When I was about eight years old I had a very high fever that caused hallucinations through the night. I remember lying in my bed in the room shared with my younger sister Suzanne, staring up at the ceiling as a parade of miniature creatures crossed my field of vision. It was difficult to tell if the beings were human, but they were translucent and colorless and very animated, and they seemed to be hosting a party for my benefit. They were so real I couldn’t help being drawn into the conversation.
My mother, whose bedroom was catty-corner across the hall, heard me babbling and came in to check. I distinctly remember the dual perception of the friendly partiers above me and my mother standing next to my bed, eyebrows knit in worry as she felt my forehead for heat and squinted quizzically at the phantoms I engaged with in the darkness. I remember the feeling of frustration—oblong with fear-tinged edges— that she couldn’t see what I saw. Luckily Suzanne slept through the whole episode, and eventually I, too, fell asleep. The next morning my mother described the experience as of one “seeing things and hearing things,” no doubt because she thought the label “visual and auditory hallucinations” was too much for a young kid to grasp.
“Too much for a young kid to grasp” is also an apt description of the reality my siblings and I faced six or seven years later in late January 1976, after my brother Bill had returned to college for his Spring term. My mother’s health worsened in frightening and unexpected ways, and because she was the subject of what was happening she couldn’t protect us from the experience. For one thing, her weakened state kept her in bed full time. With no other adults present while my father was at work, it became more difficult for her to communicate her needs to family members. There was a phone on her bedside table and we had another one in the kitchen, but in those pre-cell phone days one could not call another phone within the house. My father came up with an old-fashioned solution: She could summon us by ringing a bell he set on the bedside table. I remember a blue cut-glass dinner bell with a crystal bead for the clapper that made a light, high tinkling sound when rung. But Suzanne and Martin remember the bell as being black cast iron, perhaps with the shape of a man for the handle. In any case, it became my mother’s only means of communicating urgent needs to the family. She would ring the bell and one of us would arrive to fetch ice chips, arrange the pillows on the bed, or take her to the bathroom. How frustrating it must have been to resort to a bell to call for help, but at least the system worked.
From Bill’s diary we learn some of her private thoughts of that time, unspoken to any of us but him. Up until now she had been focused on present concerns, but she also had begun to contemplate the unthinkable: a future in which she would no longer be on the scene. Here’s an excerpt from Bill’s diary:
“Mom told me that my sisters are three fine girls and are going to grow into three fine women that few men will deserve. And she hopes that all of her children are as happy with their marriage as my Mom and Dad are. My mother has everything she ever dreamed of, except the chance to see her five children all married and happy like her. That chance is not completely gone, but narrowed down by quite a bit.”
It’s painful to read this excerpt, especially the last line. My mother has been gone for so long that, with hindsight, her death seems inevitable. At the time she expressed that idea, however—out loud to one of her children for the first and only time—she was still clinging to a positive outcome. Who could blame her? It’s the humanity underlying that sliver of hope that hurts. It flies in the face of today’s reality. The sentiment about her children’s marriages is even worse. It’s a stinging reminder of what might have been: the possibility of the fullness of her presence, ushering us through adulthood, instead of all those milestones marred by an unspoken but not unperceived empty seat at the reception table. Our marriages in particular would have been meaningful to her. A notorious spendthrift, she had once surprised us all with the impulse buy of an oil painting while visiting the Wildlife Center in nearby Ridgewood, NJ. The painting was a broad-brushed representation of the bird of prey display in shadow amidst bright autumn foliage, done by a local artist. I think my mother paid $5 for it. She gussied it up in a gold frame and hung it in our living room. When asked why she had purchased it, she replied slyly with sideways eye, “You never know: one of the girls might get engaged there.” My oldest sister might have been fourteen at the time. This memory comes rushing back when I read her words, like a cherished book that has been shut for decades but suddenly blows open to a forgotten passage.
The sentiments are a bittersweet check on my rationalizing memory. My mother was not the larger-than-life figure on the hero’s journey I had fashioned her into over the decades. She was a flesh-and-bones woman who faced both a terminal illness and the disconcerting possibility that her children would go forward in life without her.
