I hadn’t wanted to visit my mom that first day she was in the hospital. Wasn’t it enough that the hospital had called me at 3:30 in the morning to tell me that she’d be transferred 110 miles away to the closest locked pysch unit that would accept her Medi-Cal? Wasn’t it enough that I was the point person for everyone in the family? Wasn’t it enough that I’d woken up with a raging chest cold? My sister came by the house right after I’d taken two Benydryl with the intention of knocking myself out. I’d gone to the yuppy grocery store twenty miles up the road where all the city people who want “more home for their money” move and bought 32 bottles of sparkling water: it’s what I do when I know I can’t take care of myself. I figure that even if everything else is going to shit, at least I’ll be hydrated.
When my roommate notices this he always comes to check on me.
“Are you okay?” he asks, eye brow cocked, leaning against the painted white finish of my bedroom doorway. “I see you’ve purchased… sparkling water.”
But my roommate wasn’t around this time. I was in Rural Nowhere, Ca, living in my mother’s apartment among all of her things. When she is absent, I can’ help but imagine what it will be like when she is dead. I imagined the part of death where you go to the person’s house and decide what to do with all the belongings they have accrued in their lifetime, sifting through the physical evidence of their life, idiosyncrasies and embarrassing secrets. I packed up a suitcase full of clean nylon panties, a sweater, her favorite teddy bear in it’s Victorian dress, an afghan my tía crocheted to match my mother’s couch, her pillow in it’s satin pillow case, toiletries, lipstick and her Estee Lauder perfumed body lotion.
I was just beginning to fall beneath the spell of my pink antihistamine, luxurious warm waves of drowsiness seemed to carry with them the promise of escape. There might be an occasional stress dream, like the one where I am in charge of caring for forty-five miniature mewing baby kittens, otherwise, I could count on twelve hours of rest.
I felt guilty about not going to see my mom the first day that she was in the hospital but when I had called her earlier that morning she’d insisted that that she didn’t want me to go.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come to visit, Mom?”
“Yes, I am sure. Wait until your uncle Alejandro can come with you.” She’d said firmly.
I decided to take a sick day and take advantage of the voices giving me the go-ahead to do less work for once. I knew her voices were probably telling her that terrible things would happen to me if I drove the hundred and ten miles alone. Still I felt grateful for the reprieve.
So I give myself permission to sleep, to get well, to have one day of rest. I’d been sleeping on couches and my tía’s floor for weeks and the bed and the fresh sheets with their big beautiful rose’s felt wonderful on my skin and my aching muscles. Just as I began to drift into that wonderful sleeping place the phone rang and it was my sister.
“Hey. I am at the front door. Come open it. I brought you as soy mocha but it jizzed all over me.” I hopped up and ran to the door down the hall to let her in, I was sleepy and she was suppose to be on her way to work. My sister is the probably the hottest nurse in the entire county, her smoldering black cat eyes peek out from behind thick lashes, and the intensity of her dark eyes is highlighted by her golden bronze complexion and the sexy nude lipgloss she wears. Her honey colored hair is styled in a 1960’s bouffant, and flips out at the ends, but there is coffee in her coif and splashed all over the front of her blue grey scrubs like dark old blood.
I pull a dirty blue towel out of the hamper and dab at her hair and neck.
“The nurse’s are on strike. They’ve got scabs flying in. Let’s go see Mommy.” she said grimly.
I hesitated for a moment.
I didn’t want to go see Mommy. I’d had enough of Mommy. Mommy had been a holy terror. She fought with me, insisted that she drive the car, screamed at me in the psychiatrists office and at Starbucks.
“Can’t you see you’re falling apart? Why won’t you let me drive my own damn car!”
The entire twenty-five years my mother had been a nurse she had never worked in a hospital. She once told me that every time she was in the hospital that she didn’t know if she was a nurse or a patient, and for this very confusing reason, she disliked working inside of them.
“Please don’t put me in this position.” I had said quietly the last time she had demanded to drive the car. Reluctantly, she allowed me to drive but it had become a constant battle, the same fight, over and over again.
“I’m all better now.” My mom had said to me as I drove her to the psychiatric emergency room the day before.
“I know you think you are here to take care of me, but I am here to take care of you. You’re just a scared little girl, you’re so sick you don’t even know it.”
The intellectual part of me knew that Mommy was talking about herself.
