I wake up aware that I’m on display. The white ceiling melts into bare white walls oozing an antiseptic smell. I know why I’m here. I went crazy. There are no tracks in the ceiling for curtains to be drawn around my bed like most hospitals. I want to stick my thumbs into my ears and wiggle my fingers saying, “Booga booga,” but know this is not the time or place. These people will not have a sense of humour.
A crackly voice over a speaker announces, “Code White.”
I’m thirsty, but the water bottle beside my bed is empty.
A nurse is standing in an office with a window partition built into the room. I didn’t realize hospitals had rooms like this. The mattress crinkles like plastic under the sheet when I roll out of the bed, in a row of single beds. I walk past two other people lying in bed and walk up to the window. Without saying anything, I slide my empty bottle through a circular hole in the middle of the glass, and she, without saying anything, passes a full bottle back to me. I saw this once in a movie and I know I’m in lockdown. She is Nurse Ratched and I’m in my own sequel to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
I don’t want to be crazy like my mother. Death was her escape. I don’t want my children to live with the on-edge fear I had, afraid that something they’ll do or say will make them responsible for triggering a psychotic episode. I lived in that world of “if only” for too long.
I head back to bed. The mattress crinkles as I pull up the sheet to hide the gap of my blue gown.
Elvis’s song, “Blue Christmas” replaces the crackly voice. Mom’s favourite song. It’s always the songs that draw me back to that time. Even though I was just a teenager then, I remember her sitting beside the record player. I’m not like her. I don’t want to keep reliving this. But it won’t go away, not even here. The song flicking my mind, stinging my emotions, forcing me to remember what I try so hard to forget. And I can’t help but think if only I hadn’t wanted toast.
I keep Mom in sight in the living room when I go to the kitchen to make toast. She looks okay, hair and make-up done to perfection, listening to Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.” But I never know when they will come, the voices in her head.
So long as the record plays, I’m safe. The music distracts her from the voices. I look over at Mom when the needle lifts off the vinyl, afraid of what may happen. Alone. Dad safe at work. Leaving me. Getting me out of high school. Telling the principal, Mom isn’t “feeling well.” I hate those words, his code words for scary psychotic.
When Mom replaces the needle on the vinyl, I can breathe again and the rumbling in my stomach reminds me why I’m in the kitchen. Mom’s glare follows me. I try to sidestep the tango of emotion, but her eyes hold mine. When I reach for the handle on the breadbox, my elbow bumps the toaster. I pretend I don’t notice the broken handle lying on the counter or the hinges pulled out from the wood, so she won’t react.
The needle scratches across Elvis’s lyrics, and Mom bolts out of her chair. I freeze. When I see her hazel eyes bright with her demons, I’m sorry that I want toast.
“He’s coming back to kill me.” The chords in her neck protrude and her lips stretch to a thin line to spit out her phobia. “The breadbox slammed down three times to warn me that your dad is going to kill me with a gun or knife. Your Dad manipulates people, he controls them. We’re his puppets. He’s pulling the strings, making us do things. Don’t leave me,” she screams.
Hate etches fine lines across her face, like laugh lines, but they never smile. Her face tightens pinching her nose, turning her hazel eyes into menacing slits. Numbed by fear, I can’t move, can’t speak, my body vibrating as she grabs my shoulders shaking me to make me understand her terror. Her fingers kneading into my skin, nails digging viciously, when she throws me up against the kitchen cupboard. I hear the crack of my head as it hammers the wood before she slams me against the cabinet.
“You control people too!” she shrieks. “Who do you control? I want their names.”
I try to get away, but she thrusts me back, a pull handle on a drawer jabbing into my hip.
“Give me the names,” she yells and hurls me backward onto the countertop. I gasp, sucking up the smell of her VO5 hairspray, gulping for air when she slashes her arm across my chest. Her arm, a metal bar, that holds me down, while her boney elbow scores into my ribs. Her eyes are as terrified as mine. Her weight crushes me as she opens the knife drawer by my left hip. The sound of metal knife blades clang while Elvis croons, “Without you.”
I’m frozen. I can’t fight back. I have no breath to plead. She pulls out a butcher knife. The one we use at Thanksgiving and Christmas to carve the turkey. The wide 16-inch blade looks more like a guillotine above my head. Caught in the scratches on the vinyl, the lyrics, “without you,” keep repeating. Mom is smiling, her hand positioned for the kind of thrust that reminds me of the shower scene in Psycho and that eerie music grates in my head with Elvis taunting, “without you.” I look away, waiting for the blow I know will come, and see my 11-year-old neighbour’s face pressed against our glass front door, Girl Guide cookies in her hand, eyes wide.
