It’s August and it’s San Francisco so it’s cold. While I’m walking home from work there’s a call from a Portland number I don’t recognize. I answer. It’s a friend of my mother’s, phoning to let me know that my mother has tried to kill herself, that she’s at a hospital in an induced coma. I slump onto a cement car stop in a parking lot and listen to the details, dig in my purse for a pen, turn the phone away from the wind, write down the hospital’s name and the room number, watch people walk down Polk Street on their way home or to happy hour, thinking how normal they all look, how careless they act while my mother is in a coma. Her friend says she’s not sure how bad it is. I try to figure out how to phrase my question correctly, politely: “You mean she might die?” but I can’t think of how it’s supposed to be said, how a person asks this of a near-stranger regarding her own mother, so I don’t ask it.
My mother is 57 and I am 32. This isn’t the first time she has tried to kill herself. The other time was when she was 32 and I was seven. Back then, she was a single mother of four kids — my three brothers and me. She’d been married twice, divorced twice. We lived in a little house that my brothers and I came into and went out of with impunity while she slept days, worked at a bar nights. The house had two bedrooms and one attic. One of my brothers was still a baby, not yet two years old. That’s a lot of numbers for one paragraph. Here are some more:
Number of brothers I didn’t get to see anymore when my mother gave up custody of all of us and we went into foster care: two.
Number of families, total, my brother and I lived with before graduating high school: seven.
Number of years old I was when I re-met my mother: nineteen.
Average number of times my mother and I talk on the phone per week: three. We’re close, like best friends sometimes. We talk about everything, almost. But then. We’ll never be close enough. We don’t talk about the difficult things. We don’t talk about the days when we were a family of five. I don’t ask her what number of times she had to put her signature on what number of lines, what number of forms she had to fill out to let go of all four of her children. One? Five? Twelve? How does that work?
The mother I know now is a very small, mellow person who wears feather earrings and three or four rings on each hand and gauzy scarves and a denim jacket with a big peace sign on the back, and sometimes when we talk she seems very old and wise, and sometimes she seems very young and simple. Her cell phone ring tone is “All You Need Is Love.”
I don’t call her Mom. I don’t remember what it felt like to call her that. I write it in cards, but when we’re together I can’t think of a comfortable way to address her, so I don’t call her anything.
Although. She is a lot of things. I look just like her, and sometimes when I’m leaving a friend a voicemail or giving a stranger directions on the street, I have to stop, startled for a second, because I’m intonating my words in the exact same way she does.
All these years later, and now she's tried it again. It comes as a shock, because I hadn’t thought ... I don’t know what I hadn’t thought. I try to pinpoint it. I’m still sitting on the car stop in the parking lot, and it seems important to decide, before I get up and continue my walk home and call the hospital, why exactly my mother doing this has come as a shock. I come up with: I guess I just thought she was happy. Well, not in an ecstatic-to-be-living-in-the-world sort of way, but in a regular way — she crochets barefoot sandals, she has a garden — that just-enough sort of happy that prevents people from wanting to die. That’s the kind of happiness I had been envisioning in my mother’s life, I guess. Tomato-and-corn-garden happy.
The hospital puts me on the line with a doctor who has treated her. The doctor says she’s in serious but stable condition, that they are keeping her in a coma because she fights her breathing tube. She recounts the circumstances that led to her being brought in, because I am her daughter and I am the one who gets to hear these things explained slowly, and with care. She took bottles of pills (two), she drank bottles of wine (two), she texted strange messages, she choked on her vomit, she got some of it into her lungs, and when her friend found her, she was unresponsive.
I call my ex, because I know he’ll go with me. We haven’t seen each other in two months. We take the Greyhound to Portland, riding overnight and half the next day. Number of miles: six hundred and thirty-five. Cramped against our seats, we don’t sleep. We ask each other questions that require inconsequential answers:
Do you like drinking fountains?
Do you hate balloons?
Peanut butter and honey or jam and cream cheese?
At the hospital, my mother is smaller than she is in real life, because she can’t move and her eyes are closed. The tube down her throat, breathing for her, is larger than I’d imagined those tubes should be. I take one of her hands, but there are people in the room I’ve never met, so I don’t talk to her and I don’t cry.
