The Ghost in the Rear-View: The Mother I Lost, The Mom Ill Become and Other Thoughts for My Unborn SonKate Levin
The only conversation I ever had with my mother about her condition took place in the car. Looking back, I see a certain symmetry in her having broached the most uncomfortable subject of her life in one of the spaces in which she felt least at ease. My mother was a bad driver. Not the reckless, thrilling kind, but the slow, timorous kind.
Talking in the car also meant that she didn’t have to look at me as she spoke.
“I have a chemical imbalance in my brain,” she had said, peering at the road ahead as though navigating a deceptively calm war zone instead of a suburban New Jersey street.
It was early summer. Beneath the steering wheel, her legs jutted out of her pleated shorts with a bony angularity. The coming winter, the autopsy report would describe her as “cachectic,” physically wasted, but at that moment, to me, with my love of food at war with my traitorous metabolism, she was enviably slim. As she turned the wheel, her collarbones protruded from her light cotton shirt. She owned piles and piles of those shirts, thin and soft, and come February I would bury my face in them, starving for a trace of her scent.
“It affects my mood, the way I act,” she continued. “I’ve had it for a long time, and I get treatment for it.”
I was 12 — old enough to steal my mother’s bottle of Nair for secret depilatory sessions conducted when no one else was home. I had kissed a boy, and had also clutched my knees to my chest and rocked myself in despair when the boy lost interest. I had started to read real books, adult books, which I hoped would make me think like an adult. I was surely old enough to parse the words “chemical imbalance” and “brain” and ask, aloud: Where did the imbalance come from? What kind of treatment? Is that why you wrote what you wrote in your journal?
But my only question was a child’s question.
“Will it get better?”
The week I turned 32, I found out I was pregnant with my first child.
It was early February. I left my husband in the living room watching TV with the dogs and slipped into the bathroom to urinate on yet another stick. I did it secretly, in violation of the half-facetious ban my husband had placed on taking pregnancy tests — I’d gone a little crazy, taking them all the time, defying logic and our budget. I was desperate to know whether there was someone, the beginnings of someone, within me. The prospect was so radical and strange that I needed to know, the very first moment I could, when it became real.
Because I wasn’t even late yet, and because the bathroom trash bin was filled with old minus-strewn sticks, and because I had, at least, a bit of self-awareness about my recent compulsions, I expected a negative — and yet. Blue dye crept across the testing window and settled into a plus sign. A little laugh rippled through me, as though I’d been caught off guard by a great joke. Never in my life had something so intensely anticipated felt like such a surprise.
What unfolded from there is a stream of clichés: a dash into the living room, an embrace, a few photos, some disbelief. When I felt ready to crawl out of the cocoon of celebration and resume normal life, I took the dogs for their nighttime walk under the rustling Los Angeles palm trees. Outside, I watched my step, newly careful with my body, hyper-vigilant of curbs, cars, cats that might send my dogs into a lunge. When the dogs had finished their business and I stooped to pick up after them, I unbuttoned my jeans to keep the waistband from cutting into my middle. Not for my own sake — I hadn’t gained a pound yet, or felt any bloat — but for what I imagined to be the comfort of my son or daughter.
An absurd gesture, of course. At home a few minutes later, WebMD would inform me that the embryo was no bigger than a poppy seed; it couldn’t think or hear or feel. But the facts hardly mattered. Over the next few weeks, I started thinking of my every sensation — every stubbed toe, every surge of adrenaline — as shared; every joke I told, every triumph or failure at work, every bit of pettiness or dishonesty I engaged in, as witnessed, even evaluated. I felt accompanied, attended by an invisible other — one who was known, almost everywhere I went, only to me.
How we started talking about my mother, I don’t know.
I was 22, and my father had come over from New Jersey for a visit, a Sunday afternoon tour of my post-college Brooklyn life. We pulled our bikes off of the big loop at Prospect Park to rest; sitting in the grass, we squinted away from each other.
My father rarely talked about my mother. After she died, he strove to just move on. My brother and I — 9 and 13, respectively — followed suit, the silence cleaving our family life into two periods: before and after.
But in the park, nearly a decade into the after era, he spoke. “Your mom was my patient,” he explained. “I was a psych resident, a couple years out of med school, and one night when she was still a student, she came into the hospital in rough shape. I treated her for a time after that, though we didn’t get together until later on, after I got out of psychiatry. You and I may have talked about this at some point … did you know this stuff already?”
I raised a teetering hand to signal that I half-knew my parents’ story, like a song I could hum but not name.
“She was such a compelling person,” he continued. “Just smart — smart, and sharply perceptive — especially of people, and especially of the negative in this world. She was unusual.”
I forced a few words up from the bog of my throat. “She was depressed.”
He nodded. “For a long, long time, since she was a teenager.” He said her illness was resistant; it didn’t respond to a range of different treatments.
“What was her diagnosis?” I asked — for I had one now, too, having just started counseling for the first time.
My father scratched at his scalp and then glanced at his fingernails. A stress habit of mine, too, either via inheritance or mimicry.
“She had major depression with psychotic features,” he said.
“Like how?” I said, feeling obscurely defensive. My mother had dark moods, but she didn’t talk to furniture.
“Well…” my father said, tilting his head toward me, at once pensive and matter-of-fact, the widower and the doctor. “One thing that started very early on was that, when she was doing poorly, she felt like she was accompanied by a presence. Sometimes it was a maternal presence, and it would comfort her. At other times it was menacing. It would tell her to hurt herself.”
I imagined a black spectral mist, a thing with arms and a voice, hovering above my mother, taunting and then cajoling her. But it had never existed to anyone but her — it was her.
