital doctors continue to run tests to rule out a stroke or other brain trauma. A neurologist tells me that she has a herniated disk, which he suspects is causing her to lose her balance and fall frequently. This would explain the bruises and lacerations, he says. He doesn’t mention the effect that antipsychotic medications mixed with booze have on a person’s equilibrium.
Because they need to get a baseline of her mental health, the attending psychiatrist takes her off all the psychotropic medications they gave her when she came into the ER. In the meantime, I tell him everything I know. About her depression and anxiety. Her history of suicide threats and attempts. Her decades-long drug and alcohol abuse. Again, I mention Borderline Personality Disorder.
I know my mother wouldn’t appreciate these contributions to her medical record. If she were clear-headed, she would be furious. But I want to help and figure she’ll forgive me if she ever gets better. I think that maybe this time, since I’m here, these doctors will get the whole story and they’ll prescribe an outpatient treatment plan that makes sense, assign her a kick-ass social worker, refer her to a competent psychiatrist who gives a damn.
The doctors nod knowingly but they don’t say much. They’ve probably seen this all before. So have I. I’ve seen it in the movies, on reality T.V., in the tabloids at the check out aisle. I’ve seen it with my own clients in court. Mental illness is on display everywhere. I also can’t help but wonder what they make of me. I’m so different from her. I present well. I’m articulate, polite. I ask all the right questions. But do they wonder if I’m afflicted too? I’m happy to disappoint them. At least so far.
In a few days, my mother comes out of the fog and begins to speak in complete sentences. I’m feeding her again. It’s surreal, but mostly because this role reversal comes to her so naturally.
“You don’t know me. It’s not your fault, though. It’s mine.” She’s on the verge of tears or just sounds like it.
“Do you want some more of this?” She’s graduated to solid food and I hold up a forkful of mystery meat for her to see. She shakes her head and keeps talking.
“I knew what I was doing when I gave you up…when I let you go live with your father. I didn’t want you to turn out like me.”
“Eat. Focus on getting your strength back,” I tell her.
“Why are you here?” she asks.
“The hospital called me,” I lie.
“You’re my daughter and that carries with it an obligation.”
“Ok.” This is when I begin to stiffen. To instinctively throw up my guard.
“I did the best I could for you when you were little and it’s your turn to do the best you can for me.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“I don’t want you feeling like some hero just because you’ve come here. It’s your duty to be here.”
I don’t respond. That’s what she wants. A reaction. Instead, I put down the fork and sit back in my chair. I look at her, study her face. She’s always been beautiful, more beautiful than I will ever be. Her faintly olive complexion frames large brown eyes and thick, fleshy lips. The skin around her eyes is still fairly wrinkle-free at sixty-five. Even now, destitute and a ward of the state, she finds a way to afford her Chanel lipsticks. If she’s taught me anything, it’s been to always pluck my eyebrows, do my hair, throw on a little rouge, even if the world around me is falling apart.
As I look at her, she continues to talk. “It’s much too late for us to repair the damage. We will never love one another the way a mother and daughter should. Maybe you’ll finally have some peace when I’m gone.”
“What do you mean when you’re gone?” I ask, even though I know exactly what she means.
“I’m going away. So you don’t have to worry about me anymore. I don’t want to be a burden to anyone.”
My mother knows something about burdens: her father sexually abused her from the age of three until the age of eleven or twelve when my grandmother finally left him. She lived those early years in Mexico City, where she was born into wealth and privilege. That all changed after the divorce and when my grandmother took my mother and her four siblings to the northern border town of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. A few years later, they crossed into Texas to live in Laredo. Two more children were added to the clan; my grandmother had remarried and divorced again. In the 1950s and in the years that followed, the family was poor, undocumented, vulnerable without a male head of household. My mother, the eldest, was responsible for her siblings. She dreamed of escape. I imagine that even then she was asking me—her unborn child—to save her.
In 1968, my mother gets pregnant and chooses to marry instead of cross the border into Mexico for an illegal abortion. She is twenty years old and leaves Laredo with my father, a Private First Class in the Air Force, to live with his parents in a working-class suburb of Detroit. She believes that living in a white world will erase the memories of abuse and inoculate her against poverty. She thinks my father holds the key to a brighter future. What she doesn’t know is that the key will only unlock for me, the child of two people who don’t even love each other.
