When my mother wants out of the house, she calls me to take her driving. Mom, or Kathy as I've called her since I was four, doesn't drive. She drove a car one time, she recounts often, but that was under exceptional circumstances—her words, not mine. The story goes that when Kathy was fourteen, a boy with a fast car took her to a beach party. After some drinks, he insisted she make out with him, allowing his friends to watch. She bolted, stole his car and floored the gas pedal home only to get the thing stuck in her parents' ditch, virginity safely intact. "See! I used to be a feminist like you," she says.
My mother was diagnosed as agoraphobic when I was nine. I had no idea what agoraphobia meant, medically speaking. My dad refused to call her that.
"She just gets really worried, really easily," he said.
He told me mom felt like she couldn't leave the house because something bad would happen. I imagined my mother putting her foot outside of the door and getting dragged underground by a demon, or swallowed whole by a giant sky dragon with red eyes.
I relearned the definition of mother slant-wise. There were the Hallmark moms, the ones my friends all seemed to have, and my mom who only my closest friends knew about. While other moms walked their daughters to the bus stop, hosted birthday parties at the movie theatre, took pictures after school plays, and took their daughters on mother-daughter vacations and shopping weekends, my mom was a pretty blond mystery. She lived in her tower all day, buying things through catalogues and the Shopping Channel. The television was on at all hours in our living room, and you could find her there frantically writing order numbers in her journal, worried the showstoppers would sell out before she could figure out finger sizes and furniture dimensions. A few times a week I would drag myself up the hill and through our neighbour's rose garden, my ears tingling as I scooted across the highway between trucks and campers, into the "bigger kids'" park, breathing in the oily delicious smells of the Tim Horton's before heading over to the pharmacy's post office to buy a cashier's check in her name so she could get her limited edition porcelain figurines, opal rings, and clothes for us by mail. I learned to forge her flowery signature long before I learned long division.
Mom tells me an anxiety attack tastes like drowning.
"Salty water rushes all over your tongue, and you think: should I throw up or just let go?"
Gravity flees, everything spins, you hear echoes of the people you know or thought you knew. Stop yelling at me. You are shrinking, disappearing into the floor, smelling the wetness of the carpet that has been festering there undetected. You can hear the mould crawling into your nose. Clean harder! You feel the fibres of each and every hair on your arms, prickly and separate. A dark calm leaves you paralyzed from the inside out. You know blood is puddling in your organs, but like a child stuck in a bathtub that is about to overflow, you wait. Did I leave the oven on? Your legs are bendy straws. Your hip bones grow sharp, holding up the flaking bark on a dead tree. Where are the children? Your eardrums pop, pop, pop, BOOM. Are you walking? You can't catch the wind in your lungs. They'll be frightened of me. Your eyes twitch, the lashes slashing your cheeks. Don't let them see. You pull everything in and lock it, a ball pooling around a black hole in the centre of a space leading to nowhere. I'm frightened of me.
"The loneliness destroys you."
Kathy leaves the house only to go for drives. She watches the world from a passenger seat. Only my father, Tim, and I are allowed to drive her anywhere. Tim takes Kathy to the two places she must leave our home for: her psychiatrist's and her mother's, while I take her for actual drives. I can see her next to me in her seat eating a Dairy Queen cone as she talks about the mundane and ordinary: my father's lateness, my youngest brother's sore tummy, my aunt's latest attempt to eat less ketchup. My car is compact and smells of my hidden fast food wrappers, but inside that sedan mom becomes the self she could have been: a budding psychoanalyst, a lady who lunches, an alluring woman with a cabinet of curiosities to share. She deconstructs people with the richness of experiences I know she's never had. And she talks and talks and talks.
"I phoned Mary Ann today and she and Ron are still having problems with Jacob's lisp, poor little guy. It seems to be getting worse, not better. He gets teased at school. You remember being that young. Little boys can be so cruel to each other. Well, you know that. Mary Ann won't stand for it, mind you. She'd beat the living daylights out of those bully boys if she could. She's a lot like you. She has that way about her. She scares people. She scares the hell out of me! You know Melissa, I wonder if it's trauma. Jacob's never really been the same after seeing that friend of his die. Do you remember? Oh, I can still feel the weight of it. That hellish garage door. Who would make such a dangerous thing? Seeing something like that. I bet he still has nightmares. Did you know that the family with the garage door moved out of Sherwood? They probably can't forgive themselves. It wasn't their fault of course, but. Jacob will be just fine. He's a tough little guy. Like his mother. She scares me sometimes."
