The hospital gave every appearance of being hospitable to patients. As I gazed at the pastel paintings of cut flowers that lined the hospital walls, a young nurse with a well-scrubbed face and a bright smile zipped in and out of the waiting room.
"Hi, I'm Marianne, Intake Nurse. Are you Mrs. Willow's daughter? I'd like some information about your mother."
After reassuring Marianne that yes, I was my mother's daughter, I began to talk with her about how it happened that my mother had entered the psych ward for her second hospitalization, nearly 20 years after her first one. This was now 1978; her first hospitalization had been in 1960.
The hospital promisedÂ that so much had changed since those neanderthal times. From the cheery pastel walls instead of hospital puke green walls, and cheery plainclothed nurses instead of nurses in uniformed white dresses and caps, the rules advertised that psychiatric hospitalization had changed.
What amazed me then and now is how my mother managed to cope for nearly 20 years without benefit of medication, much psychotherapy or any help at all, all the while working and raising kids.
Oh, I know she messed up.Â Â But that she bungled on through the messy divorce and my father's skewering of her during the custody proceedings, which took all of us away from her permanently when we left Utah for Montreal is amazing not because she bungled on, but because she bungled on.
After my mother returned home in 1960 from Gnarled Trees, she spent a great deal of time alone.
I had never seen this in her before. She gazed off into space more often than not. At times, she narrowed her eyes to slits and peered at me, as if she were listening to extraneous information. Was she hearing voices? Likely so, I soon discovered.
I left my mother's house after a bad year and went to live with my father and new stepmother, a move my father promised would be wonderful - a real family, two parents, both working, both highly functional.
I had been distraught by the lack of attention to detail in the ordinary things my mother had once excelled in - from driving to cooking or cleaning. Or in sewing the hand-colored apron she'd made me as a complement to the Dutch shoes my father had brought back from his research trip when I was in second grade.Â Gifts from her like those were in the past.
EvenÂ a simple beef stew was now difficult for my mother. She'd never been a big eater (and my appetite was difficult to please) but I was not eating enough. I was not getting enough attention, and the house was becoming very messy. My mother had always been hygenically superior and organized, to boot. But the electroshock therapy endured in 1960 took several years to recover from.
My sisters were close in age and a lot to handle.Â She hired Margarita, a lovely and friendly woman, who needed some extra cash and a day off from her own domestic situation, to help us with the housecleaning. I loved talking to Margarita as she scrubbed the walls, ironed the clothes, washed the dishes. She was simply someone to talk to, while my mother sat in an empty room staring into space, listening to other voices in other rooms.
In sixth grade, something snapped and I spent most morningsÂ hiding in the house so I wouldn't have to go to school. I often hid in the closet, usually stepping on the electrical wires until they would short circuit. My mother and I had arguments.
The truth was: I missed my father, who'd moved out the summer before.
He'd been secretly dating the young Polish doctor who came from Poland specifically to work with him; so far apart their worlds were - this sheltered ex-Mormon boy and this exotic beauty from Poland. It was a natural recipe for attraction, for disaster. And so it played out that way during my adolescent years.
On Sundays, Daddy came to visit me. We sat together holding hands on the couch and talking. I looked forward to living with him again.
And during my adolescent years, my mother worked as a microbiology technician in the lab, just as she'd done before her breakdown. She joined the NAACP and I joined with her.
She spent time with boyfriends and I railed against this. I did not like them in the house. After the divorce, she sold the house and lived in the West side of town, near the railroad tracks.Â By this time, I had moved out but my sisters still lived with her.
She'd sold my sisters' beds and they slept on sleeping bags. Her boyfriend came to live with her, the fact that caused her to lose custody.
After we went to Montreal, she went to Philadelphia to live with her boyfriend's family, and worked as a seamstress in a factory. "The company knew she had quick fingers and would be a fast worker."
During this time, my mother wrote crazy letters to me, letters my father often intercepted and read to me so that I would understand just how crazy they were. Masturbation and heroin, my mother recommended, as a way to preserve youth.
At one point, she kept my sisters too long in Utah after summer vacation and enrolled them in school in Cedar City and I was assigned to go to Utah and bring them back. Such dirty work, I hated it. My sisters had wanted to live with my mother, but I knew that Montreal was a better place for them.
So Mother bungled on, bungled on, bungled on. Yet she supported herself by working. She continued painting in oils but eventually destroyed most of her paintings.
By the time she called me that she was in Mexico, I was out of college and working in Toronto for a newspaper.
