While striving to find her own voice, a young girl caretakes for her bipolar mother.
|Let Her Cry (excerpt)
by Shelley Stoehr
I’ll bet when people looked at me, they thought, “There’s a girl who’s really got it together.” They didn’t know me.
They didn’t know I have this theory -- you can die from a panic attack, but you can’t die lying on your back with your feet up in the air, because if you die your feet will fall down, gravity and all, so you just have to keep your feet up and you’ll be okay...
But not seeing me with my bare toes above my head, I’ll just bet they’d have thought, “Look at her clothes, kind of grunge kind of rock kind of low-key whore, thrift store-slash-Hollywood boulevard, so cool. She’s so thin, so waif, but not in a sick way, just all together with it, like a tiny rock star with her guitar and her voice and her amazing mother... she’s the absolute coolest mother in the world...”
I mean, maybe they’d have thought that about me, and certainly they’d have believed that about my mother, and I don’t know, maybe they’d have been right too, I mean about the coolness, I mean about my mother.
Maybe sometimes -- not always though, that’s the thing.
* * *
My mother cried in her room next to mine, “They hated me! Hated me! Why do you even pretend to love me I’m an pathetic, old failure. I’m not a musician, I’m a fraud. And why do I have to be so old and horrible, they’d like me if I was younger. I was better then. Then you’d love me, wouldn’t you? Oh God, Old, Pathetic, Failure, Oldpatheticfailure!”
“Dawn, stop! Just stop it!” My father’s voice though calming and collected, was rising. It had been getting like that more and more for the past several months, like he couldn’t take her anymore. Well, no one could when she turned dark. Except me, only me.
Because whatever outsiders thought of her, or thought of me, they really didn’t know us.
“Dawn, why are you doing this?” My father’s was a voice of pain. My mother’s was the jagged edge of a worn blade. I was quiet, afraid of my own voice, even my inner voice, afraid of what I might say -- that it might be the wrong thing, that someone’ll get hurt if I even breathe.
I lay on the floor of my room, feet still raised, trying to breathe, my heart beating so fast I was sure it would burst. I gasped, I clung to the skin over my stomach, trying not to start gagging but then I did anyway, in jerky heaves that shook my whole body, flipped me onto my side and up over the garbage pail, but nothing came out, and then I made myself stop, said, Get it together Jules, and made myself do some Kundalini Breath of Fire, like my mother taught me to do for panic attacks, like she did -- I panted like a dog to get myself together, because my mother needed me. I had to get it together, and quick.
“Just leave! Get out! I don’t need you, I don’t need anyone! Everyone leave me alone!” she screamed at my father.
My cheeks were hot, and I kept breathing, panting, holding on to myself. I’m coming Mommy! Hold on please, I’m coming as fast as I can.
Holding my breath, letting my knees drop down into a diamond shape, I concentrated on my third eye and on filling myself with calming, healing blue light, light raining softly through me, so I wouldn’t start retching again, I wouldn’t freak out, and I wouldn’t cry, I especially wouldn’t cry.
Because when you cry, sometimes you can’t stop. I learned that from my mother too.
Just another minute, Mommy! With my eyes still shut, I focused on going to a happy place with my mind. Tonight, before Mom and Dad went out...
My dad and I were on the floor by the coffee table, sitting on our knees, eating gyoza in hot sauce with the laquered chopsticks Dad got for Mom in San Francisco last year when he was still touring with the rep company, before he had to quit because my mother kept getting worse, it seemed --
Hey! Juliet! Happy thoughts! Breathe Goddamnit!
-- Dad was sipping sake from a little cup, I was drinking Diet Coke from one of the sake cups, and the room was bursting with music. It seemed like the walls were dancing, and colors brighter, and the world was full of possibility and warm, fuzzy feelings, and spirit everywhere because Dawn was playing her violin.
My mother was a rock violinist, playing with bands here and there, doing studio work, and tonight was to be her first solo show since before I was born. She had a new cd too. She really was the coolest, most awesomest mother in the world. An artist, a real artist. Like I would be someday.
She wore black lace long over the faded velvet pants she’d embroidered herself, and Doc Martens, and a locket on a long ribbon that she got when I was born. Pictures of my father and I hung always close to her heart.
She beamed beneath her pale red hair, hair like mine, one of the many things I got from her. Like the palest of skin, like the freckles. We hated our freckles.
Goddamnit Juliet, happy thoughts!
My father says my hair was like a sunrise over the San Francisco bay, red muted by fog. But we live in L.A., so it would have to be muted by smog, and anyway, I know no one but him would remember my true hair because everyone only sees it highlighted rainbow colors of manic panic, bright red and gold and blue and green and orange. Tied on top of my head, the color cascaded over me like a fountain.
My mother loved my rainbow hair, and she liked to run her fingers through it and call me Rainbow with such love and affection my heart always felt like it was going to supernova. Her new, self-produced cd was called “Rainbows” -- that’s how much she loved me.
Anyway, she played her music for us while we ate, her red hair like mine once was before I hit it with the rainbow dyes, only my hair is thin, wispy, shaggy, and hers is thick and long, in curls that cascade over her like the ocean’s waves.
The music soared. It rocked. I felt it pulsing behind my eyes like a story or a movie that moves you to want to cry. My Dad and I were so proud to hear her. She was going to blow up The Dragon, and I wished I could be there, but you had to be eighteen to get in, and I was only sixteen.
When she finished playing, she was flirty with my Dad, and they kissed with open mouths without caring if I saw their tongues touching. I was happy. She was happy.
