One. Two. Three. One. Two. Three. Circular Motion. Circcculllarrrrr motion! I caught myself narrating, a “gift” passed down from my mother. It gave me ease, and patience for the day. As a girl I would sit on her granite bathroom counter, and both watch and listen as she chanted her motions. Brush brush brush I heard as I was mesmerized by the bronzer’s soft color that took over her olive face. Brush brush brush. Lotion was more of a breezed “q” sound, like quuuu quuuueeewww. And when her eyebrows lost their way, a “pluck pluck pluck” ensued. These mornings in her bathroom––her in her plush robe, and me not yet dressed––were golden. Dad was gone, sister away, and it was just us. Just her motions, and the echo of them bouncing off the mirrors and softly into my ears.
Often times I would dangle my feet off the edge of the counter, and on special occasions she let me put them into her deep marble sink as I stared deeply into the mirror. I never liked what was reflected back, but beside me she would chant, beautiful beautiful beautiful as I poked and prodded my tiny nose, and plump lips. I wondered if other girls watched their mother make up. If other mothers sang their actions, if other mothers brought their every movement to life. It wasn’t until I was five I “learned” this meant something was missing, distinct, off.
It was winter, and my father had put us to bed early, the quickest way to warm our feet and keep the cost of heat down. Tucked beneath the many covers I heard my sister begin to snore as I lay awake waiting for sleep to enfold me. I named the objects in my room. Pillow Pillow Pillow. Duck duck duck. Window Window, Light! I found sheep distracting. Instead I chanted inside my head the way mom would. Knowing all was in place in our pink bedroom, all was quiet, all was accounted for, I could loosen my grip on consciousness, and let go. But alas, this cold night held no such fate. I imagined hours had gone by, and assumed all were dosing under our two story roof. I lay quiet, until I heard the phone ring, expecting it would be endless, but it was cut off after two quick reverberations through the house.
I climbed out of bed, eased open our door and crawled to the white stair bannisters. My father was below, hand over head, phone to right ear. I hadn’t noticed at dinner but his eyes looked sunken, hollow, surrounded by dark circles.
“It’s getting worse,” he said. “Mom, I don’t know what to do.” I had never heard my father speak this way, like a child. He sounded small, broken, lost. I yearned to call his name, and make it better, but the small terror building inside stopped me.
“Every day is a battle. The chanting was one thing, but the constant counting and calling. The lists. The barrage of sound. The repeat of movements. She gets up from bed, walks to the bathroom. And then repeats that five times, narrating every action. She talks to her feet and her hands.” His voice began to crack as I understood the subject. Mother.
“I don’t know what the girls think. You know how it is, or was. We used to think it was cute. But something is off. She’s almost mechanical, yet unpredictable. I’m exhausted. I haven’t slept in weeks. I don’t know what to do.” The pit in my stomach grew to the size of a watermelon. Nothing was wrong with my mother.
He paused. I could hear the sound of my grandmother’s voice coming from the phone, but it was unclear what words she used. “Maybe I can send the girls to you until we figure this out? I am bringing her to the doctor tomorrow, and the day after I return to work. I can’t leave the girls alone with her.” At this I grew angry. I spent most days with my mother, it was perfect.
Though this night remains crystal clear in my memory––the next few minutes are mushy. Below me was my father crying to his own mother, because mine was not right, she was upset in the head. She was lost in her chanting, in the listing. I wanted to scream that he was wrong, but all I could muster was to stifle the sound of my sobs, and crawl back into my bed. I didn’t sleep that night. It was one of the first I recall, where dreams never came, but lying awake was full of nightmares. Mother was sick? Mother was crazy? Where would they take her? Could they fix her? But I didn’t want them too. I loved her words. She was different, and I loved her. Nothing was wrong. Nothing was wrong. Nothing was wrong.
I remember watching the snow drift down outside, and being warm in my bed but cold in my body. It was the first time another had acknowledged mom’s actions as odd. I never felt this way when we were alone, but I had started to notice the way people starred at her in the store. It was because she was special, no one else had a mother like her. Was I pretending not to be concerned or embarrassed? Did I really have no idea until that fateful call that she was perhaps crazy? Maybe even insane? I think back to that night often, and can’t help but feel for the little girl who realized all was not so, who finally was face to face with her mother’s illness. For it wasn’t just a game or narration, it was her brain skipping beats on poorly constructed loops. It was a mistake. She was wrong, she wasn’t right. She wasn’t okay.
It’s a shattering day when a child learns the world isn’t perfect, their parents aren’t what they thought, and life will in fact be painful. After that call the dominos crashed quickly, without following the path or pattern my family had initially set out. In the morning my father acted like all was normal, even though miraculously Grandma would be flying in from Michigan, and after picking her up she would take us to a museum.
