By Charley Karchin
I adored my mom the way a child loves their favorite superhero. When I was in elementary school she volunteered to chaperone every field trip. One trip, our last field trip of 5th grade, she was the chaperone of my group – four of my closest friends and me. We took a charter bus with multicolored seat cushions and tiny little TVs that they never played movies on to The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. She let us enjoy it the way we wanted to. This meant; we spent loads of time in the sports science room seeing how fast we could throw a baseball, or spent all the money we had on dehydrated astronaut ice cream and silly putty from the gift shop.
She ran with us from exhibit to exhibit, laughing and playing just like we were. She told our teacher we were well behaved, even if we got a warning from the staff. I always had fun with my mother.
Within weeks of watching her laughing at me tripping over one of my friends and falling into a staff person, she was in her bedroom, screaming and crying. She was gasping for air and rolling about on top of her covers. My grandmother held on to her with the help of another person. They yelled over her screams, telling her to take deep breaths. She didn’t listen and continued to thrash, kicking my grandmother in the legs. My mom pulled at her own hair, tearing strands of knotted blonde from her scalp. Her eyes never connected with mine but I could see that hers were red. My grandmother turned from my mom to shoo me from the room. When I woke up the next morning my mom was gone.
While my mom was being given meds to take and puzzles to do in the psychiatric unit I lived at my grandmother’s house. Every day when I got out of school we would visit my mom.
She wore starched blue pajamas with the name of the hospital printed on the chest pocket. Everyone there did. While the front desk checked us in for visiting hours she’d wait for us through a glass window on the locked metal door. Inside, Mom walked me around to show me to the friends and crafts that she made out of tongue depressors and crayons. Some of her friends came up and pinched my cheeks,
“Oh! What a beautiful girl, Deb!” or something similar to which my mom said, “Say thank you, Crystal.”
How was I supposed to talk while a stranger had half of my face pinched between their fingers?
But, my mom wasn’t screaming or crying anymore. So I smiled, and so did she.
Each time my mom came back from the hospital she was different from before. She didn’t want to chaperone anymore. She didn’t want to play games with me. She didn’t want to watch movies or hear what I did that day while I was out with my new middle school friends.
She dated. She brought home men of all types that she met on dating sites. One was closer to my age of 15, another was wanted in 4 states, and one had us move in with him because he wanted to be closer to me. She only smiled when she was with them.
We fought often, then. In high school, the fight would start while she was in the living room sitting on my deceased grandfather’s favorite green upholstered chair. She had the legs kicked up and her laptop perched on her thighs, playing an online version of scrabble on the Internet. She began playing games online after one of her relationships ended in a cancelled engagement. She could sit all day and all night on the computer. I entered the room one afternoon and asked her to play a game with me.
“Mom. Do you want to play Nintendo with me tonight?” I asked, “We almost beat it.”
She didn’t take her eyes of the computer, but she sighed and grumbled a bit in her throat.
“Crystal, not right now. I’m busy.”
I wasn’t going to let her just brush me off like that, so I asked,
“Okay. Well, when? When the time runs out on that game?”
She still didn’t take her eyes off the screen but nodded and agreed.
When I returned hours later she was still playing. I knew she ignored her promise. I yelled and told her that I only wanted to spend time with her. She yelled back and said that I wanted too much from her. Many of the times we fought she cried and said, “If I’m such a terrible mother, go find another one.” For the remaining three years of high school, I only tried to do an activity with my mom once every few months. Our longest conversations were one sentence long, “Crystal, walk the dog,” Or “Mom. I’m home.”
I was eighteen when my mom began working again after over ten years living off of disability. She was a cashier at a hardware store to supplement her disability checks. Within only a few weeks of starting she was helping with managerial duties. At home she wasn’t playing on the computer as much and, instead, started watching TV in her rare free time. As a way to try and spend time with her, I tried to watch them with her.
I learned that my mom likes terrible TV. She likes the kind where groups of people get put together to compete in some game or competition to win a grand prize. She liked having an opinion about the contestants. She began to look different. She gained weight and it was very hard to get along with her but she almost glowed.
She turned on the singing competition.
“It’s the last four,” she said to me. The intro played showing the names and faces of each the contestants. As each one flashed by she gave me her opinion. She pointed and grinned, and looked at me for my reaction.
“Look at his hair! He’s hot.”
“She has a really pretty voice. The judges like her.”
“I think he is going to win. You like him. Right, Crystal?”
She sang along to the songs she knew, and if I knew them, I joined in too. She closed her eyes and I could see the deep crows feet around them. She tilted her face towards the ceiling and let out a painfully off-key version of the song. The lamp lit up the blonde hair that draped around her shoulders and she looked so happy. I tried to match her volume and sang with her. When I got to see her joy, I could clearly see her pain.
I watched her withdraw into Scrabble when her relationships failed. I watched her not eat for weeks just because she ‘didn’t feel like it’. I felt how hard it was for her to get to where she was. She still didn’t want to do any of the things I remembered her doing when I was a kid, and we couldn’t spend more than 3 hours together without fighting. But, I watched her go to work every day. I watched her buy things like groceries with money from a paycheck.
We grew up together. I could see it in her eyes how hard life had been on her. I noticed that, even when she was at her worst she was trying her hardest. She accepted her single parent status, took all of its consequences and found a way to stand up on her own.
Author’s Note: It took me a long time to write this story because I couldn’t make sense of my relationship with my mom. I was worried that she would be upset with me for writing it, but she cried and told me she loved me.
Charley Karchin was born in Queens, New York, and raised in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. In her familial relationships she has taken the role of teacher, friend, daughter and supporter. She is currently a writing student in Boston who works with developmentally disabled adults.