“Did she have that, did she feel that… presence… even when I knew her?” I asked, and my father nodded. But my words were all wrong, and their wrong-ness lingered.
When I knew her, as though she were an old schoolmate.
When I knew her, as though I knew her.
I tell people I’m pregnant and they tell me that I’m going to be a wonderful mother. My husband says it. My new friends, my old friends. My father would say it, but he’s passed now, too. Past.
To my husband I say, I will be, right?
To others, Oh, well thank you. I hope so.
Or sometimes, patting my belly with a wry laugh: Thanks — I’m going to try not to screw it up too badly.
I never say: Thank you. The bar is low.
Never: How can I be a mother when I don’t have a mother?
Because I do have a mother. And did she set the bar so low?
Now and then, I defend her against the critics.
When they say she was selfish, I say: No — she was ill.
When they say she was ill, I say: Yes — but she was more than that.
When they ask for proof, I say: Sure — the zinnias and marigolds she planted in the backyard. The graduate degree she earned after having children. The evening jogs, all the races she ran. The letter I keep in my desk, the one she wrote at 18; precise, mature, witty, a little mordant. The fullness in her cheeks. The silly wordplay and the kisses. The nights she spent by my side when I couldn’t sleep. My life is proof. My brother’s life.
When they ask me about the note, I say: I don’t know — I don’t know why she didn’t mention her children, didn’t say goodbye or “I love you” to us, in her note.
When they ask me — but they don’t ask me. They are imaginary; the conversations, internal. I debate myself a while, and when I tire of trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, I go quiet.
When I am eight weeks along, my husband and I drive to our first visit with the obstetrician. We miss one exit, and then another, each delay affirming my sense of some larger trouble afoot. I worry that the doctor will tell us there is a mistake, that the ultrasound will show up blank, hollow — no one there, after all. Just me.
At the office, we see the ultrasound technician first. I recline on the table and she slides a wand inside of me. On the monitor, two white ovals appear in a lagoon of black.
“There’s the yolk sac,” she says, “and there’s your baby.” “Oh!” I say, smiling at the orb. It’s small and featureless, but no poppy seed. She flips a switch and a pulse resounds so loudly that the room seems to vibrate with it; for a few moments, I’m inside of the beat that beats inside of me.
The tech lowers the volume. “OK, that was a good, strong heartbeat,” she says. “One hundred and fifty beats per minute — that’s twice as fast as yours.”
“That’s incredible,” I say, my voice so light with joy that it seems to hover above me.
There was the day in February when she took her life: the confusion, the dread, the long wait at the babysitter’s house for my father. The hushed distress of adults glimpsed through a half-open door. The strangeness and the betrayals of language —”Your mom died today”— and of time, which moved only in the wrong direction, into the future, away from where I wanted to be, away from her.
But there was also the end before the end. I was 10 or 11, and she was becoming less and less herself — irascible in flashes, facing each day with a wince. Some nights, in bed, she wrote in a journal, her face blank but shining with tears. I would watch her from the doorway, but couldn’t make her see me.
One day I stole the journal, plucking it from the heap of magazines and books on her nightstand — because I was home alone, and because I thought I wanted the truth. I opened it right away, lying on my stomach beside my parents’ bed, the rough carpet biting into my elbows. I read there, bobbing in the waves of mother’s thoughts, until the crash. She started describing a recent emotional state in which she couldn’t feel anything — couldn’t feel love even for her children, she wrote. I reread the sentence a few times and then closed the journal, wedging it back into the pile on the nightstand.
I walked back to my bedroom, but it didn’t feel like walking. I couldn’t be sure of the floor, of the motion of lifting and planting my feet, or even of my own shallow breaths coming one after the next. Anything could give way. My mother doesn’t love me, I thought, letting the idea solidify into a plain truth, as hard and defined as a marble in my palm.
I sat on my bed. Every cell in my body throbbed in revolt, sick with a wish for things to be as they once were. I had never lost anyone I loved, so I didn’t recognize it as mourning.
How can I be a mother when I don’t have a mother?
But I know it’s the wrong question, a decoy. How can I be a mother when I have my mother — when I am her daughter?
I try to look for links to her that are comforting instead of frightening. I think of our light maple hair, our inside jokes, our tea-drinking habit. Of the jolt of recognition I often feel when I place my mouth on a teacup: the odd sensation that my lips are her lips, that I am an echo of her, a living extension. And then I remember — with sadness, but also a wild relief — that all of my resemblances to my mother are muted by one immutable difference: that I can live in this world to recall them.
I used to be a bad driver. Not the slow, fretful kind, but the reckless, accident-prone kind. As a teenager in New Jersey, I reversed onto a neighbor’s yard, flattening a sapling. In my twenties, I careened into a stopped car in Brooklyn, and can still conjure the taste of gunpowder in my mouth from the airbag exploding in my face.
When I moved to Los Angeles, I dreaded the freeways, the unfamiliar streets, the prospect of all that driving. I worried that time in the car was just a collision waiting to happen. But, two years in, there’s been hardly a close call. I’m more careful than I used to be, defensive but confident, and perhaps just lucky.
These days, I even enjoy it — at least, what little third-trimester driving I do. For some reason, the car is the space in which I feel closest to my son, in which I’m most acutely aware of his presence, and of my role, as his mother, to protect him. Maybe it’s the ritual of guiding the seatbelt to its safe position beneath my bulbous belly, or the kicks and jabs that spark to life across my middle when something — a missed turn, a favorite song — quickens my pulse. Sometimes I’ll be driving along, by myself but not alone, and one of those kicks will set off a blooming of love inside of me so forceful, so striking in its newness, that it jolts me out of time, until I have no history but my own contentment, as though I were the one about to be born.
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