“Run. Get out!” I yell. She’s frozen like me.
“Get out now,” I bellow louder.
Startled, my mother puts the knife down just as the cookies hit the cement of our front stoop and my neighbour disappears.
Mom sits at the kitchen table with pen and paper scribbling symptoms on a page. “What’s happening to me? What am I doing? There’s something wrong with me,” she says. Mom looks at me and mumbles, “the voices are telling me what to do. Why can’t you see. I’m a good girl. I do what I’m told.” As the list grows longer, she becomes more agitated, then crumples the paper up and throws it. “There’s nothing wrong with me,” she screams.
I run out of the house, down four blocks to the doctor’s office, burst through the door and say, “I need to see the doctor.”
“Do you have an appointment?” the receptionist asks.
“Take a seat.”
I can’t sit. I pace back and forth in the crowded waiting area. I stay quiet while another name is called, and a man follows the nurse down a hallway. My body shakes, and my head vibrates until the man comes out, and then I scream at the nurse, “I have to see the doctor.”
“It’s my mother. She tried to kill me.”
The nurse leads me into the doctor’s office. I relate my story to the doctor who advises me that mom is paranoid schizophrenic and warns me that in her present condition she may be suicidal. He advises me that in a couple of hours after his office closes, he will come to my house and examine my mother. I leave the doctor’s office and go to a phone booth to call my dad at work. His office is in Kitchener, a 40-minute drive from our home in Stratford. It’s two hours before the office will close. I am told he is out for the day. He left no contact number where he can be reached. There’s no one to call.
I don’t know why we had to move here away from family and friends. I’m not calling Jackie. University rescued her. She’ll want to come home. One of us needs to escape this life. Dad’s no help. It’s up to me.
When I arrive home, Mom is sitting beside the record player, smiling her big-toothed grin with Elvis stuttering. But she doesn’t notice, stuck in her own groove, trying to block out her voices. Shortly after. the doctor arrives and examines my mother at the dining table.
“Can’t you turn that off?” The doctor motions to the record player while Elvis stutters.
“It helps keep her calm.” My words breathy, grateful to have someone else in charge. Relief at last.
He moves his stethoscope over Mom’s back. “At least change the record.”
I welcome the excuse to walk away. I pull the record stand over by the couch and sit down. It would have been easier to sit in Mom’s chair to sort through the records, but I won’t sit in her chair doing what she does, afraid that it will turn me into her.
They are talking in quiet tones. Mom almost whispering her answers. I can breathe again. I don’t care what they’re saying. He’s taking over, so I don’t have to be in charge anymore.
When the doctor finishes, he sends Mom over to her chair by the record player. I put on The Beatles “Hey Jude” another one of her favourites. The lyrics, “to make it better,” palpitate through my body as I walk to the dining room. The doctor is talking to me, but it’s the Beatles I hear singing. “Better, better, better,” my feet thumping harder with the escalating beat. But I’m afraid to hope. Afraid it won’t get better.
“Where’s your father?”
“I don’t know.”
“When does he usually get home?”
“Not until late. Not until Mom goes to bed.”
We discuss the need for her to be hospitalized.
“She is paranoid schizophrenic,” he says and advises me which looney bin she will be put into and the procedures he will implement. I take notes to relay the information to my dad when he shows up.
“How old are you?” he asks.
“Do you have any relatives or adults that can stay with you here until your father gets home?”
“No. There’s no one. We just moved here four months ago.”
The doctor speaks to me like an adult and all the decisions are made by the two of us. He writes his phone number on a prescription pad, rips it off, and hands it to me.
“Have your father call me when he gets in,” he says. “If anything, else happens before he gets home, get out of the house and call me.”
“Thanks,” I say, watching him walk out the front door.
Dad gets home at 11 p.m.
“Where were you?” I ask. “I called all over.”
“I had to go vote. It’s election day.”
“You left me by myself when you knew this was the worst mom has ever been. You didn’t even leave a number where I could reach you.” I glare at him in silence until he looks down at his scuffed oxford shoes.
“I had an obligation to vote,” he says.
“What about me?” I yell. “You have an obligation to me too.”
“It’s my civic duty to vote.”
His words knock the fight out of me. How can I argue my life is more important than voting? Why would I need to? Why can’t he see? I can’t hear the lame excuses that are more important than me. It will hurt too much.
Dad’s face is twisted in pain. He can’t face the way mom is; the anger and hate she heaps on him. The fear we live with crushes his mild spirit. Dad who could never say anything negative about anyone, pretends life hasn’t changed, mom hasn’t changed, and takes comfort in routine.
