When I reflect on my mom's life, the expression "Life is not fair" is the first thing that comes to mind.
She and my father had met in their native country in Hungary, where they eventually decided to marry. My father at the time was pursuing medicine; and after finishing medical school in Szeged, he managed to convince my mom to emigrate to the United States. In 1988, communism was still live and well in Hungary, which prevented them from leaving legally. So for one year, they sought refuge in Germany before eventually making the move to the States in 1989. They both left their families behind and started a new life together in Washington, D.C. where my dad completed his residency at Georgetown University.
During this time, they had little means, yet managed to survive largely due to their determination and unconditional love and support for one another. With no vehicle, they both had to walk everywhere; and they did so together. My mom accompanied my dad for every walk, back and forth, from the university; and prepared a huge serving of pasta once they returned home to replenish all of the calories they had burned.
In 1993, upon completion of my father's residency, they started their family and had my older sister. Shortly after, my dad received his first job offer as a practicing physician in Pittsburgh, PA. This is where he would work as an anesthesiologist for the next 23 years. In 1996, I was born, and their family was complete.
From what I remember, the early years of my life were mostly filled with endless love and nurturing. My father worked a lot, so I spent the majority of time with my mother. I adored her, more than you could ever imagine. I was attached to her at the hip and suffered from extreme separation anxiety (embarrassingly, up until the 3rd grade).
That being said, these fond memories are penetrated by uncomfortable, sad, and disturbing ones that I tried to repress for a long time. The earliest one I can remember is when I was five years old in my grandfather's home in Szolnok, Hungary. In this memory, my mom is suffering from a delusion. She is convinced my dad has implanted microchips into the brains of my sister, her and I to control us using a remote control that she believes is hidden inside his electric razor. So, my sister and I squat down next to her, as she rifles through his toiletry bag and begins to take apart his razor. At some point, my dad walks in on this ridiculous scene and begins questioning her. She begins to verbally attack him, and after trying to reason with her to no avail, he calls an ambulance out of fear. He deems it necessary to have her mentally evaluated.
The next thing I remember is two men, wearing white T-shirts coming into my grandfather's home and forcibly pulling her outside. As she is vigorously fighting these men, she is turning back to what seems as directly towards me, and asking for help. She is terrified and so am I. Unfortunately, I cannot help her and I am left standing there heartbroken and scared. She is loaded into the ambulance and shortly after, my memory blacks out.
I later learn from my dad that she was taken to the hospital and admitted into a psychiatric unit. It is there in Szolnok, her hometown, that she is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She is given medication to manage her mental illness and released a few days after. We, as a family, return to the United States and try to resume life as normally as possible.
Because I was so young at the time of her diagnosis, I had very little understanding of what it meant. My dad knew this, and tried to protect me from the heartache and headache it brought into our lives. I was not involved in her continued psychiatric care, nor did I have the responsibility of monitoring her mental health and ensuring she took her medication regularly. When she fell into one of her episodes, my dad tried to remove my sister and I from the situation as quickly as possible and manage it on his own. He was, and still is, a true warrior. I will never know the entire extent of what he endured, but I do know it was hellish and devastating. He protected my sister and I from the darkest depths of her mental illness and still managed to put on a smile in front of us. For that, I am eternally grateful.
Nonetheless, her mental illness seeped into my sister and I's lives like a heavy rain does into a sewer drain- slow at first, but eventually enough water collects that it becomes a heavy current. By no means on account of my father, that is simply just the nature of the disease. The hallucinations and paranoia prevented us from having what one would deem a "normal" childhood. She was weary of nearly everyone, and admittedly, it was embarrassing to have her around my friends. She increasingly lost the desire to maintain proper hygiene and regularly appeared unkempt. She didn't like leaving the house and spoke poor English. She was not only a prisoner in her own home, but in her own mind as well.
It was obvious to me that the relationship between her and my father was deteriorating and lacked any romantic component. They were co-habitants. In fact, my dad was her caretaker, whether she saw it that way or not. She tried her very best to be a good mother to my sister and I, but the illness limited her capabilities. I can say without a doubt, that had she never come down with schizophrenia, she would have been the best mom in the world; but the illness changed her so drastically, that she became more harmful to me than good.
I do remember numerous times where she used tactics to emotionally manipulate me. My dad refers to these times as her "playing mind games" with me. They almost always revolved around me proving my love to her. For example, she would say things like "if you love me, you would do 'x, y & z". It was common for her to ask me "who do you love more, me or your dad?". And with every round of these games, I would be brought down to my knees begging for her to believe me that I loved her more than anything. Yet somehow, it was never enough- because after one semi-successful attempt of proving my love to her, came another round of these games; and I could never win.
My dad witnessed the emotional damage being inflicted upon me and it infuriated him. He was starting to seriously debate whether having my mom live with us was a good idea or not. After her diagnosis, he wanted her to maintain her role as stay-at-home mom, because he believed that it would be beneficial for my sister and I. That was the case in the beginning, but as the illness progressed, he had his fair share of doubts. In 2007, my mom attempted suicide in the house for the God knows what number time, and it was the final straw for my dad to finally have her permanently institutionalized and moved out of our family home. Thankfully, I was sleeping at the time of her attempt. I was completely unaware of it, just as I had been for all the other ones. All I remember from that night is an ambulance pulling up to the house as my dad hugged me close to his chest in his master bedroom.
My mom spent some time in the psychiatric hospital in Pittsburgh before being moved to a group home dedicated to mentally ill persons incapable of living on their own.
