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My mother’s condition, especially after her broken leg, was far more serious than neurasthenia. Unmedicated for her schizophrenia, my mother deteriorated to the point where she could barely function. Now my father had to assume all of the household chores, as well as working as a salesman. When he went out of town, he loaded the refrigerator with prepared foods that she could heat up easily in the microwave. He had been with my mother for over thirty years. His own ability to cope was wearing thin.
* * *
My parents’ breakup—or, rather, my Dad’s abandoning her at her mother’s—happened a year or two after the accident, while I was in graduate school at Cornell. I had returned to Brooklyn for winter break and was staying at Grandma Rose’s house on Dover Street in Manhattan Beach, the place we used to visit every Sunday in my youth when both my grandparents were alive. My parents had driven up from their home in Seabrook, Maryland, for a few days, and they were staying in my mother’s and aunt’s old, shared bedroom upstairs. I must have been sleeping in my dead Uncle Jay’s tiny corner room next to theirs. Nothing had been changed since he left home, married, and then died of kidney failure in 1960, at the age of twenty-nine. It felt too morbid to sleep in his old bed; I took the pillow and lay some blankets down and slept on the gray, threadbare carpet.
The year was 1982. New Year’s Eve. I was twenty-six. My friends had invited me to stay over in their studio apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan after a late-night party. I called the next morning to wish everyone a happy new year. My grandmother answered the phone in her usual deadpan.
“Hello? Sharon? Here. I’ll put your mother on the phone. She wants to talk to you.”
My mother got on the line. Before I could wish her a happy new year, she said, “Sharon? Your father left this morning and drove back to Maryland.”
“What? What are you talking about? What happened last night?”
“Nothing. We were all sitting around. We ordered in Chinese food for dinner. Everything was fine. Then this morning he got up from the kitchen table and said he was packing up and leaving me here.”
“What? What do you mean he packed up?”
“Yeah. He just drove away. He went back to Maryland without me.”
She sounded shell-shocked. I was scared. We both knew he wasn’t coming back for her. My first thought: now, am I going to be the one who has to take care of my mother?
I spoke to my dad the next day. He said it was not premeditated, but my aunt asked, “Then why did he bring such a big suitcase for her clothes if they were only coming up for a few days?”
At the time, I was incapable of believing my dad had planned anything. Now, as I watch Rear Window over and over again, and, alongside Jeff carefully study Thorwald the traveling salesman as he ties up a large trunk that ostensibly holds all his wife’s clothing, I begin to have my doubts. Thorwald’s alibi is that he has put his wife on a train to her mother’s in the country. The alibi my father was telling was that he just reacted in the moment, had planned nothing.
I can picture the chocolate-brown vinyl suitcase my dad brought up north with my mom’s clothes inside. Larger than a carry-on, I can see it open on one of the beds in my mom’s old room. It has a powder-blue interior. Perhaps the idea of leaving my mother at her mother’s was half formed, in the back of his mind, if things didn’t go the way he wanted, as he must have suspected they wouldn’t when he asked his miserly mother-in-law for money.
That morning over breakfast, on New Year’s Day, my dad had asked my grandmother, my mom’s own mother, to help him out financially. My mother needed psychiatric help and therapy, which my dad could not afford. He remained a struggling traveling salesman his entire working life. My grandmother refused, just one more of her many rejections over the years. She never trusted my father, maybe because he was married to her mentally ill daughter, and she held him responsible for her condition. My father once told me, early on in my parents’ marriage, that my grandmother had blamed my father for my mother’s breakdowns. She said this in the presence of a psychiatrist, who said that was impossible since my mother had had at least one breakdown before she even met my dad.
I can picture my dad getting up from the table; he was probably splenetic.
“I’ve taken care of her for over thirty years! You think it’s been easy? And no one has lifted a finger to help me out. If you won’t help me, then you take care of her now!” He stormed out of the house and drove back to their place on Good Luck Road in Maryland.
This is my dad’s account of what happened, which he repeated to me several times over the phone. “Look, I’m turning sixty. I have a heart condition. I need someone to take care of me for a change.” Part of me didn’t blame him and part of me was furious with him for leaving my mother with the woman she hated most: her own mother, who had never been able to accept that she had a schizophrenic daughter.
* * *
For the next eight years, my mother hibernated in that house, deteriorating both physically and mentally, sleeping in the musty bedroom she had shared as a child with her younger sister, the grayish-green flowered wallpaper still up with her own Lincoln High School class photograph from 1944 on the wall overhead.. During those years, no one did much to help her; no one forced her to see a psychiatrist or physician. She dropped down to about ninety pounds. It became increasingly more painful for me to visit her: to witness her steady decline, to see the cockroaches running rampant in the kitchen (even after I brought over Combat, which they refused to put down), to see the unhappy pair my mother and her mother made, reminding me of a scene out of Grey Gardens.
One time when I was visiting, my mother brought me upstairs to her room and lifted her blouse to show me her emaciated body. “Look at me. There’s nothing left of me.” She was all bones, like someone in a concentration camp. She told me she was afraid to sleep on the bed, that there was broken glass on it and that her mother put threads in the soup and was trying to poison her.
