The first time I saw death, I didn’t recognize it.
She was a young mother of two, and she was battling breast cancer. I was maybe 13 or 14 at the time, and my mother had brought her a casserole. Maria was her name, and her greyish skin was stretched tightly over the fragile-looking bones of her face. Her clothes hung loosely on her thin frame. Her hair was lank, and her eyes were strangely empty.
There was a hush over the whole house while we were there; even her small children, the oldest of whom was about seven at the time, made little noise. Death hung heavily in the air, the stench stale and bitter, but I did not recognize it.
When death came for my own mother some two decades later, I chose not to recognize it. She had that same gray, stretched-tight skin. Her clothes hung on her body loosely, as if it were no more than a hanger. Her hair was thin and limp, often dank with sweat. Her eyes were hollow in her skeletal face. I didn’t want to see death in her, but it was there, its pungent aroma permeating every pore of her skin.
She’d been dying by inches for a long time, but none of us saw it. I’d gotten the phone call some months previously, the phone call in which she told me she had myelodysplastic syndrome. My mom told me it wasn’t a big deal; she told me she’d be fine. I knew she was lying, but I lied right back when I told her that of course it would be. “Your doctors will take care of you,” I said. We both knew what nonsense it was. But lies helped us feel better.
She had told me she’d been anemic for a long time, years in fact. And she had. My mom had always had health problems. She had had a heart murmur and mitral valve prolapse, she had had asthma and she had arthritis, she had had hypothyroidism, and she had gastro-esophageal reflux. My mom was a doctor’s dream. She could help them put their kids through college and buy them a boat, we joked.
But this was different. I knew it. She knew it. Something in her voice told me this was different. Maybe it was the echo of fear. Maybe it was the emptiness of acceptance. I knew in my heart that my mom would not be ok. This wasn’t just another one of my mom’s health issues. This was bad. We lied, and we smiled at one another across the phone lines, and we hung up, making promises we both knew were empty.
As soon as the line clicked silent, I did what I do best as a writer: I began to research. What I found frightened rather than reassured me. MDS can be mild, or it can kill within months. I didn’t know then, but my mom would be in the latter group. She would be dead within months.
She didn’t die in a blaze of glory. She simply faded away, each day slipping further away from us, as the tide washes gently out to the sea. She would develop new, inexplicable bruises. Her transfusions and medications helped little, if at all. Just as frightening, her mind was dimming. She did not seem to be in the moment. Some days she would forget she spoke with me, or she would remember things that had not happened. She was only 56.
My mom was disappearing before my eyes, and I had no way to hold onto her. It was horrifying to watch her slip, slip, slip into I didn’t know where. She developed a massive bruise on her hip, and it just grew and grew. As it became a softball-sized lump of blood, our fear became palpable. What was it? The doctors drained it, but they told us that it could come back, that more could come back, and each time she fell or even bumped into things, she could trigger a series of events that would lead to internal hemorrhaging, and there was nothing any of us could do to stop it.
Her symptoms became ever more bizarre and terrifying as her life ebbed away so slowly and yet so quickly.
Death became something dreadful, something fearsome. My mom was slipping away into this dark abyss, and she was frightened. I was frightened. I wasn’t ready to lose her. I’d only just gotten my mom back. I’d only just found her.
That’s because my mom’s health problems were more than just physical. My mom had bipolar disorder. She’d been diagnosed when I was very young, before I could even remember. I think her bipolar disorder might have had more of an effect on her life than all her other conditions combined.
Mental illness carries with it such a shame, such a stigma, and for much of her life, she was afraid to seek help. She was afraid to even admit she had a problem. Oh, how she suffered for that decision! How we all suffered.
My mother’s depressions were dark and deep. She would lie in bed for days at a time. We would not see or hear from her, and my dad, who was in the military, was rarely home. That meant it was up to my brother and me to take care of ourselves and our house to the best of our ability. We would make our meals, get ourselves to school, and handle whatever else we needed done.
It wasn’t altogether awful. We might have enjoyed having the attention of a loving parent, but I’d never known differently. I adapted, and I loved immersing myself in books and playing with neighborhood friends. I kept myself busy, and I always found something fun to do.
I was five when the depressions first changed into something more awful. My brother was making peanut butter toast, a simple and convenient breakfast, when the peanut butter jar slipped out of his small hands and shattered onto the kitchen floor. The mess it made was quite spectacular, with glass gouging out bits of linoleum and peanut butter stickily globbed across the floor.
My brother and I gaped at each other, unsure of how to begin cleaning the disaster. We had to get to school, but we couldn’t leave the kitchen in this state. The roar behind us woke us from our shock.
“What have you done?” she shrieked. “What have you done?” She moved across the small kitchen with lightning speed and jerked my brother up by his arm, screaming the entire time. “What have you done? What have you done? What have you done?” It was as if she was a broken record, unable to say anything else. She kept jerking him, and one of our metal-framed kitchen chairs toppled over.
The rattle woke me out of my shock, and I skittered across the floor and made myself small behind the table, hoping she wouldn’t notice me.
Blind with rage, she made that God-awful roaring noise again, and her arm yanked back, releasing him. Before either my brother or I could say anything, she slapped him, full force, across the face. She pulled back and slapped him again. Blood trickled from a gash in his lip where her ring had cut him, and he started sobbing so hard he could barely catch his breath. I squatted down and cowered behind the table, afraid to even breathe, petrified she might see me.
My brother’s legs had given out by this point, so she jerked him up again and sat down hard, all in one fluid movement, yanking him across her lap as she did so. She began spanking him, brutally, so severely that my brother’s cries eventually stopped only because he ran out of breath and tears.
When her rage was finally spent, she let him slip down from her lap, and she walked out of the kitchen as if nothing abnormal had happened. My brother collapsed, hiccupping and gasping for air. I continued to huddle behind the table, terrified but so thankful that I’d escaped whatever had just happened.
I later learned that that was mania. And we were to experience it again and again, more and more brutally, until our hearts and our bodies were scarred beyond recognition.
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