By Stephanie Farrell
My mom often joked that the second baby should be called “the nervous breakdown baby.” I’d have found this funnier if I hadn’t been her second baby and if she hadn’t subsequently had a nervous breakdown. Now, with two children of my own, my stepfather reminded me that I am the same age she was when she was hospitalized. It was a gentle nudge, his way of telling me not to take on too much, but it made me feel like my biology has faulty wiring. Now on those days when I feel isolated or exhausted, I picture an old kitchen timer, ticking louder and faster right before the buzzer goes off. Time’s up—this is all you can take, no more.
In the years before her breakdown, Mom put on a fabulous act. She was Supermom. She set up a preschool in our garage and taught all the neighborhood kids. She taught us how to bake cookies, make collages, and collect bugs. She would make up stories about Mrs. Carter, a little old woman in tennis shoes who secretly rode a motorcycle. Much like the fictional character Mrs. Pollifax, created by Dorothy Gilman more than a decade later, Mrs. Carter was often hired by the CIA for international adventures. Mrs. Carter, much like my mom, led a double life.
Every morning Mom would say that she needed to put on her face. She meant her make-up; she’d rarely stray out of the house without it. But my mom put on a face all the time, a happy face that belied what lurked inside. She wore it to Garden Club and League of Women Voters and to Little League games and to my Brownie meetings. She wore it with her neighbors. She wore it with most of her friends. Underneath the face, she was hurting. Despite her joke, I know that we didn’t cause her nervous breakdown (okay, I say that only after a few years of therapy myself), but we probably hastened its arrival.
My mom’s mom, who wore a capable-Mormon-mother-of-six face, became a closet alcoholic. Grandma was recovering from her own childhood; she’d had to raise her siblings in poverty when she was just a kid herself. At her best, she could make a mean lemon meringue pie while at the same time assisting my grandpa, a doctor, with his patient on her kitchen table. At her worst, she said horrible, not-to-be-repeated things to my mother. Since they weren’t to be repeated, my mom didn’t repeat them. She didn’t speak of them. She didn’t laugh at them. She just stuffed them down and put on her face and carried on.
I have learned a lot from my mom. One of the things I learned is that you can be in a great deal of despair and still get up and put cereal on the table and change a dirty diaper. You can take the kids to Monroe Falls every day in the summer, teach them to swim, and laugh at their antics even though you secretly long to die. You can sing silly songs to them, read stories, and comb their long hair, being gentle because it’s so tangled. And you can act like everything is okay and fool most of the people most of the time. But not your kids.
I knew my mom was sad. I knew it at an early age. It was my job in the family to cheer her up, keep her happy, and do what I could do so that on the rare occasions when my dad was home, everything was fine. If that meant keeping my sister quiet, I would distract her. If it meant bringing my dad slippers and his newspaper, I fetched. I was my mom’s cleaning helper. I also became the entertainer, remembering ?funny stories to share? with her.
I also know that each ?of us has a breaking?point. When my mother ?reached hers, she finally got ?help. Though kids can add? pressure to a stressful life,? they are also a tether to ?remain on this side of the? grass. She felt the tug of us even ?when she was in a locked ward making brown-glazed piggybanks and pink crocheted slippers. When she got out, her face wasn’t so firmly on. She would allow cracks to be seen. She would say she was sad. She told us that for years she had tried to be perfect and that it was a mistake—we are not perfect.
My mother taught me a profound lesson. You are allowed to get help, but don’t wait until you desperately need it. I am determined not to follow her lead into the hospital, to sedatives and group therapy with permanent locked-ward residents. So in my own recovery process, I have learned to shed more of the face, to be out there with my feelings. I also find tremendous comfort in my faith. As a Christian, I easily acknowledge my imperfections and rely on God’s grace. I also like the promise that God is not going to give us more than we can handle. (To which my brother likes to quip, “God must sure think a lot of us.”)
When I became a mom five years ago, my mom drove out from her home in Ohio to South Jersey as soon as I went into labor. Our son, Daniel, was born while she was en route. She stopped by the hospital at the tail end of her drive. I looked at his tiny little feet next to my big feet and then over at my mom. “You’ve known me since my feet were this small,” I told her. I was filled with love; I got it for the very first time how intensely a mother can love a child, and I realized that this is how much she cared for me.
