I wondered if Mother kept track of the pain-free days left in any given month.
Incapacitating migraines along with the attendant severe nausea accompanied each of her menstrual cycles. Tallying the productive days until she was bedridden became a simple task.
Four of the primary causes of migraines are hormonal issues, stress, anxiety and alcohol consumption. What to do with a woman with all four?
Over the years she had submitted to batteries of tests in a handful of hospitals across the five boroughs of New York. From a medical perspective, no conclusive results.
Psychiatrists prescribed an arsenal of medications that led to slurred words, shortness of temper, sudden mood swings, bouts of yelling, and the obligatory driving under the influence. Once, at least only once that I can remember, she dropped to the floor in a dead heap in front of her frightened children.
There were no excuses. No apologies. Her illness seemed to give entitlement to such behavior.
As her time of month approached, we often worked as a team. She’d remain too long at the lingerie shop she managed in Brooklyn. When the pain was unbearable she would take to the road in our aging Pontiac Bonneville and navigate the Belt Parkway, squinting through sore eyes, one hand on her head and one on the steering wheel. Before heading out the shop door she’d instruct me to call the doctor, hoping for a simultaneous arrival at the house. That rarely occurred.
The 40 minute drive must have been agonizing. The sickness provoked by the car’s motion alone would have any normal person at the edge of reason.
Years later, when faced with identical migraine symptoms, I would race toward home down the 405 in Los Angeles, repeating a mantra that kept me from succumbing to the overriding horribleness:
No light, no noise, no light no noise, no light…
Once Mother was home, the labor of the next two to three days would begin. Until the doctor arrived she would lay immobilized, clenching her fists and whimpering, stopping only when needing to empty the contents of her stomach into a bed pan.
As the doctor pushed the cocktail of Demerol and Phenergan through Mother’s veins until it brought blessed sleep, I could feel the tension in my own body release, knowing she was no longer in distress. Dr. V. would shake his head and somberly tell me she would be fine.
In reality, she was his worst patient. There were no solutions. He could do nothing more than put her out of her temporary misery.
While Mother slept it was like being inside the eye of the storm. Calmness and silence prevailed. We feared any noise might wake her, bring her back to the pain state.
When she did come alive it was a roll of the dice as to which mother would surface, the woman grateful to be through with the agony for another thirty days or the one, more often than not, still in the throes of discomfort, begging for the doctor’s immediate return.
This was a tricky piece. At many points during those years it was feared she had developed a reliance on the drugs themselves. This was possible. She had fallen into addiction with prescription drugs before.
Either way, the aftermath, the drying out from the drugs which left her utterly depleted of energy and free of the filter she could barely manage during better days of the month, the anxiety and depression would resurface.
More to navigate in a childhood already dense with complexity.
What I will call post-trauma would begin when she opened her eyes and spoke a simple request: Cut up an orange for me, honey.
I never knew how the next hours would end.
Soon she’d be up and about.
Soon she would enter my room, dressed in a house coat. She would push back her black hair and look around to find the one abhorrent thing sufficient to drive her over the edge.
One such day I was propped up on my bed reading the last few pages of I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, the saga of a teenage girl’s battle with schizophrenia. Mother grabbed the book from my hand, looked at the cover and screamed:
This is trash! Who gave you this book?
Logic would not suffice. I could only watch with dismay as she attempted to rip the paperback to shreds and when that failed, throwing it to the other side of the room.
I was gripped with a fear that rose up inside me, the fear of a child about to do something terribly wrong. After nursing her for nearly three days I was not feeling generous.
Mouthing off at her, I bolted up.
What the hell is wrong with you? Get the hell out of my room! Are you crazy?
Am I crazy? she said, looking…well….crazy.
Before I knew it I felt the harsh sting of her hand across my face.
I was stunned. My parents were free with their hands, but rarely with me.
A few years before, the day after my father had installed a new shower curtain in the family bathroom. Mother came home to find it shredded by a knife or scissor. She was furious.
Guilt for this act could reside only with my sister or myself. Neither of us was confessing.
Mother decided, like Solomon, to split the baby and punish us both. One after the other, she took each of us over her knee, pulled down our pajama bottoms and beat us with the hard plastic exterior of a hairbrush.
This injustice was particularly agonizing. I had not shredded the shower curtain. It was the day I learned to hate both my sister and mother.
Now years later, having never taken revenge for the misappropriated beating, I stood opposite Mother in my room, my face still hot from her slap. I lifted my own hand, moving it in what seemed even then to be a slow motion across the face, then pushed her away.
I could not interpret her expression of dismay. Was she shocked that her son had lifted a hand against her? Or did she understand in stark terms that the liberty to raise a hand against her child was now forfeit?
Retreating from the room, she vowed retribution would be doled out by my father.
Not an hour later he arrived home. There was hushed discussion. Seconds later he stormed into my room with anger bleeding through his normally passionless face, suggesting more violence to follow.
You hit your mother?
He came toward me, faster now.
My fight or flight response was on automatic pilot. Without thinking I jumped up and positioned myself only a foot or so from him as he approached my bed.
Go ahead, I yelled. Hit me!
A dance of stares ensued between us. He must have realized, as did I, that for the first time I was the taller of the two.
Thrown off his bullying demeanor, he backed away and walked from the room.
Forty years later, Mother began to slip away from us as Dementia silently turned itself into full-blown Alzheimer’s. Sitting in his car in a supermarket parking lot in Palm Springs I amassed the nerve to ask where he’d been during his wife’s month-over-month, year-over-year torment with migraines.
Am I thinking through this with twisted memory, Dad, or was I left alone through most of that?
He was old now. And tired. He looked at me, and in a plaintive voice said:
Your memory is correct. I stayed away as much as I could. I just couldn’t take it.
I closed my eyes and remembered the words that had pulled me through other pain.
No light. No noise. No light. No noise. No light…
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