“But dad, it’s the first day of school! What if someone chooses the desk I want.” I remember my sister bursting into tears. “You don’t miss the first day, it’s the best one,” she huffed. Mother was still in her bedroom, and any time I attempted to open the door, my father would give me something else to do, “for grandma’s sake.”
When we were alone with Grandma Jean, my sister finally cooled off, and was pleased about the surprise escape. We were promised popcorn, ice cream, and the museum— who would choose school over that??
I would have.
For I knew this wasn’t just a day at the museum. Something was happening. Everything was wrong. And why didn’t I say anything, and why didn’t anyone realize I knew? That I could feel that? For decades I blamed my father for this. He handled it all wrong, he fucked this up, he should have seen me. He was suppose to protect not disregard me. For years I told myself this, and the longer the record played the further and further we grew apart.
I would have chosen school over all of this. I would have let my mother repeat herself for years on end if it meant going to school and retuning home to her snacks and her words. I would have chosen class over the dead animals we saw at the exhibit, the fake hair and glass eyes. While my sister found them mystical, I was confronted with their fraudulence. This wasn’t real. This wasn’t true. My grandma held my hand, but who was holding my heart? Why was she pulling me to and fro, sprinkling us with sugary snacks instead of sitting us down and explaining what would happen when the sun set.
That day marked the first time I lost (never to regain) trust for adults. It was the day I decided school was the safest place to be. It was reliable, continuous, it was there. It didn’t disappear when you returned home. I have often been asked in my adult life what inspired me to get my PhD and teach. It wasn’t until I braved therapy I realized what school was for me. It was safe. It was the place that would make everything normal, it meant mother would be home. It meant nothing had changed. School was stable, sure. School was and is everything my family has never been. School was structure, honest, “right in the head.” School was everything my mother was not.
I often catch myself imaging my mother in the white jacket she adorned for the next ten years. I never lived under a roof with her again, in fact I often felt suffocated and sick just being under the same one, in the same room with her. She never returned home, and it took me thirty years to build a new one.
After that day my father discovered just how “disturbed” she was, and within a month she was living in an insane asylum, passing her days in a straight jacket, muttering to herself. My sister, at the age of 18, moved to the same part of town, and would visit her daily. We often fought about this.
“Mother is the same. She was always like this, she was always crazy. Once you accept that, you can accept her.”
This upset me more than anything. First, it was false. And second, if it were true, WHY DID NO ONE TELL ME. Why was it so easy for her to accept this? Did it mean she always knew? Was she a better daughter? Was she stronger? Did she love our mother more? The schism between my family and I started as a crack, and over years lacking answers and communication it grew bigger and bigger. I pushed them farther away and blamed everyone for everything. It was awful of my mother to pretend she was okay. How could she do that to her daughter? How irresponsible to have children. How could my sister have known she was ill and not tell me? Why didn’t my father act accordingly? Why? Why? Why?
It took years to shed the questions, to crawl my way out of the stacks of inquiries and blame I had buried myself under. And now, as I sit in my car and look at my own daughter in the rear view mirror, I can’t help but let go of all the mishaps and wrong doings. I have forgiven everyone. Everyone except myself. Why couldn’t I love my mother when she needed me most? Why did she morph into something wrong and terrifying when the chanting was suddenly named? What made me love her more than anyone, over night became the exact thing that drove us apart. The thing that made it unbearable to be in the same room with her. It seemed everyone had lied to me, but I knew that wasn’t it— I just never was smart or in-tune enough to understand what was going on.
And years and countless degrees later, I still had no answers. I made it my life’s work to answer questions and dig as deep as possible into my mind. Who would I have been had I not dedicated my life to answers? And “being”/“doing” it “right?” What else might I have studied? Would I even have gone to university? Oh mother, all these questions, and all the answers I ever came to never brought me back to you. And now, all I have to bridge our gap is to repeat everything I do, any chance I get.
I caught my daughter putting on her jellies this morning, and as she buckled she muttered jellies, jellies, jellies. My heart dropped to my chest, as I was brought back to the bathroom mirror, brought back to the safety of my mothers words. I scooped my little one up in my arms and told her I loved her. She squinched her face, and put her button nose up to mine. Nose, nose, nose I said. She giggled. These moments with my daughter were both painful and beautiful. Was she comforted and humored by the word tweets, the same way I was as a girl? Did this make her love me more? And could it one day tear us apart? My father begged us for years to get our genes tested, to see what diseases or illnesses lay dormant. I refused. And for years I thought it irrelevant, I had never chanted or talked to limbs the way mother had, I couldn’t possibly be following in her footsteps.
And then my darling girl was born, and my first words to her were in repetition: beautiful beautiful beautiful. When they took her from me to clean, I burst into tears. Where was my mother, and why had I abandoned her?
Abandon, abandon, abandon.