My ex and I leave, find a hotel. We put our bags on the floor and take off each other’s clothes, and it’s a good thing to have him here, this person I know much better than anyone, and he knows me and doesn’t think it’s strange that I didn’t cry while I watched my mother’s lungs being jogged up and down by a machine. We should be naked together while it’s still light out because there’s nothing else I can think of that we should do or have to do.
We go back and forth to the hospital on the MAX train, and the number of days my mother stays unconscious is three, and then I get a call that she’s awake. I'm nervous on the train. “What will I say to her?” I ask my ex.
“You’ll know when you get there,” he says. “You don’t have to decide now.”
In truth, I don’t remember what I said, and I think there’s a reason for this: whatever it was, it didn’t really mean anything.
I’m sure something meant something. Maybe the bottle of apple cider-scented lotion I brought for her, or how from her bed she held up a teddy bear I’d given her a million years ago, just holding it up to show me, not saying anything. Or how she yelled at the nurse who was remaking her bed that she liked the pillows (there were four) the way they were before, and that it would be impossible, now, to recreate their former positions. Or how her boyfriend took a brush and ran it down gently through her oily hair, and I watched him and wondered if he was as angry at her as I was, knowing you could be this tender to someone and at the same time want to scream into their faces until they ... what? Undid every time they’d ever left you or tried to leave you? And so that’s why we were tender, because what was the point of being anything else?
I kept thinking about how small my mother looked in her hospital bed. Impossibly so. When I was small, she liked fairies. She had a beautifully illustrated book of fairies in flight and in their tiny homes and nude among thatches of grass, and I remember looking at them and thinking of them as distinctly hers, not as mine, in the way a child can selfishly claim what’s around them. These strange pictures represented her secrets, and I remember them still. Does anyone else?
Since she’d woken up, everyone who came to visit my mother spoke to her like she was a five-year-old, and this, finally, was what made me cry. In the hall, I sobbed into my ex’s neck that everyone was using small words and hushed voices, that no one was saying anything that made any sense, mostly they were just asking her what she’d eaten for lunch, what kinds of foods they could go out and find and bring back for her. Like: suicide attempts! Maybe they make people have the strangest cravings! Anything. Sweet and sour pork? Watermelon? Mocha-chocolate-chip ice cream?
I wanted to clap my hands like a teacher signaling the end of recess and say to my mother, “Okay, what happened? Why did you do this? Start from the beginning,” but I knew I wouldn’t. I was a good daughter, I think, a daughter taking the train every day to visit her mother in the hospital, offering polite chit-chat to those stationed in her room at all hours to make sure she didn’t again try to harm herself. She did say sorry one time. She did say it and cry until I thought her face could break apart, and I held her hand and said, “It’s okay. It will be okay,” and she went to sleep.
On the way back home, I tried to tell my ex about the way my words sometimes come out sounding exactly like my mother's, and he asked me why it worried me so much. I didn’t have an answer ready. Because for as long as I live I may keep becoming my mother? And is this a good thing? A bad thing? And am I really becoming her, or do I just see myself through a lens of her? If we try to act as archeologists of those who gave us life, what are the artifacts we uncover and keep? Objects? Words? And where do they go when we’re not thinking of them, when we’ve moved away too many times and somehow they’re no longer there at all?
When we got back home to San Francisco, my ex and I grew distant again, and now we don’t speak. That’s the strange thing. I met him four years ago, and I know him better than I know my mother, I’m sure I do, but boyfriends we learn we can let go of. We let go of them, sometimes, with a stomach twisting sense of loss that even can border on pleasure.
Now when I wonder if my mother is happy, I think it’s probably not something I'll ever be able to quantify in terms of what she’s growing in the garden, or by thinking of a book or a teddy bear or a bottle of lotion. I want to start looking more closely at her face and listening more carefully to her words. Yesterday on the phone she was laughing. I don’t remember why, but we were both laughing so much.
Melissa Chandler lives and writes in San Francisco.