She was full of nervous energy that visit and my house seemed to be her best outlet. She scrubbed the bathtub, made the laundry room sink sparkle, polished the wood floors, and swept the driveway. I think she rearranged my cupboards, too. I haven’t been able to find my small bowls since.
Three years later she flew out again, this time not to celebrate a birth but to join me in grieving. I had had two miscarriages in a row. The first one knocked me off my feet. I was at fourteen weeks and the doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat, so he ordered an ultrasound. The screen showed an empty womb, the baby almost disintegrated. I was heavy with grief and sobbed for days like I had never cried before. But the doctor told me that what had happened was very rare: I could have done nothing to prevent it, and there was just a one percent chance of its happening again. Five months later, I learned something about percentages. I had “vu jÃ dé”— it’s like “déjÃ vu” except it has all happened to you before, just a little differently.
The second time, I was eleven weeks, at a regular check-up, and again no heartbeat. I stood in a doorway at the doctor’s office, just where I’d stood before, while they called to order the ultrasound. If it happens again, I told him, I’m going to fall apart. Someone is going to have to come and pick up the pieces. This time there was a fully formed baby, but it was no longer alive. My mom came to pick up the pieces.
She was again there for me, but not in the way I expected. Daniel was then two and a half and ready to be potty-trained, she declared. I said, Knock yourself out. And I meant it. Potty-training was the last thing in the world I cared about. Really, I didn’t care about anything, not eating, not sleeping, not anything. It was the first time in my life when I couldn’t make any kind of decision. And there my mom was having this incredible bonding experience with my son, the trips to the bathroom a special adventure for the two of them. After three days, the job was finished. Daniel was dry through naps and at night. I am still amazed at this, but at the time, I wanted to yell, I am the one who needs help. Every now and then she would show up on the screened-in porch where I planted myself early in the morning and stayed parked all day. She’d let me cry for a minute or two and then would leave again. After a week, I started to make meals. “I put those dishes in the sideboard, not there,” I told her. “Hey, we recycle!” I’d say, pulling a two-liter bottle out of the trash can. She smiled at my irritation, happy to see that I was beginning to engage in life.
Many months later my husband and I somehow summoned the desire to try again, and this time everything went fine. Our daughter, Emily, arrived with lots of hair and bright blue eyes. My mom was thrilled. She loaded her car down in pink packages for her first granddaughter and made the drive out. Yet again, I sat on the porch, this time content to nurse and read and drink lemonade. Mom’s nervous energy returned and this time she attacked my yard. She weeded, mulched, and planted. Perennials and rhododendrons appeared along our side fence, orange hibiscus along the back fence, impatiens and lilies in front of the house.
Despite previous experience, I expected her to take care of my postpartum needs: meals, diaper changes, etc. But again, she just gave me space, this time to bond with my baby on the porch, every day transforming the view of the yard from its state of neglect. Now I could look up from my book and enjoy the view rather than think, “Oh, I should really take care of that” before turning back to my novel. (I rarely let anything get in the way of a good book, especially not housework or weeding.)
On her last morning with us she gave me a pedicure on the porch, gently massaging my still-swollen ankles. With cotton balls between my toes, I cried as I watched her car pull out of my driveway. How could I take care of both of these kids and this house and do all that I am supposed to do? I was overwhelmed, mostly by sleep deprivation and by the feeling that my son had become possessed. Why else would he choose this time to pee in our closets and write on the walls?
It was a crisp fall morning a few months later when my mom called to tell me that she had cancer. The Big C. Not cancer—no one in our family has cancer, I thought. Emotional breakdowns, depression, drunk and disorderly conduct, this we understand. Nothing some rehab or Prozac couldn’t cure. Cancer is a whole different planet, one our family has never visited. My mom had always joked that she didn’t have a moderate bone in her body; she went overboard in whatever it was. Well, this time was no different. It wasn’t a little lump to be removed. It was Stage IV uterine cancer.
It was my turn to pack up the car and drive to her. I made four trips over the next four months, a total of forty hours in the car with my two kids in tow. We drove through thunderstorms, hail storms, a blizzard, and fog. I wondered whether I really knew my mom. I had this desperate need to capture her. I was panicked with a deep nagging fear that her good days were over, that I was going to watch as she slid into a period of illness that she wouldn’t recover from, that she would die. As I was driving I realized that even though she was not there for me the way I thought I needed her to be, she was there for me.