Her conversations leave me nodding and uh-huh-ing quietly. Her questions are rhetorical. My role is offstage with her anxiety, a jealous understudy, brewing and feeding my mother lines as she struggles to remember her own role.
Driving with Kathy requires a Buddha-like patience. A common errand such as going to the gas station to pick up some cigarettes is never just a negotiation of A+B=C. If I were to map out a nice weekend drive to the beach from my downtown apartment, I would think to myself: leave before noon, take the new highway to bypass the Sunday church traffic, turn left at the old Dixie Lee Fried Chicken (because that red light is way shorter), take highway four instead of two because farmers too often drive their tractors on the two, and make a sharp turn onto the new overpass because, if you miss it, there are no passing lanes until you hit the drive-in theatre. As a driver you think like this, waging the risks against routes like a pigeon after a dropped sandwich. For Kathy, driving isn't about efficiency. On our drives, there is no end-point or destination. She doesn't actually want to go anywhere except away from the house, and the drive makes her being out possible. How I manoeuvre the drive is a dance I learned early, and it is as much dependent upon my pivots and breakaways as my car is on gas.
Just getting her into my car requires that all order of things must be anticipated, potential mishaps and what ifs carefully thought through so that when Kathy's anxiety rears its head, and it will, my quick-lick turns can continue that dance. Her anxiety is smarter than the both of us and loves to try to dissuade mom from leaving their home. When it's unamused it tests her resolve, gifting her heart palpitations, a dry mouth, dizzy spells, some asthma like gasping, a tight chest that feels like she's being crushed, and a sensation that she is falling out of the car even though she's safely buckled inside. Whether bouncing around in the back seat, or whining and pounding against my mother's sternum up front, it is forever a third passenger. Which version we get depends on me, or so I tell myself before each drive.
I present a list of Kathy's agoraphobia's driving "must avoids," in no particular order:
Traffic lights: We three might be stared at by nosey parkers during a red light. Best to bypass them altogether.
Stop signs downtown. See reason above.
Bridges. This one makes driving on an island a challenge. To deal with this dilemma we often drive in large avoidant circles around pools of wet.
Anywhere with tall trees. Claustrophobic. Tall trees look like prison bars.
Highways—too many lost girls.
Passing or speeding. Rushing is unkind.
Driving in the rain. Lightning can strike anywhere, and although the car is the place Kathy so often gathered our entire family to sit through storms, the car must be parked.
Breaking quickly. That's anxious.
Areas with too many children. What if we hit one or two by mistake?
Talking about agoraphobia.
Kathy hadn't signed up for this life. She'd been the prettiest of her mother's babies, a middle child with predictable rivalries with the elder sister. She was the family's songstress who played piano and sang for her parents during the holidays, her younger brother strumming alongside on his guitar. She helped her mother raise the youngest three children and got A's in art. She dreamed of travelling the world with kind, dashing men who were like her gentle, war-torn father. She cried easily and felt inadequate, wedged between a prodigal son and a stick-straight sister who envied my mom's beauty. But she was not afraid of being afraid then, and tried everything she could without consequences. When Kathy met my father at a dinner party her cousin had planned, she disliked him immediately. His arrogant swagger and know-it-all bloated lower lip. He, of course, was overcome from the moment he saw the elegant challenge with long golden locks. A done deal. Their romance was a tailspin of fast forwards, expedited when the two left the island to chase my father's dreams across the country. They partied with University pals at student pubs, drank cheap beer, smoked thin rollups, and got pregnant. Kathy was essential to Tim. Dazzling and defiant of her small town girlishness, she was the perfect complement, fitting into my father's outstretched hand like a smooth stone. But my father grew larger, his voice delicious to his own ear. His opportunities to shine brightest were hard-won and all that mattered. He became the hardworking ghost in our house, rarely seen but sometimes heard snoring at night.
