by Morris J. Marshall
Part 1 appears in this issue.
Looking out the GO train window, it became clear to me how little time Mom had actually spent at home when I was a child, through no fault of her own. I thought she was being hateful and vengeful, but the illness had taken her captive and refused to let go.
She was gone when I got home later that July morning. We didn’t see her all day and, by seven in the evening, worry began gnawing at my stomach. As bad as her singing had been, contemplating what might have happened to her was worse.
I walked into the living room, where Dad sat in his leather chair, watching a movie. “What do you think happened to Mom?”
Without looking up from the TV, he said, “She’ll turn up soon. She’s done this many times before.”
“What if this time’s different, Dad?”
“She probably went shopping. In her condition, I’m sure she lost track of time.”
“I’m still worried,” I said.
Dad got up from his chair, came over and patted me on the shoulder. “Son, the police won’t do anything unless she harms herself or someone else. If Mom’s not back by nine o’clock, I’ll go out looking for her, okay?”
I nodded but, when Dad returned to the living room, I ran to the kitchen, opened up the phone book and paged through it to “Psychiatric Hospitals.” The Clarke Institute, Queen Street Mental Health Center, Toronto General Psychiatric Ward. There were so many of them. I didn’t know where to start. I prayed for the black rotary phone on our wall to ring, to bring any news of Mom’s whereabouts, but it remained silent, impassive.
I thought I’d start with the largest hospitals first. Picking up the receiver, I dialed the Clarke. Four rings. Six rings. Ten. I was about to hang up when a female voice said, “Clarke Institute, Inpatient area. Can I help you?”
“I’m Chris Johnson and I’m looking for my mother. Could you please tell me if she’s a patient there?”
“Freda Silverman Johnson.”
“One moment please.” Several minutes elapsed before the attendant returned. “I’m sorry, she’s not here. Is it possible she’s in a different hospital?”
“Thanks. I’ll check around.”
By some strange coincidence, the nurse who answered the phone was a classmate’s mother. Jane Hare approached me during recess the next morning, took me aside and asked me if I’d found my mom. I’d had a crush on Jane since grade four. Now that she knew my secret, any chance of dating her seemed off the table.
It turned out that Mom had picked a fight with the manager of a McDonald’s restaurant and had thrown a hamburger at her, hitting her in the face. The police showed up. Queen Street Mental Health Center called to confirm that they were admitting her.
For the first time in months, I slept soundly. Mom was safe. The monster inside her would soon be gone again.
* * *
By the time I got off the GO train at Ajax Station, the rain had stopped and the sun shone through the clouds. I opened my duffel bag and looked inside at the wrapped flowers. Karen had encouraged me to buy them. When I argued that Mom wouldn’t appreciate them in her state of mind, Karen had responded, “She’s our Mom. Give them anyway from both of us. You may be surprised.” Regardless of Mom’s mental condition, I could leave the flowers in her room for the staff to enjoy.
It was 11:00 am. Lunch would be served in an hour. I walked faster, hoping that I’d make it to the home before Mom had to go to the dining room. At least I could spend a good half hour with her before jumping the train for home. If her mental condition was as bad as I anticipated, I’d probably spend only fifteen minutes with her. Four hours’ travel time for nothing.
As I walked along the street, Happy Sunset Nursing Home appeared on my left. The sign on the lawn out front proclaimed “Visitors Welcome” in gold lettering. The windows were streaked by the recent rain, blurring details inside.
I opened the front door and waited for the receptionist to buzz me in. Opening the guest book, I signed my name, along with the time. Several residents already waited outside the dining room for the early lunch as a line of walkers and wheelchairs began to form.
I took the elevator to the third floor. Mom’s — Frieda Johnson’s — room was 313, right at the end of the hall. A reddish-brown heart containing Mom’s initials, sewn together by Catherine, was tied around the door handle. I knocked, expecting no response. Most times, I’d just walk in. Mom, back on her meds, would stare vacantly at me and mumble something.
“Come in! It’s open.”
“Mom?” I pushed the door open. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, son.” She was sitting in the chair beside her bed, dressed in a blue sweater, grey slacks and slippers. “It’s good to see you.”
I reached into my duffel bag, removed the roses and handed them to Mom.
“Happy Mother’s Day,” I said.
“Thank you, son.” She tore the paper, smelled the flowers and put them down on the table beside her bed.
I moved forward, put my arms around her. She stiffened at first, but finally she hugged me back.
“Do you have a vase we can put the flowers in?” I asked.
“I’ll ask a nurse. I’m sure they can find something.”
“Mom, I’ve been wondering something for a long time.” I sat down on her bed.
“What is it?”
“Why did you have so much hatred for your own family, the Silvermans? Why didn’t you let me get to know them?”
She took a deep breath. “Well, son, I didn’t want you to get hurt. My parents were Orthodox Jews and, when I married out of the faith, they disowned me. I was basically dead to them. I was bitter and thought they might treat you the same way.”
“Makes sense,” I said. “Wow, Mom, I’ve never seen you like this before.”
“So with it. When I was a kid, you—“
“Stopped taking my medication a lot. I know.”
I nodded and looked out her room window. The sun shone brightly from a blue sky, and the street and sidewalk out front were dry, as though it had never rained.
A knock sounded on the door to Mom’s room.
“Yes?” Mom called out.
“It’s lunch time.”
I got up. “I guess I’d better go, Mom.”
She rose from her chair and grabbed my hand. “Wait a second, son. Would you like to stay and have lunch with me? You’re my guest. It’ll only cost you five dollars.”
“I’d love to. We have a lot of catching up to do.”
I’ll never forget that day almost twenty years ago. I helped Mom into her wheelchair and wheeled her to the elevator and down to the dining room. We sat, just the two of us, at the same table, enjoying salmon, mashed potatoes and all the conversations that had eluded us during my childhood.
Years of uncertainty, hatred, and anger melted away in two hours on that magical Mother’s Day afternoon. For the first time ever, I told Mom that I loved her. As I went to leave, she reciprocated and kissed me on the cheek.
Returning home to Toronto, I looked forward to spending more quality time with the Mom I had never known before. It wasn’t to be. The nursing home called later that night. Mom had slipped into a coma and been transferred to hospital. She died the next morning without regaining consciousness. If I hadn’t shown up that Mother’s Day, I would have missed the window of opportunity to see Mom in a different light.
Researchers have documented a time period just before death when people inexplicably return to life. The mentally ill regain use of their minds. Doctors call it “terminal lucidity.”
I call it Providence.
Copyright © 2020 by Morris J. Marshall