When I got to Ohio, I embraced the opportunity to mother her, for she had taught me how to do it. When she was determinedly positive, I smiled with her even though I didn’t share her optimism. I drove her to chemotherapy in Cleveland, twice through blizzards. We stopped for coffee and bagels on the way, fortifying ourselves. We had always talked about making a quilt together. With no time to waste, we worked on a quilt wall-hanging while we watched the I.V. drip, drip, drip into the hole in her chest for six hours.
She didn’t look like a cancer patient at first. “I always wanted to be a blonde,” she said when she first showed me the wig she’d picked out. She had a head shaving party, inviting her friends to a day at the salon. Later, when her head got itchy at a chemo session, she shed the wig with a smile. “Guess I am having a no-hair day,” she said. Her starkly bald head, more than anything else, made the cancer real.
During the winter of her cancer, we cried together only once. I caught her on the Monday after chemo, when the effects were worst. She was honest about how terrible she felt. I blurted out how much I hated this, hated all of it, that I still needed her and that she absolutely was not allowed to die yet. Not yet, I am not ready. I don’t think I will ever be ready. But maybe when you’re in your nineties and I’m in my sixties, we can talk about it.
We cried together on the phone, my handset getting all wet. I was in the kitchen, leaning over my counter, looking out at a gray winter day. She was in her king-sized bed, confined to it for the next few days by the chemo that had wiped her out. Normally, she was distracted from the pain by the birds who visited her wooden balcony. But that day we didn’t have to talk about the birds and I didn’t have to tell her funny stories about my kids that I had saved up or about how happy I was to have organized my linen closet. I could just say, it stinks. The whole thing. Winter, living far apart, being positive, feeling sick, cancer, death.
Months later, when she had made it through chemo, the strongest stuff they can give you, the kill-ya-to-cure- ya strength, she said, “Just thank God that He has cured me of cancer.” But here’s the problem: you never really know if you are cured from cancer. When you’re on the toxic stuff, nothing is growing. So after she was done with chemo, we were in wait-and-see mode. Her face was back on, adamantly positive. I was a little kid again, knowing that everything was not all right but not allowed to talk about it.
I really wanted to call my mom this morning. There’s a terrible time in the morning when I linger between sleep and alertness—it can be a good fifteen minutes before I remember that she is dead. Our winter of cancer was followed by a spring of false hope. Then on my daughter’s first birthday, right before we cut the cake, she called to tell me that she was in the hospital. The cancer was back and she was terminal.
Our last month together was surreal. It was as if every morning she walked toward her grave, eyes wide open, but upon getting there, she found herself still standing. No? Not today? she’d ask politely. Well, okay, then. There was no more pretending. During that month, she talked about her hopes for us, and she shared how painful it was when her mom died. She gave me tips on finding mom-substitutes.
The week before she died, my mom checked into the presidential suite at the spa. It was there that I saw her for the last time. She treated me and her two sisters to pedicures and manicures, facials and massages. The next day I brought the kids there for a swim in the pool. When we were done, we said goodbye, and she and my aunts climbed into the hot tub. I tried to do our funny goodbye schtick—you say goodbye, walk away, then come back and say goodbye again. But she had already turned after my first goodbye; she was laughing with her sisters and didn’t hear me. I stood there in the hallway, holding my kids’ hands, looking at her. It was as if her trial with cancer had crystallized her, like a fire burning away all but the core. What endured was her strong, joyful spirit, determined to live a full life to the very end. I left, knowing I had just seen my mom for the last time, but I smiled at the kids. In the car, I put on their favorite Sesame Street tape and cranked up the volume so they wouldn’t hear me weeping.
In some way that I can’t fully put my finger on, it feels significant that my mom died just after my daughter was born. When I talked to my ob-gyn about my own risks for cancer—and told him, wasn’t it crazy, but I might want to have another child—he assured me that it wasn’t. The alpha and the omega, he said. The alpha and the omega.
Author’s Note: Since writing this essay, my father’s been physically and mentally ill and I’ve had two more miscarriages. What are you doing to take care of yourself? my mom would ask. I’d tell her that when I can find the words, I pray or write. When the words won’t come, I quilt. I just finished a quilt for my daughter Emily (now two), that is made from her outgrown sleepers and my mom’s flannel nightgowns. It felt like a tangible way to recognize my role in connecting these two generations.
Stephanie Farrell lives in Vineland, New Jersey, with her husband, Peter, and their two children. She does freelance work for her regional newspaper. This was her first essay published in a magazine.
Brain, Child (Winter 2005)