I am born on December 19, 1968. In one Polaroid, I’m naked on a blanket patterned in psychedelic colors. My mother cups my bobbly head in one hand and smiles ear-to-ear, an expression I haven’t seen her wear in decades. In another old photo, I am a toddler in her arms, wearing a floppy hat and laying a pudgy hand on her Jackie O sunglasses. In yet another, I’m three or four and she’s brushed my hair into perfect curlicue pigtails. I sit happily next to her on a picnic blanket.
In the early ’70s, we move from Michigan to Texas. My parents fight. My mother wields a kitchen knife and my father slams a door. I’m seven years old when my father holds a bunch of clothes thrown over the top of his left shoulder. The fingers on his left hand are hooked underneath the wire hangers and are turning purple. With his free hand, he gives me a hug and says goodbye.
I’m eight years old when my mother quits her job as a secretary to marry her boss, another white guy. Jim is an alpha male with chiseled features and an imposing physique. Like Clark Kent, he’s from Kansas and we spend two Thanksgivings on the farm where he grew up. This is a problem because I generally fear the outdoors. I’m a city girl, a kid who walks three miles to school and races bikes with the boys in the neighborhood. Traffic doesn’t scare me but bugs do.
I have a rich friend, Lizzie. She spends the night at my house. Jim and my mother argue and one of them tells us to go outside in the middle of the night. Lizzie is afraid but I reassure her by telling her that this happens all the time.
I’m ten years old. My father picks me up every other Friday, except for the times he cancels, which infuriates my mother but I don’t understand why. Twice a month, she makes me ask him for the child support check.
My mother has divorced Jim and my dad has remarried. My stepmother is pregnant. I make a needlepoint pillow that says “BABY” in blue and pink letters. I idolize my stepmother. She’s nothing like the mother I have at home. She’s tall and blonde and drives an orange pillbox Porsche. Her smile shines like the force of the sun, bright and warm on my face. They live in the suburbs in a new house that looks like all the other houses on their street, in a neighborhood with manicured lawns and saplings in every yard, late-model cars in the driveways, kids playing and riding bikes. On Sundays when it’s time for me to go back to the city, I sit in the passenger seat of the Porsche and choke back tears so that no one will see me cry.
I live in Houston proper with my mother in a small, two-bedroom, garden apartment across the street from my elementary school. I’m a latch-key kid. I want to move to New York City one day to become a famous actress. I’ve never been to New York City but I imagine what it’s like every time I look at a jumbo poster of the skyline at dusk that I’ve taped to the wall in my bedroom.
My mom has many friends who are artists and we go to concerts and art openings. She finds a way to get me into theater school even though she can’t afford it.
She goes out a lot. When I’m home alone, I like to sing to myself in our living room mirror. Fame is my favorite movie soundtrack and Irene Cara’s Out Here on My Own is the number I perfect like it’s my future audition song.
My mom’s not really into being Mexican. We don’t speak Spanish to each other or go to Catholic church but sometimes she let’s loose and we cumbia in the living room. She shows me how to move my hips and where my feet go. She plays her records and we dance and dance while we clean the apartment.
I’m twelve years old. I still don’t realize that my mother is mentally ill. I don’t recognize sleeping during the day as a symptom of depression or driving drunk as a feature of alcoholism. But I begin to grow an instinct to travel away from the emotional No-Fly zones that border our mother-daughter relationship.
I’m thirteen when she stays out all night. I’m home alone and I’ve stolen some of her pot. I stay up late rolling joints and talking to a friend on the phone. Later, a stranger breaks into our apartment and holds a small knife to my back while I sleep in my mother’s bed. I scream and scare him away. When she gets home at 3 a.m., I tell her about it but she and her boyfriend don’t believe me. No one calls the police. I don’t sleep, worried that the man is in the closet or hiding under the bed. Thirty years later, my mother will tell me that she knew the man all along, that he was a lawyer who lived in the apartment across the courtyard.
I’m fourteen. I’ve been living with my father and stepmother in the Houston suburbs for two years but I’m on my way to spend the summer with my grandmother in Laredo as I do every year. I end up staying through the school year and the following summer. My mother calls occasionally. I answer the phone and hear her voice, froggy and distant. She needs help. No one loves her and she wants to kill herself. I listen but don’t know what to do.