My mother continued to waste away, growing thinner, laying in her childhood bed most days, until my grandmother called her downstairs for a meal. My father had been her whole life, especially once my sister and I had grown up and left home. I think she just lay down for those eight years, waiting to die.
* * *
All that time, I struggled with my guilt over doing nothing. Shouldn’t I, as her daughter, have her move in with me? But how could I manage, being a part-time professor, editor, writer, who was barely cobbling together a living? How could I bring her to live in my rundown fourth-floor walkup in Carroll Gardens? I doubt my mother would have been able to climb the eighty-two steps. I was terrified she would overwhelm me, swallow me up. She was no ordinary mother. How did I know how to deal with a paranoid schizophrenic who hallucinated? It was too much for me to take on; nevertheless, I felt steeped in guilt.
That is, until my sister, a psychiatric nurse by training, decided to act. She brought Mom to her comfortable suburban home outside of Princeton. Cleaned her up and let her stay for a few months. I can remember watching my brother-in-law Paul, who used great tenderness when he had my mother sit in the living room and soak her feet in a basin filled with warm water to soften up her toenails before he could cut them. They were so long (one or two inches, literally), they curled at the end, and were the color of ivory piano keys. How did she ever fit them into her shoes? It was a sign to me of how much her mind had let her body go. Gently, carefully, Paul cut them so my mom’s feet looked normal again, not like a crazy homeless woman’s.
* * *
After about two months, my sister called me up to say it was time to have Mom hospitalized. “Sharon, you have to be the heavy.”
“Why? Why me?”
“Because she’ll listen to you. You’ve gotta tell her she has to sign herself in.”
I had to be the one who would get my mother to voluntarily sign herself in to the psych ward of the local hospital, since she was not a clear danger to herself or to others. Why did I have to be the one? Did she sense that my mom trusted me more—perhaps loved me more—than her, the self-described “cold fish” who barely showed her emotions?
On the way, we stopped at a local Jersey diner for lunch and my mother complained about her food. What had she ordered? Something with a sauce? She ordered some rice pudding for dessert, but lay down her spoon after a few tastes. “Slop. Real slop,” she said, and my sister and I looked at each other and laughed, partly because she was right, partly because we were nervous about what we were about to do.
When we got back into my sister’s car, I realized my mother still had no idea what was about to happen or where we were taking her. My sister had not said a word to her, probably worried that she might have had trouble getting my mother into the car.
“Where are we going?” Mom finally asked.
I breathed in deeply, then launched in. “We’re taking you to a hospital, Ma, because we think you need help,” I said as calmly as I could from the back seat, bracing myself for her reaction, all the while feeling the surge of that roiling mixture of guilt and obligation to get my mother the psychiatric help she needed.
“I don’t need any help,” is all she said, in her Brooklyn, nasal accent. I was surprised by how little resistance she was putting up. The fight had gone out of her.
“We think that you do,” I replied, and all three of us remained silent until we pulled up in the hospital parking lot.
“And I promise you there won’t be any electroshock. No more wires, Ma. I promise. They won’t do that to you again,” I said, as we were getting out of the car, knowing that what had frightened her most during past hospitalizations was the ECT she had undergone. It was what frightened me most when I learned about it: sticking wires and electrodes on someone’s head and running electricity through the brain. How primitive. How frightening.
“Just let me put on my lipstick,” she said, in the hospital parking lot. Then she opened her purse and stood, leaning over to look at herself in the car’s rearview mirror, applying her hot-pink lipstick before carefully rubbing her lips together. No matter that her eyes were watering, her face oily and grainy, her hair a greasy mess, and that she still was so emaciated. In her eyes, with her pink lipstick on, she would look presentable for her intake interview, where she would try to act as normal as possible and tell them she had no idea why she was there, why her daughters had taken her there. But she would agree, first looking up at me for reassurance, to sign herself in.
* * *
At the end of Rear Window, Lisa gets her man by risking her life. In the final scene, we watch her recline, initially with the travel book Beyond the High Himalayas (clearly meant to impress Jeff), before she switches to her real interest, the “Beauty Issue” of Harper’s Bazaar, having proven herself to her man who lies napping in his wheelchair with two broken legs.
I am not sure I have ever felt like Lisa, partly because she speaks and dresses and moves like an upper-class debutante. As for myself, to paraphrase an old cigarette commercial, “You can take this Brooklyn girl out of the working class, but you can’t take the working class out of this Brooklyn girl.”
When I hold my life up to Rear Window, I find I have not managed to see my way through to a happy ending. At times, I have felt like the woman artist working away on her sculpture; at others, like the young blonde dancer with a flurry of handsome suitors; at still other times, like Miss Lonely Hearts, putting my head down to sob at the invisible man across the table from me. Of course, my story is not over. Though I live on a high floor in an apartment building, someone can still look in on my life. Perhaps this writing serves as an invitation to do just that: recounting my story and those of my parents has become a way of living with the shades up.