I’ve been in therapy long enough to know that we are almost always talking about ourselves.
Nevertheless, it was still difficult to hear.
I wanted to hit her.
I wanted to strike my poor, sick, suffering, terrorized mother on more than one occasion and although I knew would not I was sure that I was no longer fit to care for her alone.
And now it was time to visit Mama in the hospital, so Vickie and I packed up the car with snacks and sparkling water and began the two and a half hour journey to Vallejo. I tried to put the address in the GPS but didn’t know how to spell Vallejo.
I called the hospital and an old white lady answered the phone. I asked her to spell “Vallejo” but I had to ask her twice because I couldn’t tell what she was saying.
When I asked her to clarify she said if she meant to say “B” for boy or “A” for apple she clacked her tongue.
“Well. If you’re of a… certain ethnicity you might call it “BALL-AYE-HOE”.
“I see.” I repeated the joke to the operator imitating her nasally voice for my sister’s enjoyment. “So you just say ‘Vallejo’ if you’re normal white person and ““BALL-AYE-HOE“ if you’re of… a certain ethnicity.” The operator was quiet as we cackled with laughter.
Victoria saw a sign for a toll bridge just as I was disengaging with the confused operator.
“Oh no,” She groaned. “A toll bridge.”
“Oh it’s fine, I’ve got plenty of cash,” I assured her.
She tittered nervously. “You don’t remember my irrational fear of bridges?” She laughed again too loudly.
“Ohhh! Now I remember!” I lied, I didn’t remember but I felt like I should.
“Yeah, it’s totally irrational but, I always have these dreams, I know they are probably just stress dreams but I always dream I’m driving over a bridge and there’s a rise in the middle and I can’t see beyond the horizon line and when car goes over the hump, the part I can’t see, I fall. There is no more bridge or the bridge collapses and I fall into the ocean. I know it’s stupid but they just scare the hell out of me.”
I saw my sister wipe the sweat from the palms of her neatly manicured hands as she gripped the steering wheel tight. Her shoulders were tight and small, she was hunched over the steering wheel: I knew this feeling well, it is the feeling I get when I’m driving through a snow storm or a heavy rain, the feeling that if I can just clutch the wheel hard enough, that if I press my nose closer to the glass, I might have more control.
My sister was the middle child and with two sick parents, was left with the responsibility of raising me. Our older brother did some of the normal duties, making sure I had breakfast, combing my hair, getting me dressed for school, taking me to work with him at the batting cages, but most of the responsibility landed on Vickie’s shoulders.
My sister was my emergency contact on all my school forms, signed permission slips, stayed home with me when I was sick, attended parent teacher conferences, disciplined me when she remembered and did her best to make sure I had school clothes and lunch money. Some of my teachers were unkind to her because they thought she was a very young and neglectful teenage mother. While she loved me very much, she also resented having been unwillingly placed in the role of co-parent and sometimes, understandably so, acted cruelly towards me. It wasn’t that Vickie wasn’t doing a good job, she was doing the best job a fourteen-year old girl could, but she just wasn’t fit to be a parent.
“That sounds like a stress dream to me Vickie, it sounds like a metaphor. ” I said.
My sister does not know that I have a fascination with real life metaphors.
“Oh yeah?” she asked, now curious.
“Yeah!” I was excited. “It sounds like when you can’t see what’s beyond the horizon, when you are uncertain of the future, you don’t trust that there will be someone there to support you… So, when yer uncertain of things, when you can’t see a clear end point, when you can’t see the finish line, you’re afraid that there will be no one to catch you if you fall… Probably because you couldn’t count on any adults to meet your needs or protect you when we were growing up. Because you couldn’t count on anyone but yourself to catch you if you fell.”
“Whoa… that would have taken me, like, years to figure out in therapy. Thanks. A lot.” She was serious.
I don’t know how useful it is to give people this kind of information, these five cent, two minute Drive-Thru psychotherapy sessions.
She switched on an AM talk radio station very quietly and the newscaster repeated the same stories over and over again in between sports scores. It was odd and comforting in a way, like the distant murmur of a baseball game on a Sunday afternoon.
When we arrived to the hospital we were worried because it was in an undeveloped area, on a cul-de-sac where the school district buses stood parked alongside an abandoned district office, glossy blue grey paint the color of my sister’s scrubs sealed up the boarded windows and the ghostly loading dock.
