The Light and The Dark
On the eightieth or ninetieth or hundredth day of my mother’s hospitalization, in the fall of 1980, I sit in the chancel of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, wearing a youth choir robe. Palm trees sway outside the sanctuary windows. I feel like a soft-limbed robot, and whatever I sing with the other altos, I sing with fear in my throat. I don’t know the word “sepsis” or that my father and oldest sister in Washington have been told to prepare themselves for Mamma’s death. I do know about fear. I know about having been bad, and about wanting another chance to be good.
On that morning, as I try to pray, my thoughts are shards of porcelain, sharp behind my eyes. Then, all at once, a bright warm light comes into my mind and lifts me out of broken thoughts. The light surrounds me, telling me without words that I will be all right, that I don’t have to be afraid. Warmth moves from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. This lifting up and calming down happens in an instant.
It could be that this exact light extends from my mind and heart and body to the mind and heart and body of my mother. Maybe you believe in something like this light, or in coincidence, or in a traumatized girl having a delusion. At different times in my life, I consider all of these. What matters is this: on that Sunday morning, my mother wakes up asking for food, for someone to please wash her hair. Instead of dying that day, she begins her recovery. And as soon as she is strong enough, my father brings her home to us in Dunedin.
Maybe because she is so skinny and pale, her eye sockets huge, that my mother seems to glow with life, to look at Florida and each of us with wonder. A snapshot of her in a wicker chair on my Aunt Barbara’s porch shows her with bony arms akimbo and legs crossed under a draping skirt. Her face is turned sideways, her cheekbones shadowed.
As her step steadies and her eyes soften, the mechanical in me recedes. I settle into her presence and into her touch. She smooths the hair from my face when I worry at night. I feel her hand and I feel her warm arm like a shawl around my shoulders.
One night, in the moist air of early winter, my parents dress for a party, he in a white shirt and dinner jacket, she in a rayon dress and low-heeled sandals. As they get into the car, my father hands my mother a cocktail. She looks down into the plastic cup filled with vodka and 7up and raises it—unsmiling–to her lips.
Panic lifts me from wherever I am standing to a view of the drink from just outside and above the car. What must that moment have been for my mother? I imagine her having held those months of sobriety like an anchor rope growing heavier every day, until she had no choice but to let it go.
Once again, she sits alone in front of the television for hour after hour. And once again, I start sitting with her, determined to help. On random nights, she drink-talks to me about her father not letting her go to college, because education is wasted on girls. Her voice slurs telling me how terrible it is to depend on a man: Never be stuck like I am! And tears streak her mascara into half-circles under her eyes.
Trying to save her from the shadows becomes my own night-time compulsion. I listen to her, and I shush her. I help her to bed and pull a sheet up to her chin as she tells me how sweet I am, how much she loves me. Rescuing her is my penitent duty, a chance to make up for every cigarette I ever stole from her, every lie I ever told, and every time I hated her. Like the hangovers and blackouts she must have suffered, I feel the after-effects of self-martyrdom like a slow, blistering burn. I am exhausted and increasingly confused. How, when she gets up the next day, can she not thank me for taking care of her? I redouble my efforts to help and be good, to distract myself from the accumulating darkness of my resentment.