The only memory I have of my biological mother is a phone call that scared me so bad I never wanted to speak to her again. I had only found out I was adopted a little while ago, and I was visiting my biological grandmother across town in east Baltimore. I met my oldest brother, who was a Desert Storm veteran. My other two older brothers were two sides of the same coin; one silly and the other serious, the projects were their native territory. My older sister was a model until she learned she had sickle-cell anemia, and then she did hair. All of us looked like each other, which spoke to the very strong genes of my mother. I learned we were all taken away from her when I was very young because she was a paranoid schizophrenic.
I was in my grandmother’s apartment, in her bedroom that was barely large enough for her bed, a dresser and a color TV. My mother was on the phone, and she sounded so happy to hear me. I didn’t know what to make of anything back then; I was so deep in my own head that my default reaction to everything was a stunned numbness. She sounded like a shade in the darkness, something hidden away inside of myself but very, very real.
She asked me to come see her, and I told her I couldn’t; just like that, the temperature of the conversation changed. She was personally offended, told me that I didn’t want to see her, made me tell her all the reasons I couldn’t. I was trapped, suddenly berated by someone who was overjoyed with me moments before. It was an emotional whiplash that touched a primal fear in me. Love given freely could be taken back just as easily.
I never spoke to her again. A couple years after that, I left home for college; a couple years after that, I came out to my mother, who outed me to the rest of my family. I dropped out, moved to Arkansas, and have never been back to Maryland. It took me years to speak to my adopted mom again. Our relationship is still very strained.
Last Wednesday, she left two voice-mails on my phone telling me that my adopted brother and my biological mother had both died. All of these unresolved feelings, these voices in the darkness, came rushing back to me. I remembered my adopted brother and his upper-middle-class family in New Jersey. I hadn’t spoken to any of them in maybe fifteen years. Now he’s dead, and I’ll never get the chance to.
But it’s my biological mother that hit me the hardest. I lived in fear for so long of ending up like her, of having a break that would make it impossible for me to know what was truly going on around me. I’m still afraid; the idea of dementia or Alzheimer’s is a fate worse than death to me. Chronic depression is her legacy to me, and that’s a much easier burden to bear.
Now I’m able to look beyond myself, though. I can imagine what her life must have been like, and it breaks my heart. This was a woman who was born black and poor, and her mind turned on her in ways she didn’t understand. She grew up inside a family that loved her, but had no idea what to do with her — and no money to help her even if they did. She had many children, all of whom were taken from her because she didn’t know how to care for them, didn’t even know how to care for herself. She loved them, but there was a gulf between her world and ours, and no one knew how to cross it.
She spent time in institutions that were only interested in managing her, not helping her. Her own children grew up afraid of her, if they thought of her at all. She died never knowing how her youngest boy grew up; he will go on with the knowledge that the only time he heard her voice he panicked and turned her over to his grandmother, that he couldn’t stop talking to her fast enough.
Whenever I think of my family, there are intense pangs of pain and regret and distance. I have no idea how to bridge the gap I’ve created between myself and them; I have no idea if it would do any of us any good. But I know that these hits will keep on coming. One by one, as I grow older, I’ll get more voice mails like the one I got last week, announcing that I’ve missed the window of reconciliation one more time.
I have so many more difficult calls to make.
I love you, Mom. I’m so sorry that I wasn’t a better son. I can only hope that I can encourage and cultivate more understanding and compassion for people with mental illnesses in the future.