by Morris J. Marshall
“I’ll have a dozen white roses,” I said to the guy standing in the kiosk at Union Station.
“That’ll be fifteen dollars. Would you like them wrapped?”
“Yes,” I said, passing over the cash.
It was Mother’s Day and a cold, steady drizzle pelted my face. I shivered and pulled up the collar of my jacket. Counting waiting time for the GO train and the walk to Mom’s nursing home, the trip would take two hours each way. Maybe longer with the wet weather. If the last two visits were any indication, I wondered if I was wasting my time.
Looking out my condo window that morning at the grey Toronto skyline and wet streets, I thought of several reasons not to go: the weather, the piles of unmarked exam papers in my study, my wife Karen’s sudden stomach flu. Any one of these seemed like a feasible excuse to stay home. When I turned on the TV and sat down on the couch with a second cup of coffee, Karen grabbed my arm, pulled me to my feet and marched me to the front door. She insisted I go see Mom and sent her regrets along with me.
The clerk handed me the roses, which were wrapped in blue and white paper with a pink bow tied around the center. I placed them carefully in my duffel bag, wondering if Mom would care about flowers, and sat down to wait for the GO train. I took out my cell phone and checked the schedule. The next eastbound train was due in twenty minutes.
* * *
I thought about calling my sister, Catherine. Twenty years older than I, she was my last living relative after Mom. She’d visited our home with Christmas presents when I was a child while everyone else stayed away, repelled by Mom’s antics. I still had a picture of Catherine on my fridge of the two of us in the park near our childhood home. I’m three years old and she’s pushing me on a swing. I have a bright smile spread across my face.
Catherine had cared for Mom after Dad died. She found her a private room in a nursing home. With the long waiting lists, it took months to accomplish. Catherine and I alternated weeks for visiting. Last week had been her turn.
Mom had been in and out of institutions most of her life. My earliest memory of her in hospital was in the fall of 1977, when I was eight years old. Dad had just parked the car and we were walking up the tree-lined path to Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital. Just beyond the dull-grey building, sunlight glinted off the water of Lake Ontario. Bright clusters of tulips, daisies and other flowers planted on the grounds formed a stark contrast to the building.
I walked beside Dad, my hand swallowed up in his. I looked up at him. “Daddy, what’s wrong with Mommy?”
He squeezed my hand. “She’s here to get help, son. The doctors are helping her get better.”
I didn’t understand what that meant, but I’d seen Mom do many strange things. Talking to herself. Singing on the front lawn while I cowered in the living room, wishing it would stop. The visits to businesses nearby which invariably ended with her being kicked out after fighting with management.
In spite of her condition, Mom still managed to carry out the shopping duties. When she arrived home from the grocery store, there was always a bag of chips or a chocolate bar sitting at the bottom of one of the bags. Her way of showing love that the illness couldn’t completely erase.
When Dad and I arrived at the hospital, a security guard approached us.
“Is everything okay?” Dad asked.
“The boy isn’t allowed up on the ward, but he can wait downstairs in my office.”
I sat in the security guard’s office, eyeing the lights on top of the three elevators. Each time the down button would flash, my heart would jump in anticipation of Dad’s return. Sometimes, when Mom was feeling better and close to release, they’d let her off the ward so she could come downstairs. Since she’d just been admitted, she was confined to a locked ward.
Truth be known, I didn’t want her to come home too quickly. It had taken so long to have her admitted. This place was my only chance of having a mom again. A mom who was quiet and relaxed, who didn’t stay awake until the early hours of the morning talking to herself about events that had happened years ago. A mom who didn’t fight with everyone she met.
The psychiatrist sat Dad and me down in his office. “Mr. Johnson, your wife’s bipolar disorder is not responding to medication. We’d like to try electroshock therapy. I just need you to sign some forms.”
“Is it safe?” Dad asked.
“By reducing short-term memory, we’ve successfully helped patients out of deep depression and bipolar mania. There’s usually no effect on long-term memory.”