“You have to drive Mom to Goderich Mental Institute tomorrow. They’re expecting her. Here’s the address and call the doctor.” I shove my notes at him.
The next day, Mom is angry but gets into the car without a fight. It’s a long, quiet ride until we drive by the “Welcome to Goderich,” sign. Then Mom says, “You can’t lock me up. I’m not going. Why do you hate me? How will you manage without me? You don’t know how to pay the bills, collect the rent, make meals, do laundry. You can’t do anything without me.”
She’s right. Mom’s the one who looks after us and is business savvy. She’s the one who made the decision to move here. She chose the house. It’s a large flat in downtown Stratford above an event wholesale supply company. She bought the building, so we can get the rent from the business to offset the mortgage. Mom may be mentally ill, but she is still business savvy and unbeatable at bridge, even though we think she cheats; we can’t catch her.
“Why don’t you make me shut up?” Mom screams. “Take charge for once in your life. Be a man!”
There’s a pleading quality to her voice. Then, she leans forward from the back seat poking her head between us in the front. Her high pitch shrill fills the car, “Tell me off.”
“Shut up,” Dad yells.
It’s the first time I have ever heard him raise his voice.
Mom falls back in her seat laughing then crying, relieved that maybe this time he will take charge.
Four months later, we travel this road again to pick mom up and bring her home. We are heading out the double-door exit when mom says, “I don’t know what the doctors will do without me. I confer with them on every case. They rely on my judgment.”
I look at dad and say, “We’re taking her out like this?”
Dad won’t look at me. He keeps walking, head down, holding mom’s hand.
Once home, living our pretend lives for the neighbours, mom curbs her physical violence with cruel, hurtful remarks. Her verbal attacks can last for an hour or more. I plead with dad to make her stop, but he always answers with, “It’s the illness, it’s not your mother.”
Like that somehow makes it right when she screams at me, “No one will ever love you.”
For the next two years, my world revolves around Bob, my high school sweetheart. We are together every weekend. Sometimes when he is working after school, I ride my bike to a big oak tree across the road from the grocery store to be close to him. Sitting under the shade tree, I write Bob inspired poetry. At the end of grade 12, with no intention of going to college, Bob starts working full time for his employer. It is a large chain grocery store and soon he is sent out on the road to work in their London store. He doesn’t get home often but, each time he does he asks me to marry him. I love him but keep telling him we are too young. I go on to grade 13 with hopes of going to college. When Mom finds out Bob has proposed to me a couple of times, she makes plans to move to Kitchener to break us up. Dad of course agrees to the move but is surprised when we are in our new home, mom kicks him out. With only the two of us in the house, Mom is no longer on her guard. She learns how to break me down, make me cower. I am the one who sent her away. I am the one who needs to be punished.
“There are only two people in this world I hate and that’s you and your father. But I hate you more because you were the one who sent me away. I hate you.” Her spittle flicks onto my skin. “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you.”
She knows how to push me into a corner without ever touching me. Making me back away from her and her vicious words, cringing until my back hits the wall with no escape. I can’t retaliate with hurtful words or even the truth because it gets too scary when I push back.
This goes on for months. She’s right. I’m to blame for sending her to that place which didn’t help her and now there are two of us who are broken. I never want to be in charge ever again. I don’t want things to be my fault. Better to be a follower, broken, and indecisive.
Eighteen and in grade 13, I dread going home after school and work. I try being invisible, tiptoeing around, avoiding any kind of interaction. I can’t sleep, her words torment me. Even alone in bed at night, I tremble, my body twitching for hours with me unable to control it, afraid that her demons will get me while I sleep.
I get up to get a glass of milk. My hand shakes so badly, I can’t drink from the glass and put it down when I hear a quiet knock at the kitchen door. I don’t know why I’m not afraid to open the door. It’s late.
Bob is there. I can’t stop trembling when I tell him what’s happening. He is the only one who cares about me.
“You can’t live like this anymore,” he says taking charge, confident and controlling. The opposite of my dad. Bob is the person I wish dad was.
“We’re getting married,” Bob says.
My White Knight, my hero rescuing me from this life to give me a happily ever after.
The crackly voice interrupts the music again, “Code White, Code White.”
Something so scary happening that they use a code to bring nurses and security guards on the run. Shifting in bed, tugging at the blue gown to close the gap at the back, I feel the poetic justice of it all. My mother, twenty-five years later, finding a way to punish me from the grave to make me crazy like her.