The place looked like a convalescent home from the seventies with ugly grey light blocking curtains hanging in the long rectangular windows. The brick building was squat and low to the ground with a grey speckled roof. There were white Christmas decals on the window and poinsettias outside and this gave me some comfort.
“How are you feeling?” I asked her as we gathered up our belonging and locked up the car.
She sat for a moment in the drivers seat and I could see her trying to access her feelings. “Nervous.” she replied.
“How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Fearful.” I said.
“What are you scared of, Nini?” she asked in baby talk, using the name I’d gave myself when I was just an infant.
“I am afraid that we’ll go inside and it’ll be dirty and the people will be mean and they won’t do a good job for Mommy.” I paused, afraid to speak. “And I am afraid of abusive staff members.”
“Well, your fears will probably be unfounded.” she said quickly. But it wasn’t her voice and I wondered if that was something her therapist had said.
“Well, at least there are Christmas decals on the windows.”
“What the hell does that mean?” she said with disgust.
“I think it means that someone in there gives a damn about something.”
“I guess.” she said but it didn’t sound like she agreed with me.
I imagined a sadistic orderly in scrubs like Vickie’s taking great pleasure in hanging the cheery decorations inside the medieval torture chamber. We walked up the door and pressed the buzzer and a handsome young latino security guard buzzed us in. The lobby was charming and cozy, with a Christmas tree, poinsettias, and lots of brochures on mental illness and addiction. There was even a buffet table stocked with coffee and tea, big basket of assorted fruits and pitchers of water with orange slices cut up and floating inside of it. The table, with it’s generous offerings, helped me to feel more optimistic.
“Free bananas! Score!” I almost yelled and my sister looked embarrassed. Sometimes, when I am very nervous, I become very noisy and say silly things. My sister, who is very quiet and self-conscious, does not generally appreciate this about me and scowled at me to demonstrate her displeasure. The receptionist printed out our name tags and a nurse took us through two doors, there were several signs on the doors, one sign said:
HIGH AWOL RISK
A second sign said:
PATIENTS SHOULD REMAIN A DISTANCE OF 5′ FROM DOOR AT ALL TIMES. ALWAYS REMEMBER TO CLOSE THE DOOR BEHIND YOU.
The orderly slid a big strange key into a big strange lock in the wall and heaved the heavy door open. I could see Mommy through the Plexiglas and mesh window in the second door, she was smiling, her hands clasped together. Mommy hugged us as soon as she could, “My girls!” she exclaimed.
“When they said I had two visitors I was hoping it would be you!”
My sister laughed. “Who else would it be, Mommy?”
“Well I was hoping that it wasn’t two little old lady nuns from down the street.”
We went into her room, the walls were bare and shabby white, two small wooden twin beds stood low to the ground and occupied the center of the small room. The walls needed to be washed I looked closely and saw tiny flecks of food and what looked like boogers and tried to remember not to look again. I remembered the way the rubber sheets on the metal cot I had slept on in the county psych ward out in Fontana had smelled — fishy, like stale piss. At least here the beds didn’t smell like piss, still I didn’t want to sit on the bed, I hung my honey colored faux fur coat from the L shaped hydraulic arm above the door frame and sat on the tiny set of wooden drawers my mother shared with her roommate.
I imagined bed bugs crawling up my legs as I unpacked the goodies I’d brought for my mom. She picked up her bear first “Miss Bear!” she exclaimed, pulling her away to smooth her pinafore. I smiled.
“Do you think I can go home today? With you? Can we go to the nurses station and ask please? I was told you are my advocate. Is that true?”
“Um, Yes, Mommy, I am your advocate but I think you need to stay here until you’re a little bit better. I don’t think you can go home yet.”
“Huh, well what if I tell them I want to leave with you, today, can you take me home?”
“Well, Mommy, I think they want to keep you here, a little bit longer, just until you’re well enough.”
“Oh.” she said, her big eyes watering. “I don’t know why but when I see your girls here I just want to cry. I feel like you are not alright. I feel like you are not safe.”