Kathy gradually stopped being Kathy, becoming instead the beautiful mother of Mr. Carroll's four adorable children. She escorted me to ballet class, comforted me when I failed out of ballet class, pushed strollers to parks so I could make a friend, and taught me how to finger paint my first drawing of a cat. She did that four times over, with four different dirty faces and confused tears. All along she craved the calm of intimate coffees on the porch, with comforting confidantes she so easily dreamed up but could never seem to find. The other moms were busy, caught up in their own milkshakes of snotty noses and after school specials, and Kathy's neediness made it too easy for them to skip past her.
There were signs. When I was a young girl I measured the changes in my mother through babysitters. I'd had many: the Russian grandma who locked me outside of the house in the winter with no shoes on, the evangelical nanny who took my siblings and I to a secret church service at midnight, the daughter of Tim's secretary who made me take baths and brush my forever tangled hair before I could have dessert, the twins who made me long for a duplicate, and the neighbour girl who I wanted to marry. She wore acid wash, teased her bangs and smoked while we watched horror flicks on First Choice Superchannel. This team of women was always on hand to help me with homework and hygiene, but by the end of elementary school these babysitters were all gone.
Kathy started to get anxious about being anxious all of the time. I'm not sure why exactly, but I played detective for years. Her closest friend, Jillian, had recently passed away. One night she had a terrible headache so she had to lay down to take a nap. She never woke up. Her young husband had been out buying her Tylenol and when he arrived home with it in hand, he found her on the couch, already taken. I honestly thought Kathy just missed her friend when I would find her crying in the tub and standing in the dark in the middle of the kitchen at 2:00 a.m.
"God took Jillian to heaven before your mother was ready to let her leave," dad told me.
When Kathy began to worry about the quickness of aneurysms and death, it seemed normal. Mourning takes time—five whole stages. Kathy then started to worry about weather and street perverts, stray dogs, expectations that she host dinner parties, the dark, storms, a fear of dying herself. She grew so quiet she spoke in whispers. She paced around the kitchen, going in and out of her room looking for something she never seemed to find.
She stopped eating. I tried brushing her hair at night and warm teas. I tried cleaning my room while my sister and brothers scurried around her, building forts out of cushions. I tried. She now left the house so rarely it became unpredictable. Her time outside was spent alone, walking for hours around the perfect asphalt circle that enclosed our childhood park and baseball diamond as we four children played in the centre, watching.
I'm nine. My father proposes a trip to Vancouver. Just him, my mom and me. I presume the voyage is all about me because the other three kids aren't invited. I love my siblings, I'm sure, but they are all cuter, blonder, and gigglier and I am crusted and knowing. When dad tells me about Vancouver, I whoop.
"Is there a pool?"
"You'll have a babysitter to take you out and about while your mother and I do grown-up stuff. You need to be nice to this one."
"A pool?" I ask again.
"There also might be a few evenings when we need to go out alone," he says.
"POOL?" I beg.
"Of course, Melissa. It's Vancouver! There's even an aquarium!"
It was a business trip. My father was a newly minted politician and was asked to attend Expo-86 as the Premier's representative, a nice honour. My mother hadn't wanted to go. She didn't like to go anywhere anymore. Tim hoped Vancouver would break this pattern.
As much as I needed a mother, my father needed a wife, smiling for the cameras and stunning everyone in her cocktail dresses. He also needed her love. When I studied the Expo-86 pamphlet dad brought home for me and mom to look at, it said Expo would be the biggest fair ever, bringing the world together to talk and move as one. With twenty-two million visitors, a UFO-themed water park, a Sky Train, a Canada pavilion with street meats in it, a huge dome thingie that looked really cool, and a real life prince and princess coming to the opening, I couldn't imagine mom not loving every single second. I was going to be a really, really good girl, the best, and even wear those matching pink dresses she loved to buy for me and my sister despite my more tomboy tastes.
By the time we checked into our hotel room in Vancouver and I was done jumping from my parents' bed to my cot, Kathy had the flu. Light-headed was now a regular part of her lexicon, and she had to lie down. Tim left me to order fries and chicken fingers off the room service kids' menu and went to meet co-workers for gin. The week trickled by. It rained the entire time and dad had important meetings, so most days my mom carried my towel and sat by the pool watching me Cannonball off of the diving board. I roamed the hallways looking for mysteries to solve, became a world-class expert at vending machines, and filled our ice-bucket for my cans of Pepsi. At night, I sat on the bed brushing mom's hair, falling asleep with her to the sound of the television.