I went to my room when she they started slow dancing, my mother crooning, “August, August, my heart is for you.” After that my iPod drowned out the sounds of their love. I was left alone in my room with the memory of my mother’s flushed cheeks and the light that seemed to flow out of her and her violin -- and my father was not just happy but kind of relieved.
* * *
In spite of the “happy thoughts”, I had to gulp hard on the rising pain in my own throat, but then I was ready. I pushed off the floor and bolted for the next room. I’m coming Mommy. I’ll make it better!
I rushed into my parents’ room without knocking, and everything froze for a moment, my mother on the bed with tear-smeared black eyeliner staining her cheeks in long drips and smudged around her eyes like a racoon face. Even so, she was beautiful.
But, “Fucking! Old! Failure! No talent Loser!” was what she cried, as she went back to what she was doing -- as if I weren’t even there. Taking another photograph out of it’s frame, she tore it. She tore herself out of the picture, then frantically ripped the image of herself into shreds.
“Juliet!” my father said, stepping between me and her, “Go back to your room!”
“Don’t tell my baby what to do!” she shouted.
“It’s okay Dad, I can help,” I said, slipping past him like a shadow, sliding up onto the bed to still my mother’s hands. The palms were sweaty and yet cold and clammy, and shaking like leaves. I held them between my tiny hands, the chunky silver rings I wore on every finger making a circle around her pain, holding it for her. I imagined the metal soaking it up like a sadness conductor -- I was willing to absorb it all into myself. I could take it, she couldn’t.
“You shouldn’t be here, Jules,” my father said.
There were tears in his voice, but not in his eyes, nor in mine. The tears were in my throat, throbbing, aching, but neither my father nor I let the tears out. We wouldn’t cry, we never did. My mother cried enough for everyone.
She started to calm down, slumping against the headboard, then sliding down into the bed. My father picked up the remains of pictures, and gathered the ones she hadn’t gotten to in his arms, protecting them like I guessed he’d have liked to protect us, but he couldn’t, he just couldn’t.
His long brown bangs fell over his eyes as he leaned over the pictures, holding them close. I could tell he was barely breathing, and I felt horrible for him, but there was nothing I could do. I could only hold my mother’s hands.
My father left the bedroom, defeated, and I heard music from the living room, Hootie and the Blowfish, which she hates, why did he have to make things worse? She needed something fierce like Hole, angry old school Courtney Love to calm her down by rising to her feelings of hate so she didn’t feel so alone.
“Was it too terrible?” I asked her, letting her calloused hands drop.
She folded them over her chest, holding onto her heart. Shrugging, she said in little gasps -- as if breath and words and living were a strain, which I guessed they were, they often were for her -- she said, “Don’t. Know. Maybe. I only sold one cd and your father was busy talking to some woman at the bar like I was nothing like it didn’t matter I was up on that stage alone always alone...” The last came out in a rush, accompanied by a fresh torrent of tears flowing over the delicate features I’d inherited from her.
What could I say? “Mama, you’re beautiful. You’re the best musician in the world. You’re everything to us, we love you more than anything in the world, you know that --”
“It’s not enough!” my mother said, suddenly sitting up.
Guiding her back down to the pillow, I stroked her hair back off her face, smoothing the creases in her forehead. “I know, I know it’s never enough, but it’s something, and I don’t believe you anyway. I can’t believe the audience hated you. I’ve seen the way people look at you onstage. They adore you, they’re like in a trance or something. Your music takes them away --”
“When will someone ever come take me away?”
“I’m sorry I can’t fix everything and make it perfect, Mom, you know I’d do anything for you. But just rest now, okay? Just rest.”
Pulling me into a hug -- what she called a “heart hug”, where our chests touched and our hearts beat together like one, and we were absorbed into each other for a moment I wished would last forever -- she said softly in my ear, “I’m so sorry. I don’t know why I get like this. It isn’t you, it’s me, baby. You know you are the joy of my life. If I could be happy for you, I would, I always would.”
Before she could go on, I said, “It’s okay, Mom. You can rest now. Everything’ll be okay.”
I wished I believed that, but it was hard, seeing her as she was now. Still, I remembered how she’d glowed before leaving for the club earlier, and I knew she’d glow again. She was bipolar. Glowing and crashing were who she was, just as much as she was a beautiful woman, a divine musician, and my mother.
Before she fell asleep, she said, “Whole world’s coming to an end, Mal,” which was from her favorite movie, Natural Born Killers, and which she always said when she felt really, really bad but didn’t want to. I guess it cheered her up some. So it was good to hear, and I felt better leaving her alone in the bedroom and going to the living room to see how my father was doing. He sat on the couch, drinking scotch, and Hootie sang,
“Let her cry.../And if the sun comes up tomorrow/Let her be...let her be.”
As I sat on the couch to comfort him, he suddenly got up and walked out of the house, leaving his drink on the table. Impulsively, angrily, I downed the remainder of his drink in one gulp, and then wished I hadn’t. It burned in my throat. But after awhile, when my father hadn’t returned, and the music ended, and I was growing crazy watching the red digits on the digital clock over the TV keep passing, with me still feeling the same -- alone and frightened and mad and wondering if my father would be back, or whether my mother would be back in any real sense -- as in the coolest, awesomest mother in the world, and not a beaten down shell...
I took a deep breath, but it didn’t help. So I went to the cabinet over the refrigerator and got the scotch and poured myself a big glassful, and I managed to get it down as gross as it was.
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