I took a deep breath and sighed. The visit was pleasant, she introduced us to everyone on the ward. She introduced me to Jessica, the petite blonde my age who wore a green San Francisco Giants beanie pulled down to her eyebrows and who answers the patient phone “Hello, you’ve reached Jessica, how may I help you today?” and Warren who insisted to me that although he looked like a cop he didn’t actually work for the Oakland PD. And to the nervous bald guy in the hospital gown and the greasy glasses who walked around reading fantasy novels and bumping into things. He’d stopped by our mother’s room several times to say “Your daughters have beautiful eyes like you, Jauna.”
“That’s nice Mark, thank you. Now, I’d like to be alone with my daughter’s nows.” she’d make a shooing gesture with her hand and smile haughtily, giving my sister and I knowing glances like “Isn’t he nuts?” and Mark would lumber away as soon as he realized he was being shooed.
I smiled at a cute boy with stretched earlobes the the remnants of last nights black eye liner. He looked away from me, down to the place where my red jeans met the top of my black rubber boots, ashamed to be seen by a pretty girl like me in a place like that. My mother stopped him in the hall to introduce us and he looked down the hall anxious to get away. My mother spotted one of the special crazy hospital pens, short and made of flexible tubing on the flat grey carpet, she stooped to pick it up and offered it to him.
“Here you go honey. I already have one. You can have this one.”
He accepted her offering.
“It’s nice to meet you.” I said. “Pens are a scarcity here, I know from experience. You better hold on to that. It’s not a normal stabby pen but it’s better than a couple of broken crayons.”
I talked too much and for too long but he smirked and met my eyes with some reluctance. I didn’t want him to think that I was better than him. I wanted him to know that cool sexy girls like me sometimes get locked up in mental hospitals too.
When visiting hours were over one of the night nurses walked us to the heavy locked doors and we hugged and kissed Mommy and she blessed us by making the sign of the cross on our foreheads.
“Don’t bless me!” said my sister knocking her hand away, my mother laughed and held up her fingers to make the peace sign instead.
“Mom thinks she’s the fucking Pope.” growled my sister as we walked out into the lobby.
“Yeah” I agreed. “She told me she was ‘Popette’ last week.” we both laughed heartily.
“You’re shitting me. Did she really say that?”
“Yeah, like holy version of ‘Smurfette’.” We laughed and walked to the car. I sent a group text messages to my aunts, uncles, brother, cuñada and cousins to let them know how Mommy was.
I’m still getting use to being part of a big Mexican family like this again; where nuclear doesn’t stop at brothers and sisters, it stretches it’s big wide web to encompass everyone you can pack onto your living room floor.
The other day my tía came to get me at Starbucks, after my mom had flushed all her medication down the toilet and then forbidden me to drive her car.
I had stormed out of the house like a fifteen year old and walked two miles to the nearest coffee shop, the rain soaking through my clothes and my new suede boots. My mom called my tía and asked her to get me, they knew I would be there because it was the only place in town to go at eight p.m. I was writing when my tía walked in, I stopped and we talked about my mom, about how sick she was, about the plan. My tía was exhausted, there were bags under her eyes and she told me it looked like they may be losing the house. It was Christmas time and she had been helping me to care for my mother at home. She convinced me to let her drive me the two miles back to my mom’s apartment but not before she took me shopping at The Goodwill Store.
I have not bought used clothing or furniture or anything since I had become aware of the great bedbug epidemic of Los Angeles. Whenever I return to Rural Nowhere, Ca I take great joy in thrifting and yard-saleing in a town where the only bed bug reports are at the shabby Cinderella Motel where the bikers stay when they roar into town.
I dug through the dusty racks of clothing and found a beautiful red wool swing coat with gorgeous black laquer buttons and tried it on admiring myself in a narrow mirror.
“Oh, that’s beautiful on you, Mija.” said my tía. “But don’t buy it. I saw one like that in your mothers closet. We have a red coat. You don’t need to buy it. We have one already.” she said it gain, that we, collectively, had a red coat, and my eyes filled up with tears.
I feel so uncertain about joining my family again. I feel so scared. I would not be here talking to my tías and tíos or my brother if my mom hadn’t gotten sick, but I fear deep in my heart that they will forget that I am queer and that the next time I love someone enough to bring them down rural route 152, to Rural Nowhere, Ca where I grew up, that they’ll decided that they don’t love me anymore.
And I just can’t experience that kind of rejection again.
And I know that the illness and wounds caused by love do not heal quickly and that the healing cannot occur in isolation but I don’t know if we can heal in silence either.
Still, I hope that we can all be healed together.