I thrived in the time spent apart from her. I had sleepovers with friends, grew incredibly close to my single dad at the time, did well in school- and thoroughly enjoyed what felt like a normal life. I received phone calls from my mom on occasion, and letters in the mail. I wrote back sparingly. Less than a handful of times my dad took my sister and I to visit her.
As ashamed as I am to admit it, I grew comfortable with the idea of not having my mom in my life. Life without her was less stressful and emotionally distressing. When the phone rang and it was her number on the caller ID, my heart sank into my stomach. I felt like crying then. And sometimes I would speak to her on the phone; but afterwards, I would just hang up and resume my life. Sometimes, especially towards the end, my dad wouldn't even let me speak to her on the phone. He would answer her calls, briefly argue, then hang up visibly upset and irritated. He didn't want me to talk to her because she was in "one of her episodes"..."She isn't doing well, there's no point in talking to her."
I learned it wasn't really okay to ask my dad questions about mom. So when he would tell me things like this, I would accept it without asking why. It was upsetting for my dad to talk about her, and any questions I did ask were met with short responses. I accepted that she wasn't a subject we would regularly talk about and what little information I did get about her would have to suffice.
There became a point where all communication with my mom was cut off and I didn't speak to her, hear from her, receive a letter from her, anything at all, for months on end. I again, accepted this with little question. I continued to live my life, go to school, spend time with friends, etc. It wasn't until the summer of 2012 when my father and I had a falling out that I finally got an update on her. He chose to tell me one day that summer that my mom passed away, three years prior. She had committed suicide on July 25, 2009, in the group home I have vague memories of visiting. He told me that he kept her death a secret from me to protect me. He was afraid that had he told me when it happened, I would've been so emotionally distraught that it would've interfered with my schoolwork and life. He felt it was appropriate to hold off on telling me until he believed I was ready to hear the news.
There are moments that are forever ingrained into your mind with excruciatingly vivid detail- and this was one of them. Not only did I have to grieve the loss of the woman I knew loved me more than anyone ever will, I also had to deal with the guilt of letting her fade out of my life so drastically so, that she died and I had no idea. I ask myself, had I been more present in her life around the time of her death, would she have felt less alone, scared and hopeless? Had I made more of an attempt to see her or talk to her, maybe her mental health wouldn't have deteriorated as quickly as it did. What type of daughter am I that I neglect my own mother long enough for her to die and not even know until three years later?
The guilt was debilitating. I refused to let myself even feel it for a period of time because I was too disgusted with myself. Thankfully, with time and therapy, I learned to cope with it- and slowly release it.
Then I have to make peace with the fact that my mother is gone from this earth forever. She will never see me get married nor have babies- two things I know she absolutely would've loved to be a part of. I'm forced to reconcile with the ugly truth that the woman who taught me love, through example and loving me deeper than anyone else, is no longer physically with me and able to give me advice, tell me everything is going to be okay, or embrace me and hold me in her arms.
How do you say goodbye to somebody you never got the chance to? I can honestly tell you I haven't said goodbye to her even a decade later. Simply acknowledging her death without disassociating took me years; and I am still in the process of coming to terms with it. I think in truth, I never will fully say goodbye to her. I have full faith she is still with me. I feel her, and I hear her speak to me when I am missing her presence. I feel intense comfort knowing she is never too far. She is constantly watching over me and guiding me through life. It's weird to say, but I feel closer to her now than when she was physically with me.
I know she is at peace now and that offers me the biggest relief. This world that we are living in was too harsh for her, and I don't think anything could've alleviated her pain. The reality of her situation was that her mind was possessed by a ruthless disease that made living unbearable. In the end, it didn't matter whether or not I had stayed in contact with her in the months leading up to her suicide- she was determined to free herself. My involvement in her life may have postponed her death, but it could not have prevented it.
Interestingly, I still get nervous going to visit her grave, because it is evidence of the cold-hearted truth that she is physically gone. But I force myself to go, because I want her to know that I accept what has happened and I will continue to honor her life. When I stand in front of her tombstone, I remind her that I do not hold any resentments towards her; and I trust that she did what she had to do in order to find peace. I apologize for my absence at the end of her life, and reassure her that it was not out of malintent, but circumstance and lack of understanding due to my young age. Sometimes, I break down and repeatedly sob "I'm sorry" over and over again simply because of what happened to her. For having her life hijacked by something completely out of her control. Most importantly, I thank her- for everything. For bringing me into this world, for showering me with the most intense love I've ever felt, for teaching me so many valuable lessons, and for continuing to watch over me.
I hope one day to grow a garden around her tombstone. I started this last trip home by planting white roses with the help of my step-mom. Though she is with me everyday, her grave is where her body rests; and I want it to be a sanctuary for her.
What I know now is that the sadness, anger, resentment I felt towards her for choosing to take her own life was out of selfishness. I internalized her suicide as her believing I wasn't worth sticking around for. I believed I was the victim. Admitting that now makes me sick. In truth, she loved my sister and I more than anything. I'm convinced she stayed in this world as long as she did just for her and I. Her suicide wasn't a choice. She felt she had no other option; and because of that, she is the victim.
I tell her story to not only keep her memory alive, but prove that there is nothing shameful about it. For years, I kept as much of it to myself in fear of judgement. Mental illness and suicide are very real issues that plague our society today, but not enough of us are talking about it. Had I known this years ago, and had someone to talk to that could relate, I would've saved myself from a lot of suffering and sickness.