"What's wrong? What's happened?" he asked my mother. They leaned their heads together and he cupped the back of her head with his hand. "Oh, Nathan," I heard her wail. And she began to sob and sob.
Later, I remember her being in bed and my father telling me that she was sick. I said she was sad and confused and Dad said those things could sometimes make a person sick. My eight-year-old mind reasoned she was sad because the adventure had turned out so badly; because there had been no magnificent place or reward for following the color red.
Now I know she was sad and scared for a different reason -- she was having a delusion, and she knew she was having a delusion. She was disintegrating into madness, but she wasn't so far gone, yet, that she wasn't fighting it. Her tears were proof of that.
Do you remember the first time you heard the voices?" I ask my mother. We're sitting beside a small fishpond in the Catholic nursing home where she now lives. I've just now started asking questions of my parents. For many years my mother has been too fragile and my father has flatly refused to discuss the past, but things have changed. My mother is relatively stable and my father has agreed to try to answer my questions.
My mother's gaze is fixed on the orange flashes of the Japanese carp in the water. I've come on this visit just so I can ask this one question and the mere thought of asking it provokes a fear that raises the hair on my arms.
"The very first time you heard the voices, do you remember when it was?" I blurt it out, unable to bear the weight inside me any longer.
She turns her face to me and smiles, exposing the wide lazy gap between her front teeth. "Oh yes." I feel my breath halt. Mother rests her hand on my arm. Her fingers look just like mine, small, but not shapely. The backs of her hands are dry and wrinkled; her palms a tight pink that looks almost polished. "It was the most glorious day. We were living in Virginia Beach. I went to the cleaners to drop off your father's shirts."
"What did the voices say? Were they scary voices?"
"No. The voices told me to drop off your father's shirts at the cleaners. They said, 'You've got a good-looking husband. Take his shirts to the cleaners.'" I laugh; I can't help it. I've been terrified of asking this question, thinking it might trigger something horrible in my mother or me, and I expected the voices to say creepy things, unnerving things. Something as strangely ordinary as "Take his shirts to the cleaners" never crossed my mind. Then she holds out her hand in front of her as a shield. "But the colors. Oh, Gawd!"
Schizophrenics often see auras around colors and objects. For my mother it was red. For Van Gogh it was the stars in the night sky.
"So the voices didn't bother you? They didn't scare you?"
"Not until later," she says and pulls her long graying hair off her neck. "It's too hot out here. I need to go back to my room." Visit over. Class dismissed.
To our friends and neighbors in Virginia Beach our disappearance must have appeared to be the typical domestic variety -- a now you see them, now you don't sort of affair. What must they have wondered? Was Mother's leaving some flash of whimsy? A longing for liberation? After all, it was the age of Betty Friedan angst, and women on TV and in magazines were breaking the yoke of twentieth-century wifedom, getting divorces and jobs.
Our abduction, however, was wholly unlike Patty Hearst's clear-cut and dramatic departure from domestic life. In Patty's world there were good guys and bad guys, but then the bad guys turned out to be kind of cool. "Urban guerrillas." It was like the stories of people kidnapped by Indians who decided to stay and become part of the tribe. Anyway, until my mother told us, my sister and I hadn't a clue we were being kidnapped. I simply came home from school one afternoon and my mother told me we were going to our cottage in Kechotan for a couple of days. She said my father would join us there.
Copyright © 2003 by Virginia Holman
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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