Dad skimmed through the papers and signed them. While Mom was in hospital, he arranged for me to stay with the neighbors between six and nine in the morning. I drew Spider Man comics until school started and returned to the neighbors until Dad got home from work at six. When that wasn’t possible, I’d stay with my aunts, Hilda and Mabel, up north in Aurora, bringing weeks of homework with me. They took me to Baskin Robbins for ice cream, cooked my favorite meals and bought Special K, the only breakfast cereal I’d eat. Being away from home felt like summer vacation.
After three weeks of treatments, Mom returned home calmer, her mania and memories of the last several months successfully wiped out. She was Mom again. For now.
* * *
A shrill whistle sounded as the GO train approached slowly, its front light flooding the track. I grabbed my duffel bag and stood up. I’d brought exam papers along, hoping I could get some marking done on the trip to the nursing home.
Once on board, I took out my red pen and glanced at the papers. I looked out the window at people boarding the train. A boy, about six, was smiling and holding his mother’s hand. They sat in the seat across from me. The mom put her arm around the boy and kissed his forehead. I sighed and put my exam papers away. I wondered if Mom would be lucid enough to appreciate the flowers I’d bought. Thinking of her mental condition dredged up another childhood memory.
* * *
July, 15, 1981. I’d gone to see Raiders of the Lost Ark the night before with Dad to celebrate my twelfth birthday. We arrived home at midnight, and Mom was dozing on the couch, still dressed.
Early the next morning, I awoke to a high-pitched voice emanating from outside. Rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I sat up in bed. Someone had turned up the radio. The song was familiar. My heart thudded as I realized what was really happening. Most kids fear the monster lurking under their bed. I feared the illness that had turned my mom into a monster.
I looked at the clock radio on the night table beside my bed: six thirty. Throwing back the blankets, I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs, through the hallway, into the kitchen. I picked up Mom’s bottle of lithium from the table, estimating the pill volume by sight. It had barely been touched. She’d only been home from hospital for a month and she was off her medication. Again.
“Dad? Where’s Mom?”
In response, her voice drifted in from the outside porch through the window screen: “Hava, nagila hava, nagila hava, nagila hava...”
Neighbors appeared on their verandas, and a few pedestrians stopped on the street to stare. Not a crowd, but I imagined people laughing and talking about Mom behind my back. The stories would reverberate back to me later like a vicious boomerang. Your mom’s this. Your mom’s that. Did you hear what your mom did this time? What’s wrong with her anyway?
I went out on the veranda and touched her shoulder. “Mom, come inside. It’s time for breakfast.”
“Leave me alone. I want to keep singing.”
“Come inside. It’s time to take your pills.”
“I don’t need them!” She jerked away from my hand and continued her performance, singing louder.
“Mom! You’re making a scene!”
I can’t stay here right now, I thought. Not while she’s like this. I could run upstairs and hide under my bed or in the washroom. But then I’d still hear her and, if I peered out the window, the ever-present stares would be there. In a few hours, everyone within a one mile radius of our house would be talking about the Crazy Lady’s latest antics.
I went back to my room, threw on a T-shirt and shorts and returned downstairs. Mom was still belting it out on the porch.
Tony Camino and I had spent many summer days playing five rocks and soccer. His house was just a short walk through the laneway next to my house. He’d still be asleep, but his second floor attic had a small latch that was accessible from outside. I could lay my head there. All I needed was a couple hours of sleep. What difference did it make if there was pink insulation covering the floor? It was soft and would make an ideal bed.
Desperate for rest, I slipped by Mom and ran up the laneway toward Regal Street. When I arrived at Tony’s, I climbed the TV antenna. Once level with the second floor, I jumped onto the shingled roof. I looked around. No one in sight. Still close to the horizon, the sun’s golden rays slowly began to climb the front of Tony’s house.
I opened the latch to the attic and slipped through the small window. Lying down on the pink insulation lining the floor, I closed my eyes. Sleep came quickly, and the morning’s events drifted away.
When I awoke an hour later, small red welts from the insulation covered my legs and arms. I climbed down from the roof and walked back home.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Morris J. Marshall