This is what had happened, and what I had had to tell the intake nurse at the hospital:
"Earlier this summer my mother called, saying she was in Mexico, looking for her lost child and for Carlos Castaneda. She didn't know the Mexican police would believe her to be a crazy woman and would lock her up if they found her wanderingÂ the streets. If that happened, the US government wouldn't help her and she'd be stuck in jail. I told her it was important she fly home as soon as possible."
"Carlos Castaneda?" Marianne asked.
"Yes, Castaneda wrote about his experiences with Don Juan, a Yaqui shaman and a supposed connection as an alternate reality through drugs, magic rituals or shamanism. My mother was looking to find Castaneda in Mexico, because she was going through her own journey of altered reality. I didn't understand it, but that was her stated reason for going to Mexico.
"Did she come home then?"
"My mother did come home, but she was in bad shape. She had no money and had been living off credit; she couldn't pay for the hotel nor for the food or clothes she'd charged. She'd racked up more than three grand on her credit card, with no money available to pay it off.
"Oh my. Why was she doing all this?"
"She worked for the government, of course." Marianne looked shocked.
"I'm kidding, Marianne."
Marianne looked embarrassed at my remark. I was ticked at her naivetÃ©.
"So what happened, then?"
"I called my father's attorney, who called the credit card company and he was advised to cut up her card, which he did.
"When I visited her at the motel, I found her in the room, naked and staring at the TV. The TV was off. She'd had sex with Breshnev via the TV, she'd said, and that she'd been a special FBI agent for the past 20 years but had not been paid.She said she received instructions from the FBI by breathing into the phone. She tried to call the FBI to find out why she had not been paid."
The hospital paintings and the pastel walls grated on my consciousness. Marianne's attention was riveted to me. I felt ill.
"As Mama spoke, I saw how anxious she was. She was frightened; her pupils were big. She spoke without pause and jumped from one topic to the next. Breathless, almost panting, she was like an animal. Her mind raced. She weighed 98 pounds. Clothes hung limp from her limbs, as if from a clothes hanger."
My own breath quickened as I remembered seeing Mama. This was the same Mama who'd served me mud pies when I was four simply because I'd asked her to.
"She said the FBI had allowed me to be in on her secret, that the FBI she worked for allowed her to tell me everything she knew. I knew this would help me but I felt guilty knowing I would be deceiving her. I told her I had to make a phone call - that the FBI told me I had to call someone to come help her."
Marianne leaned closer, gazing intently at me.
"I then called the West Desert Valley Health Service. They'd send their doctor on call. When Dr. Schulten arrived, he wasted no time getting to brass tacks. Mama barely spoke the words, "I work for the FBI" when he told her, "No, you do not" and said she was having a frankly psychotic episode and needed to go to the hospital.
Mama walked out of the motel in a huff. Dr. Schulten's last words to me were: "Don't let her out of your sight. Stay with her all day, if that's what it takes."
Mama was fuming at my betrayal of her. She walked 10 paces ahead of me, which was brisk for a 52-year old woman. At 27, I could keep pace with her, but barely. With little more than her pride intact, she marched straight to the FBI office downtown.
"I'd like to see the FBI agent in charge," Mama had said. She was told she'd need to wait. She then informed the receptionist that she actually worked for the FBI and was demanding payment. The receptionist disappeared behind a heavy oak door for a moment, then quickly reappeared.
"You may go right in, Mrs. Willows."
Eliot Ness sat at a mahogany desk, flashed a bright smile and an FBI badge. "I must inform you, Mrs. Esplin, that it is a Federal offense to impersonate a Federal Officer, such as an FBI agent." Eliot Ness's badge read: William Hansen, FBI.
"Mr. Hansen, I'm not impersonating a Federal officer, I work for the FBI."
Her voice was high, much as a younger woman's would have been, but her tone lacked the lilt a younger woman might have. She was insistent. She knew she was right. Mr. Hansen knew he was right.
I groaned and tried to catch Mr. Hansen's attention.
"Mrs. Willows. I must tell you and your daughter that this is a serious offense. This is not something we necessarily prosecute but we could bring charges if we deem that it's in our best interests to do so."
I was desperate. I turned and spoke directly to Mama.
"Mama, they've informed me that I need to speak with Mr. Hansen, alone."
I maximized my opportunity, knowing she had let me into her delusional system.
Her eyes narrowed to slits as she scrutinized my face, suspicious of my duplicity and looking for hints as to my real purpose.
"Yes. They've communicated with me just now."
Mr. Hansen shot the same questioning glance at me that he'd shot toward my mother. My heart raced. Time was running out. I turned to Mr. Hansen.
"Mr. Hansen, I need to speak with you, privately. My mother can wait outside."
Mama left the room, not convinced of my sincerity.
