“Thank you, Dr. Davenport,” I said as John, Rachel, and I left the office with a box of my mother’s belongings. “Thank you so much.”
“Yes, thank you,” John and Rachel chimed.
“Keep in touch, Juniper,” Dr. Davenport said, waving.
I didn’t know what I would do with the information or the things exactly, but he was right; he had shed light on my past that made me think about my mother in a different way.
We walked back to the car and were soon on the road towards the river. I leaned my head against the headrest and thought about the last time I had come to see my mother.
The season had changed, but underneath the snow laid the same sidewalk, the same gray gravel next to it, the same patches of dying grass, the same footprints that were there before mine. White snow, black and brown in some places, sloshed under my feet. Snow ploughs in the distance cleared the road ahead. Tall, leafless oak trees lined the blackened street. Hydrants and city fixtures were covered in a thick layer of ice. The sun began to break through the morning haze and residents made their way out into the streets armed with agendas. They, like me, traveled south on West Mission. Their decision to turn left onto Palmdale, right onto Broadview, or go up further to Mission, where I was headed, or maybe a few blocks further to Whitmore–home of the ice rink– Jamison where all the nicest eateries are, or the train station that goes as far south as Liberty and as far north as Hartford Park kept private until they disappeared onto these side streets and slipped inside warm buildings. Two children bundled in brown puffy coats, identical in seam, size, and shape ran in front of me, one chasing the other with a small egg-shaped snowball. Their shrills pierced the air with joy, their childish laughter contagious, small ripples of happiness warming my insides. Proud mama in a cream-colored Peacoat followed close behind, her smile packed with love, sweet, unbreakable love. A short woman, hunched over with age, paused and pointed her cane at the carefree youth, snickering at the one being chased. Up ahead a man in a tweed coat with a newspaper and a cup of steaming coffee turned to see the children. He swerved out of the way as they neared and then rushed towards the train stop. And a couple with ice skates decorating their shoulders rushed past us locked hand in hand, giddy with freedom. For a moment the scene felt magical, as if it had been ripped out of a magazine to show the joy, compassion, and peace of winter. It was photo-beautiful; everyone staged and scripted.
Passersby continued to move in and out of frame on to their Friday morning activities, the scene changing as appointments ended and satisfaction or disappointment swelled in already weakened minds. A man wearing a long trench coat and a scowl almost ran into me. He mumbled, “Slut, bitch” under his breath and kept walking, his gate wide, his arms swinging hard through the air. A young woman in her early twenties crossed the street. She rushed forward holding a manila folder and a small paper bag tight to her chest. Her face was blank but the features were soft. After a few yards she stopped, performed three clumsy ballerina twirls, touched the ground, and then kept walking towards me mumbling under her breath. Her hair swung at her shoulders in thick, tangled strands. She reminded me of a younger version of my mother. Fitted with her own rules and advisors, she bounced between our world and hers. Cold moisture hit my face, snowflakes sticking before dissolving. Behind me were more people bundled in wool blends. They passed unmoved. From down the street, outpatient procedures ended and more of the disheveled and underdressed exited with refilled prescriptions, new diagnoses, an ounce more of hope to propel them through the day. These were the people I recognized, knew; not personally, but in each of them I saw a piece of my mother; comforting pieces, dark pieces, funny pieces, sad pieces, lovable pieces, scared pieces, missing pieces. In them I saw my mother fragmented and cryptic pouring through those doors, in and out, smooth faced, bearded, walking, running, dancing, singing, screaming, each movement aligned with the phantom voices pouring in from the sky.
The closer I got to the hospital the less photographic the surroundings became. Youthful cheer settled into a snowy performance of misfits. Chilly bones rated second in the rivalry between reality and hallucination, a battle they’d fight over and over until surrendering brought ease. This was that part of town; the middle part where each day the wanted and the unwanted stake claim to the neighborhood. I crossed onto Mission Drive and strolled up the cobblestone path and through the double doors. Inside was a security station. I checked in and waited to be escorted upstairs to the visiting room. Moments later the door opened; a security guard stepped forward with a name tag, my name printed in black marker, the letters thick, lopsided. I put it on and followed behind him. He had a bouncy stride, his silky, long, red curls dancing above his shoulders.
“You mind if we take the stairs?” he asked, rubbing his protruding belly.
He passed the elevator and led us into a chilly stairwell. It was empty but noisy with muffled sounds. Our feet hit against each step in unison. The closer we got to the fourth floor, the clearer the noises became. Voices, laughter, anger all controlled by standing guards and staff in white pressed uniforms. I imagined my mother, the tall, frail woman with the long stringy hair standing in front of a table waiting for me.
“This is the best table,” she said each time. “But I don’t know why you came today.”
“I came to see you. To see how you’re doing.”
“I’m fine. There, now you can leave.”
As we walked down two narrow hallways, I pulled off my gloves and stuffed them in my pockets. He unlocked the last door and we entered another waiting room where a staff, expecting my arrival greeted me.
“Well, hello there.”
“Give me just a minute.”
I sat down on a plaid-colored couch and counted the tiles on the ceiling. I knew my mother was giving them a hard time. She usually did, agreeing to see me only after a team of resident counselors and psychologists convinced her that a visit would be good for her. She had flat out refused to see me just once, the day of my nineteenth birthday and for that reason I decided never to see her on my birthday.
“No, that’s not my daughter,” she said. “That’s not her. I don’t know who that girl is. She doesn’t belong to me.”
“Are you sure? Look at her again,” a staff directed her.
She looked up slowly, her eyes traveling from my feet to my face. I gave her a soft smile and raised my eyebrows in hopes that she’d see me more clearly, but she didn’t.
The door opened and I was ushered into the large waiting room. Stained windows shaded what was on the outside. Long tables separated us, creating a maze of sharp corners. My mother sat alone at a table near the window. Slumped over on a bench seat, she kept her head down until I sat in front of her. The light crept in, a dim but imposing ray that spread across the table like a narrow fence. She exhaled long and hard then tapped her nail-bitten finger tips against the table, bobbing her head to the irregular beat. She hummed along and started tapping her feet. I watched as did others. The staff meandered, listening in on conversations, ready to intervene with trained responses and protective maneuvers.
“Mother,” I whispered.
She plugged her ears and hummed louder. Her light blue, second hand frock hung off her shoulder. I watched her ignore me, her eyes circling the room, her voice interrupting other conversations.
“Mother, please.” She turned her back to me. “I came to see you. How are you doing?”
“I don’t know who you are.”
“I missed you.”
“I don’t know you.”
“It’s me. Your daughter, Juni.” I waved my hands in front of her. “See me. It’s me, little one.”
“I don’t see you,” she screamed each syllable.
Everyone turned to see me berated, reviled. Blood rushed to my face and my hands. I put my head down and squeezed my fingers. I felt like I was on fire. I felt small, weak against her blaze.
“You’re dead. I already killed you.”
That was our last visit.