By mid February, my mother’s health took yet another turn. She began acting erratically and experiencing hallucinations, an extreme and prolonged version of “seeing things and hearing things” that became more frequent over the weeks. According to a letter my sister Ellen wrote to a friend at the time, the doctors originally thought the new symptoms were a side effect of the many painkillers they had prescribed. To counter these effects, they gave her massive blood transfusions. I’m not sure when or how this treatment happened, but it brought no relief. A more likely explanation is that the cancer had metastasized to her brain; the symptoms may also have been exacerbated by the daily dose of toxic apricot kernels she had been taking as an alternative cancer cure.
I feel compelled to record the details of these events, to unearth them from the basement of memory even if I can’t find meaning in them. Years later they are still difficult to recount. My mind’s eye reveals the events in miniature, as if I were looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I review them as if watching a movie rather than recounting a first-person perspective of events. Perhaps it’s the only way to recall them without succumbing to emotion, and yet deep feelings percolate anyway. These memories are controversial: Some of my siblings don’t want to remember. I feel it’s important to bear witness, however, both for our mother and for ourselves.
Because of my mother’s mental decline, answering the bell became a dreaded act. One of us might be doing homework downstairs when suddenly we would hear the bell ringing frantically. Hurrying upstairs, we would appear dutifully at her door, only to see her flailing her thin arms and hear her arguing furiously with a nun who was supposedly in the room. There was no nun, of course. At other times we awoke to alarming sounds in the night. Seized with some illness-induced need, my mother would struggle against my father to get out of the bed. We would hear him urging her to calm her down, his tone just shy of panic.
Once or twice when we were all at school, my mother’s attempts to escape the bed would succeed. She would make it into the hallway but get stuck halfway down the stairs because of her increasingly fragile state. We would return home to find her in her loose nightgown panicked on the stairs, attempting on hands and knees to crawl down. We would somehow get her back into bed. One afternoon she dialed the town police from her bedside phone for some illusory emergency. Eleven-year-old Suzanne was the only one home at the time; the rest of us were at after-school activities. The police turned up at the front door, and my bewildered sister, who knew nothing of the phone call made from upstairs, was distraught. Luckily one of us older kids came home just in time to help. After some number of these episodes, my father finally hired a young nurse to keep an eye on my mother during the day. The nurse was most likely an aide, however, with minimal nursing training. Ellen remembers her folding laundry a lot.
I have no memory of feelings related to any of these stories. We must have been terrified. We must have felt helpless. We must have been confused. Apart from Ellen, whom my father had started confiding in somewhat, the rest of us had no idea what was going on. Did I cry silently in bed at night? Did any configuration of us cry together and try to comfort one another? I can’t say, but I don’t know why I can’t say. Have I forgotten the details because they were too painful or because I didn’t have a full grasp of them? I’ll settle on a combination of the two.
It gets worse still: Some of us apparently became more reluctant to answer the bell. I say “apparently” because, again, I have no memory of it, nor does Martin. But Ellen does. She remembers Bill returning home from college, and witnessing her reluctance to answer the bell. She remembers him being furious at her. Bill himself doesn’t remember. I get a pain in the pit of my stomach just thinking of the dilemma this posed to any of us. Respond to our mother’s summons and risk being terrified; choose not to and risk the continued suffering of our beloved mother, all the while compiling a mire of guilt that would surely settle into dark crannies of the mind for years to come.
I can only come back to the bell itself. It is curious that my memory would recall a fancy yet impractical dinner version whose ring didn’t carry very far. In the 1920s the Gestalt psychologists developed the principle of Pragnanz: the mind’s tendency, from a myriad of options, to arrive at a perceptual configuration that is “as good as prevailing conditions permit.” The blue cut-glass bell I remembered was real: It had occupied the tea table in our dining room; we had used it to call the family to dinner on rare fancy occasions. Perhaps I’d chosen to recall a genteel dinner bell because events had veered into chaotic, uncivilized terrain. Even after receiving the details of the bell from Suzanne and Martin, the alchemist in my memory still performs reality-defying magic, transforming the bowl of the bell from wrought iron to shiny brass in an attempt to improve on the look and sharpen the sound of it.
After I recovered from the party-inducing fever I had when I was little, my mother told me how frustrating it had been not to be able to help me, to make the hallucinations go away. Neither of us knew how insignificant that episode of seeing things and hearing things would become once the roles were reversed.