I looked at her. Stared long and hard. When she was sleeping like this, it was so much easier to pretend that this was the woman I knew. This was the lady who held me in her lap when I was a child and had scraped my knee. This was the mother who held me when my first boyfriend broke my heart. When she was sleeping, I could still imagine that she was a grand concert pianist and a magical, genius composer who filled Carnegie Hall with her melodies. When she sleeps, words like “psychotic breakdown,” “schizophrenic,” and “paranoid” don’t exist. Just her, just my mother.
I ran my hand through her hair, brushing back the loose strands of wavy, dark brown hair. My fingers traced the contours of her face, memorizing every new line and wrinkle. This was my mother, calm and even. But then there were the hands. The hands clutching at the blanket should have been my mother’s hands. But these were swollen and bandaged. Their length minimized due to the injury. And it came back to me all over again that this was not my mother.
A voice in the hall calls patients in for dinner, reminding me even further that “no,” this is not my mother. My mother has disappeared into the broken soul and shell of a women who only mildly resembles her. This lady, the one whose face and arm I’m stroking only looks like her. Truthfully, she is a stranger. And I remember the night it happened, the night my mother broke down and transformed into her.
We were all backstage, like usual. I was at the side of the stage, watching everyone running back and forth, feeding off of the excitement and drama. My mother was back in her dressing room with her manager and assistant. In anticipation I peeked around the curtain, trying to see how many people had arrived, thirty minutes before opening curtain. It shouldn’t have phased me anymore, not after all of these years, but I still got a current of excitement each time I saw a packed hall. They loved her. How could they not? She was electrifying each time she stepped out on stage in one of her brilliant, signature, gem-hued gowns, her dark hair wildly loose and flowing. And she loved them. But, she did not play for them. She played for the music. She always told me that she played for the music she loved, and that was why the audience loved her so much. The entire audience could burst into flames during the middle of her concert, and she wouldn’t even notice. It was part of her charm.
My mother had always existed in her own dream world. She saw the world outside as she wanted it to be, filled with magic and fire and faeries and saints. The funny thing was, when she played, everyone else could see the world that way too. It was the only time they could see into her world. She was hypnotic, magnetic. Her vibrant, dreamy personality. Her look, with long wavy hair flying here and there, snaking its way around her ears and shoulders. And her hands, always moving, directing, playing. They could never stay still. I loved her fingers. They were long and lean. And her nails were always painted some floral color, making it look like wild-flowers grew on the ends of each finger. This was my mother.
But that night, that night was different. Instead of sitting in her dressing room, preparing and meditating, she was pacing the hall. She kept talking to herself, mumbling something about “them and they.” Her manager and assistant had tried to talk to her, but she had brushed them off.
They came to get me. “Go to her.” They told me. “Get her to settle down. See what’s wrong.” That’s my role. That had always been my role. I was her connection to the world, the chains that kept her feet on the ground. Everyone knew it. That’s why I was always around. But I didn’t mind. I kept her feet on the ground; she kept my head in the clouds. It worked for us.
“Mom,” I said as I tried to catch her arm. “Are you okay? Can I get you anything?”
“No, no. It’s all wrong. It’s all wrong.” Her face scared me. Her eyes weren’t the dreamer’s eyes I had grown up with. Instead, they held terror, pure terror. And her terror frightened me. I could feel it rolling off her, a tangible substance reaching out for me. Something wasn’t right. I grabbed both arms, trying to get her to look at me, but she wouldn’t, or couldn’t.
“What’s wrong? What happened? Did someone hurt you.” I demanded answers as I looked down the hall, trying to see who could have affected her like this. But the hall was empty except for the occasional stage hands running back and forth. I had known them for years, and they loved my mother. I looked at her face and arms, trying to detect any marks from an assault. “Mom, talk to me. Tell me what happened. Who scared you?”
“Everything, everything is wrong. They’re trying to take it away from me. They’re trying to kill me.” Abruptly, she looked at me, shoved my hands off of her, and resumed her pacing. I got in step with her, trying to make sense of what she said.
“Who is they, mom? What do they want?”
“Me. The music. They. The ones out there.” I looked along the lines of her outstretched arm, trying to see who she saw. Once again, no one was there. No one was down the hall now, not even the stage hands.
“It’s almost time. Is she ready?” After a few more laps, one of the previous stage hands came running back to us, breathlessly wording the question that always preceded every show. Usually, at the end of this question, my mom would stand up fiercely tall, push back her gown, and glide out of the door and onto the stage.
Tonight, she walked towards the stage, but it wasn’t her. Her back was bent, her head down. Broken. That’s the only word that came to me, but I didn’t know why. Not then. I followed her, taking my place in the wing. After being announced, she walked out on stage amid the roar of cheers. She sat down. Lifted her hands. Began to play. And as soon as she began, I knew something was wrong.
The song. It wasn’t right. The notes were right, of course. Technically she was perfect. And then it hit me. That’s what was wrong. My mom is not a perfectly technical person. She plays emotion and life. She doesn’t play notes. Tonight, she played notes. Mohini’s Enchantment was barely recognizable as notes. She got to the end, and then it was over. Or rather, the song wasn’t over, but she was. Her fingers, long and lean. Her pianist’s fingers stumbled. Then they stopped. She stood up abruptly, kicking back the piano bench. Turning, she faced the audience, her shoulders straightening, her face raising. She stared them down. I was paralyzed. Everyone was paralyzed.
Then, she spoke. Her words, soft, yet audible due to the concert hall’s acoustics. “No more.” She said. “No more. It’s mine. It will always be mine. I won’t let you have it.” With that, she walked off the stage, and once again, she left people captivated in her wake. Only this time, they were filled with shock, not awe.
That was the first episode, but it wasn’t the last. And as I look at her sleeping. As I look at the form of my mother, of this new woman, this stranger who is working so hard to erase my mother, my mind goes back and forth between images. I still see me at my mother’s lap, learning music and art. Being transported into her world. But then the scene changes, and I see the stranger. I see my mother in my lap, broken and defeated, tears rolling down her face, her dark hair swallowing her whole and her precious fingers cut off at the stems, never to bloom again.