When last I wrote about mother I was feeling contemplative, if not somewhat generous, about her state of unwellbeing. Convinced, not for the first time in my life, that something was actually wrong with her this time (fool me once, shame on you. fool me dozens of times… well…) I gave in to a modicum of nostalgic sentiment, choosing to forgive if not forget. When she and her husband returned to Florida, he was sure she was imminently dying (as was I) and signed her up for batteries of medical testing, assuming one would determine the cause of her impending demise. He dutifully accompanied her to each and every appointment. I breathed the sigh of relief that her distance always affords me and continued on my merry way. Toward the end of the summer I got a call from him.
I braced myself a bit before answering his call. “There is nothing wrong with her!” he literally spat out in breathless exasperation without any sort of preamble. I was dumbstruck. I made him repeat it several times. There… is nothing… medically wrong… with her. She passed every single medical test with flying colors. Basically she is healthy as a horse, a fine specimen of 74 years.
I was stymied. It didn’t make sense. It so conflicted with the image of the shuffling zombie-like weeping whimpering vacant shell of a human being I’d encountered in July. How could this be?! What could this be?! I spluttered semi-accusatory disbelieving questions at him, ending with, “So, bottom line, she’s been faking?!” He didn’t know. He did say that as the doctor shared the results, mother’s glassy vacant eyes began to focus, she sat up a bit straighter and there was practically a skip in her step (as in not a hint of shuffle) by the time they were walking to the car. He was as bewildered as I was.
I spoke with mother a few days later. She sounded fairly clear-headed. But as she talked I noted a distinct edge to her voice. And I’d heard that edge before. Like the hiss and rattle of a venomous snake, there is no mistaking the tenor of a Borderline about to strike. She was adamant that she was not just sickly, but dying, with a capital D. Her agitation ratcheting up from the doctors all being fucking pissants to the medical profession being staffed by morons to her growing awareness and understanding that she is the only human being with a brain in their head to her conclusion that she is sick and tired of being treated like shit by every asshole with a college degree who thinks they are better than her. That last part specifically directed at this asshole with a college degree who she believes treats her like shit, because I (mistakenly according to her) think that I am better than she is. Followed up by a thinly veiled threat that one underestimates her at their own peril.
I made sure to get off the phone quickly before I could get caught too deep in the quagmire, splattered with too much of her acidic sputum. I made it another few weeks unscathed. But as the saying goes, you can run, but you cannot hide for long. She reiterated her insistence that something dreadful was wrong with her. She was angry that the medical attention she was getting was, according to her, substandard at best, acerbically suggesting she’d be better off going to a veterinarian.
The turnaround to hysteria and blubbering was quicker this time (thankfully). She was back in bed sleeping days away and crying inconsolably before I knew it. Followed in rapid-succession by elegiac flamboyant descriptions of her severe medical distresses that are not taken seriously enough by anyone. The cycles continued unabated, uninterrupted, unrepentant. The one common thread throughout, the fact that she is a one-stringed harp, strumming singularly, exclusively and repetitively on her one and only note: herself.
At some point in the fall I suggested that perhaps her maladies might be of the psychological rather than medical sort. She admitted that she had an appointment with a new psychiatrist, but wasn’t overly optimistic given the fact that she’d fired every therapist she’d ever gone to because they didn’t know half the things she did.
Her phone calls, though not frequent, are tedious at best. Never a single question, comment, thought or even consideration for or about anyone else. I answered her calls less and less frequently. Less and less interested in listening to the litany of her personal pandemonium. To be brutally honest, I don’t have that kind of time in my day to waste. I’m more than well aware that who her audience is matters little if at all to her. She’d talk as much to a cardboard cutout.
After not taking her calls for a short while, I picked up out of guilt one day in early December. She started off weepy about her *condition*. Back to square one with sleeping all day, crying whenever she wasn’t sleeping and being shaky and anxious all the time. She began sobbing hysterically about Peter at one point, saying she hadn’t heard from him and when last she had he was planning to move out of the halfway house he was living in to go live with a *great guy* he met on the street. We all know that story all too well. But before I could have a response at all she was launching back into her recitation of aches, pains and other malignancies. As an aside to that catalog, she threw in almost off-handedly, that she was being prescribed medical marijuana by one of the myriad of her physicians. She paused for dramatic effect and when I didn’t respond she said angrily, “I know exactly what you’re thinking Hali. And I am NOT a drug addict.” It’s frightening how she can actually read my mind sometimes. She went on to snarl at me in dangerously clipped tones that every single one of the dozens of medications she takes daily are *real* medications and prescribed by actual doctors and medical professionals (those self same moronic pissants she knows more than). “I am not some street trash junkie” she hissed. I ignored the fact that I had been thinking just that and asked if she had seen the new psychiatrist. She had in fact. “I had to fire her too. Stupid as the day is long. She didn’t even listen to a word I had to say and wanted to take me off the medications I’m on and try new ones that I used to be on a long time ago.” Then she was back to whimpering, inconsolable babbling.
She texted later asking why I never talk to her, never call her, don’t care about her. Her text went on to say that she knew it was because of her “mental condition” and the fact that she always cries whenever she talks to me. She said she knows her sadness is hard for me because I’m not a very kind or compassionate person.
I know I shouldn’t have, but I wrote back. “The crying is actually preferable to your meanness”. Of course this infuriated her, as I knew it would. She spat back defensiveness every which way from Sunday about how she has no idea what I’m talking about and how she is the kindest person in the history of humankind, not a mean bone in her body, wouldn’t hurt a fly, nicest sweetest woman on the planet, blah blah blah, and calling me all kinds of names.
Last week, walking along a busy city street, my head down to avoid the wintry wind in my face, I watched the sidewalk cracks slip beneath my steps. “Don’t step on the crack or else you’ll break your mother’s back”, that old childish rhyme taunted in my head. I didn’t alter my steps one way or the other. Neither purposely treading on nor evading the sidewalk cracks. But the cracks are unavoidable, inescapable. My mother has fallen through the cracks her entire life. Not sick or dangerous enough in any significant way to ensure treatment, if there was actually any treatment for her malady. So she has wallowed in the vacuous space of misery of her own making for 74 of the longest years. I, too, have fallen through the cracks, sometimes in my attempt to side-step them and other times in defiance, deliberately pacing my stride to crush the crack, if even metaphorically. A dance of missteps I think we are both losing.