Dad hired a sitter who took me to a wax museum. A part of Expo-86's highlighted attractions, the museum boasted a haunted house. That haunted wax museum seemed to me the reason I was brought to Vancouver. When we saw it in the pavilion I could think of nothing else.
"Your parents would never allow this," my sitter said.
"I do this stuff all the time at home."
"Hundreds of times."
The sitter paid, I lied about my age, hid my missing front teeth from the ticket guy, and that was that. Panting noises and screams of pain came from a loudspeaker as we slowly walked into the first of the dark rooms. There was a piano in the corner being played by no one, its keys pounding out what I thought must be Mozart or Beethoven, the only pianist names I knew. The space was filled with spider webs, a cool mist, the smell of damp rot. Slow-moving bodies were swaying in shadow beside us, teetering and moaning, but my attention was drawn to a glass wall on the South end. There, in a hidden room sat a family of six enjoying a nice meal, their wax faces laughing. The parents drank wine as their children ate drumsticks and applesauce. They looked so happy: four little girls in frilly, Victorian dresses, a mom in a top bun, a dad in an ascot tie. A crystal chandelier hung above the table's pale pink cloth, the plates set in floral porcelain.
A low crawling fog curled around our ankles and the grip on my babysitter's hand became frantic.
"You ok?" she offered.
They were too happy for this place. A bulb above the dinner table flashed a blinding light and the room fell silent. A strobe light blinked on and off over and over in the dining room, casting the family in a red hue. The children still sat together smiling, but the plates had been smashed on the floor, blood splattered across the pink tablecloth. Their mother's face had caved in. A sunken, black emptiness. A gaping hollow. I crumpled against the sitter, shaking and crying until she carried me out like a basket.
The Vancouver airport is abuzz. I can see pristine hallways and hear luggage clickety-clacking, dragging behind fast legs. There are TVs and terminals and people reading paperbacks, sipping coffees. I am looking for a gift shop to swipe something small and sweet from, hoping to hide it away in my teddy bear's coat pocket. I've already begun to steal cookies from grocery store bins and caramels in tight wrappers from candy stores. While my mother was shrinking and disappearing into the house walls, I was becoming a bloated puff, eating any cake or sweet that I could find, hoarding candy in my bedroom like a rat, waking in the morning with lollipops stuck to the roof of my mouth, my teeth gritty and my tongue dry.
I spot a woman selling candied nuts. She's wedged between a luggage store and a money exchange booth. I really want those candied nuts. My father is off somewhere again, maybe wrangling our luggage or thanking his driver. He is far away from me, a speck of big head, but it's my mother who looks suddenly distant, her high cheekbones and slight, shoulder-padded torso frozen in an unnatural sway. I swipe a handful of candied nuts, but when I catch Kathy's eye looking my way, the thinnest of eyebrows and blue mascara, she doesn't scold. She doesn't even see me. Her body is there, sure, but she isn't anywhere in it. Her pupils are empty, floating, their tether cut, her face lilted, her body slouched forward. She looks like a slender tea cup about to be poured out. And then she faints. My reaction is guttural. I scream as she hits the ground and run into the arms of a woman standing with her husband and kids who are trying to exchange American bills. I do not run to my father. I do not run to my Kathy. I bury my face into the belly of another mother who generously pats my head and coos me calmer as employees and passersby help get this poor, unconscious woman water, pillows, sugar.
When we got home from Vancouver, Kathy was taken by dad to see the town psychiatrist. I don't know if she wanted this, but I do know she wasn't able to say no, her own thoughts swept aside by medical professionals. She was diagnosed with acute agoraphobia and a host of medication-worthy panic attack and anxiety disorders. One day my mom was my mom, and the next day some man with a pad of paper told us she was no longer there. She'd caved in. She now shared space with a distortion of reality, and I had to share my mother with an infection that was afraid of life. A possession that I thought would never leave her. My mother and us four kids were to stay home. She became the housewife who cooked spaghetti, cleaned until her hands bled, and sang to herself quietly as four black-eyed fledglings pooed, ran, fought, cried and oftentimes disappeared into the streets. Her world became the four walls of her children, and she busied herself with rearing, redecorating and House and Home magazines.