"Mr. Hansen, my mother is a paranoid schizophrenic. This morning, Dr. John Schulten of the West Desert Valley Health Service arranged a commitment at University Hospital. You can call them yourself. Dr. Schulten told me to follow her around all day, even if that meant following her directly to your office."
Mr. Hansen phoned the hospital and then called my mother back into the office.
"Mrs. Willows I've confirmed that a commitment is waiting for you at UniversityÂ Hospital. If you do not go with your daughter voluntarily right now, we will personally escort you to the hospital. Which is it going to be, Mrs. Willows?"
My mother knew she had no choice and asked the FBI to call a taxi. She sent a scathing glance my way.
Once at the hospital, the triage nurse asked my mother why we were there.
My mother pointed to me, and said, "It's her. My daughter. She's crazy. "
The triage nurse cast a sidelong glance at me, casting aspersions upon my own sanity. In truth, my sanity had been feeling trampled upon from the stress of the previous few days. I gulped in panic.
I smiled wanly and let Mama continue talking, knowing she would soon reveal herself.
"You see, Nurse," Mama had said, "I was in Mexico looking for Carlos Castaneda when my daughter said I should return home. I came back but my apartment lease was up and I'd no place to live, except the Holiday Inn. I've been helping the U.S. Government but have not been paid. I went to the FBI office to find out why."
I turned to Marianne, and spoke.
"In a bizarre way, some of what Mama had said made sense. She looked for Castaneda's alternative reality. In her own delusions of working for the government, she'd sort of found this alternative reality. But it was in any literal sense of what she said and how she said it that made no sense to the average person. She was living a fiction that was vastly different from the accepted fictions of conventional society."
I visited Mama every day.
Psych nurses in street clothes filed past patients who whiled away their time nodding off in the day room as they watched TV or stared out the window. Some played cards but most sat alone, speaking to no one but themselves.
The next day,Â I brought a bouquet of yellow Jonquils for my mother. Mama reached for the bouquet but Marianne stopped her.
"I'm sorry, no Jonquils for Mama," Marianne said.
"Why is that, Marianne?"
"It's hospital policy that patients are not allowed to have flowers or plants in their rooms."
I'd wanted Mama to see life begin from one small seed and watch it grow into something marvelous and unforeseen, something I thought might give her hope for her own future.
Mama was in the hospital for a month. The medication was deeply sedating, slurring her speech and making her lethargic. She was a shadow of her formerly vibrant self. The Mama who'd knit me an angora hat and muff, who'd taught me to bake and sew, who'd exhibited oil paintings at the University, was now in a hospital gown, glassy-eyed and drooling over her black coffee.
Day after day I visited this quiet, mousy creature: her brown hair was graying, her eyes were tired but still blue, her skin smooth as a baby's. She was trapped in her own psyche; her mind had split into two. She believed things that were fantastic but untrue; ultimately, what she believed was fiction, crazy.
Each day, I brought a plant for her to take home when she was discharged. The first day, I brought yellow Jonquils, for the renewal I hoped someday would come. The second day, I brought Tulips, for the Tulip bulbs she and I had planted each fall, when I was a child. The third day, I brought Rosemary, the herb for remembrance, in the hope she'd remember what electroshock therapy had erased, years earlier.
After the first days, she began to grow accustomed to the medication, but it made her sleepy. She drank coffee to stay awake and to beat back the sedation;Â she'd beg for cigarettes when she could or sneak them when the nurses weren't looking. Most days, she did little else. It was a hell of a life.
Each time the door to the locked ward slammed shut, it was a silent sentence. The slammed door walled off her soul from what little remained of her creativity. She was at odds with reality: she'd construed a marvelous fiction, a fiction she'd believed was God's honest truth only to be told she was crazy. Truth was, an argument could be made that the world was no crazier than she - that she believed the wrong fiction, and that that was her only crime against reason.
As I looked at her one last time before I returned home, I thought I'd seen a subtle change: along the edges of her mouth, a smile began to crack. Along the fine lines of her face danced feelings trying to surface; I tried to look her in the eye and connect, but this moment retreated all too quickly into a blank stare of nothingness. Her time had not yet come.
Despite the paintings of cut flowers that lined the pastel hospital walls, there would be no yellow Jonquils for Mama. Cheerful nurses in brightly colored street clothes were no match for the cold bureaucracy of the mental health system. But even through Mama's despair, I thought I'd detected a glimmer of hope. I resolved to visit her again soon to see if I could nudge that hope closer to the sunlight.
*Â *Â *
Copyright Â© 2007, 2008, 2009. Kathryn Esplin. All rights reserved.