I’m twenty-five years old when my mother’s third husband calls to tell me she’s in the hospital, that she tried to commit suicide.
I am twenty-eight and thirty-four and thirty-eight. I graduate from law school, get married, give birth for the first time. My mother is too depressed to be there.
I am forty-two years old and on the phone with a doctor in a psych ward. Someone has had my mother involuntarily committed.
“Can I talk to her?” I ask.
“She’s as wild as a caged animal. Try again in a few days,” the voice on the other line says.
After a few days, my mom is feeling better and talking in paragraphs. The attending psychiatrist is in her room conducting a psych eval. I’m standing in a busy hospital hallway with another neurologist who is explaining some more of her test results. My mother’s brain is normal. This surprises me as I size up the MRI image he’s showing me. Her brain looks like two halves of an alien melon. It is cauliflowered, skeleton white against a sea of black. Her brain looks so calm and quiet from this perspective. Free of tumors and cysts and other nefarious growths that might explain her bad behavior. I lean in and look a little closer. There’s no stroke, no aneurism. No signs that her synapses misfire or that her serotonin levels are out of whack. No physical evidence of the drugs she’s taken.
“So, she’s ok? No Alzheimer’s or dementia?” I ask. It occurs to me that neither of these diagnoses will explain a lifetime of mental illness but I ask anyway, maybe hoping she’s come down with something treatable.
“No, nothing other than some age-related shrinking, normal for someone her age,” says the doctor.
There it is on the screen: a disembodied, two-dimensional shrinking brain. I want to shake the neurologist, send him back to the drawing board, force him to find the reason that her brain doesn’t work properly and tell me why it’s been broken for so many years. The psychiatrist joins us in the hallway and tells me that he thinks she could be schizophrenic. I think: She doesn’t hallucinate or hear voices. And wouldn’t this have been diagnosed at a young age? These doctors keep getting it wrong.
I go in to see my mom. Two of my uncles have come, though they are off-and-on estranged from her. Her boyfriend is there and so is one of my mother’s friends.
She is sitting up against a mound of white pillows. Her brothers, boyfriend and friend are gathered around her bed in an assortment of hard chairs. I sit awkwardly at the foot of her bed and find myself imagining a twisted take on the final scene of The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy awakens from her dream and realizes that everyone she loves has been there for her all along. My mother is Dorotea, the Mexican prairie girl who’s been on a whirlwind trip to her subconscious and back again. But she’s lived to tell us all about a parallel universe in which there are no villains. In Ozlandia, her father is a kind and loving man who made sure she had a happy childhood. She grows up in a beautiful house with nannies and maids and tutors in the most exclusive neighborhood in Mexico City. She weekends in Cuernavaca and summers on Pacific Coast beaches. She surrounds herself with artists and bohemians and things that make her smile: art, high fashion, music. She travels the world, visits exotic places, meets interesting people and, when the time is right, she marries for love. She has a child and finds pure joy in being her mother. In Ozlandia, she is the best version of herself.
One of my uncles is fidgeting in his seat, playing with his eyeglasses. The T.V. is on in the background and I can hear gurneys and food carts being wheeled up and down the hall outside the room. My mother’s friend makes small talk. How’re you feeling, Rocio? You’re looking much better. You should be out of here soon.
My mother looks at each of us and I wonder if she’s taking stock of who is in the room and at her bedside, deciding who has been here for her all along. When her gaze lands on me, I look into the well of her dark eyes and want her to know, that in spite of our differences, I’m here for her. I know she will never be my home or my safe harbor and I will never be her hero. Still, she’s my mother and I want to feel a connection. But she looks away too soon. Or maybe I do.
Dini is a Mexican-American lawyer and writer whose work has appeared in Crack the Spine, The Más Tequila Review, Red Savina Review, Kweli Journal, Zombie Logic Review, Sixers Review, Bartleby Snopes, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, and Wild Quarterly. Her story "Amalia on the Border" was a finalist in The Texas Observer's 2013 short story contest judged by Dagoberto Gilb. Her latest short story, "Ghosting on the Rio Grande," is forthcoming in Abundant Grace, the 7th volume in the Paycock Press series of anthologies of fiction by Washington, D.C.-area women. She is also the editor of Origins Journal.