Mom created a private showroom in our house that none of us kids were allowed to enter. It had French doors and chandeliers and a mahogany dining table. It was filled with imported rugs and floral Victorian fainting couches so stiff from no one sitting on them that I imagined they were corpses, their fabric hard, pointy bones adorned with lace. Here Kathy read her magazines and assembled collections of 19th century Fabergé eggs and perfume bottles for her locked trunks and armoires jam-packed with her memories of a regal Victorian life she had not led.
When I pull up to my mom's newest house, she looks tired. She's been calling me more often for drives, outrunning her anxiety. Its shackles are finally starting to tingle. But the withdrawal from the medications that she now refuses to take is leaving her nauseous and dozy. Her anxiety is not letting her go easily. On recent outings I've seen her wrestling with the thing, asking me to take a swift left so we can drive by a new house she hears is for sale, even though that route means we will have to go through at least one traffic light. She's defiant, though in a way I've only heard her talk about being, never seen. Last week she even asked my father to take her across the bridge, the short route to my grandma's.
"Are you proud of me?" she asks later over the phone.
"Yeah, I'm real proud mom," I say.
There's a delicate balance between being surprised by her strength and humiliating my mother. She knows her anxiety is a part of her and squeezes that knowledge in a fist, but she also knows it will have to become separate from her if she ever wants to exhale again. The intimacy of that relationship is not for me to control and I've learned to settle for this polyamorous threesome on our drives. Today we are supposed to go and look at the leaves that are just beginning to colour.
"To the country?" I say.
"Well, let's just see where we end up," she says, holding her water bottle to her chest.
Kathy has just turned forty-seven and we have still never been shopping together. I shop for her while she waits for me at home. I take lists to stores, calling her in advance to find out which skin cream she needs or what sort of fruit she'll eat with her yogurt.
"The ocean looks beautiful," she says, staring out at the shoreline.
The cormorants are competing with the seagulls for sky, dipping and diving at one another.
"Mom, do you wanna try going to a café today before the leaves? I'll go in."
"No," she says immediately.
"I could get you a coffee with a flavour shot, like vanilla or chocolate."
Mom loves sweet things too. Her weight over the years has become mostly stable, her cheeks fleshier, vibrant.
"They do such a thing?"
She takes a deep breath and looks at her hands. I often imagine her mind is a video game, her anxiety the demon that creeps and jumps out from behind bushes as the princess carefully plods along, trying to make her way through a dark swamp some masochist put in between she and her castle. Today, the castle is an independent coffee shop next to a pharmacy.
"You know what, Melissa? Maybe."
I take her hand and drive slowly, pointing out the clouds that look like whipped toppings.
"Okay. Let's try," she says as we reach the turn off.
When we pull into the café parking lot, I leave the car on so she can listen to the radio.
"What can I get you?" I ask, fiddling for my money before she can change her mind.
Kathy is quiet. She looks around, gripping her water bottle, and sees people walking past the car into the pharmacy. A small boy has found a puddle and is trying to float a donut in it, his mother unimpressed, telling him she won't be buying him that kind again if he's not going to eat it. The boy rolls his eyes to himself.
"You were like that," mom says to me now. "So stubborn. Drove me crazy."
I smile, watching her watching the outside.
"Mom, we can go home anytime. The café will be here tomorrow."
Kathy reaches for the door handle and slowly steps out.
"I want to go inside that Pharmasave."
"Yes. I think I will."
"You sure? I mean, will you be okay?"
Her face falls. "You're right, maybe I'm not quite…"
I get out, take her arm gently and walk. "No mom, I'm wrong. You're ready."
"Do you think so?"
We both stop at the glass door, looking inside at the people shopping.
"I imagine pharmacies have changed a lot since I've last been in one," she says.
Melissa Carroll is a freelance fiction and nonfiction writer and recovering PhD survivor whose recent publications can be found in Matrix Magazine, The Globe and Mail, and The Rumpus. She was long-listed for Prism International's Creative Non-Fiction prize in 2014, and a finalist for Cutthroat's Rick DeMarinis Short Story Award this year. She promptly lost both contests; however, these honours gave her the courage to write full-time. She currently lives and writes in Toronto, Ontario.