I come awake suddenly on an August morning in 2006 in the basement of my parents’ home in Montreal. Bright sunlight slips through barred windows and caresses grey carpet. I’m wearing the previous day’s clothes, and my legs dangle over the edge of the sofa which has served as a makeshift bed for the past eight months. Although I have a bedroom upstairs it’s occupied by my mother, who has slept in a separate room from my father ever since her schizophrenia became a chronic situation. Whether it’s a case of willfully denying what she’s become or not, I have no problem with the sleeping arrangements; the more uncomfortable the situation, the faster I’d get motivated to change it. Since an eviction had forced me back home, I’d been feverishly working on a novel manuscript whenever I wasn’t auditioning for acting parts or helping out around the house. Now it was done, a single MS Word file on my laptop, and I was ready to gamble everything on a fresh start in New York City and a life away from the negative emotional pull of her illness.
Upstairs I find her hunched over the stove making breakfast. It’s early; normally she doesn’t get going until noon. Her neck and arms are thick but her hands move deftly, flipping eggs onto a waiting plate with buttered toast. Mental illness has stolen much of the woman’s vitality and expressiveness, but little flickers remain.
“Do you want tea?” she asks, not turning around. Her voice is a monotone.
She drops a fresh teabag into a cup and pours hot water over it. She then repeats the process, only with a used teabag for herself. This is one of the vestiges from her days as a new immigrant to Canada, when money was tight and frugality a necessity. We spend a few seconds mixing in milk and sugar before bringing everything over to the dining table.
“This is too much,” I say, pointing to the scrambled eggs on my plate. “Do you want some?”
“I’m not hungry,” she answers.
She’s starving, but I don’t say anything and continue to eat with her watching me. Years of different medications and side effects have left her with an obsessive desire to lose weight…without the discipline to realize it. And so during meals she’ll loudly proclaim that she’s not hungry. But these past months have taught me different. Only a staircase separates the kitchen and dining room from the basement; every night, when she believes the rest of us have fallen asleep, she will creep downstairs and eat second, third, fourth servings of whatever’s available. Under cover of darkness, she finally gives in to the hunger. But calling attention to such things openly always results in furious denials and hurt feelings. Before taking ill, she was a pretty wife and a callous parent, more concerned with jewelry and clothing and exchanging gossip than looking after my brother and me. Now it is acting out the charade of things being exactly as they were that she requires. And because none of us wants to see this fragile house of cards tumble, as it has many times before, we indulge her. I can feel the false smile plastered on my face.
She notices the duffel bag in the foyer.
“That’s all you’re taking?”
Inside is my laptop, two pairs of khakis, four shirts, some socks and my Canadian passport. I’m moving to join a friend in an apartment in Brooklyn. I’m going without a work visa, which means I’ll have to find a job under the table and sort out the immigration issue before becoming a bestselling author. It’s a nerve-wracking situation, and with so much hanging on the horizon, I wanted to go as leanly as possible.
“It’s easier this way,” I say.
Mom gives me a disapproving look. “You’ll get cold. It gets cold in New York.”
“I’ll bring a jacket.”
“Promise?” Keeping myself warm is a big theme in our talks. Looking both ways before crossing the street. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables. Safe and innocuous topics with little risk of broaching the elephant in the room. Yet I give her hand a squeeze, promise all the same.
I find my younger brother in his room sleeping with commitment, open mouthed and arms askew. My cat Pia, soon to become the family cat, pauses from licking herself atop his desk when I enter. Dark eyes, tiny face, bristly brown fur. A total spaz who has been my steadfast companion for the past 4 years, through a bad break-up in Toronto and a move to Montreal, through multiple apartments and a depression which wrapped its arms around me as tightly as any lover. Ultimately it’s the latter which fuels this journey to the U.S., fear that I’ll never be able to break its bonds without a complete life reset. The cat can’t come along- there’s no way I could explain it to Customs. But on a deeper level, I’m relieved that it would play out this way. The cat had become a constant reminder of the many times I’d tried and failed in my twenties, and I desperately needed to forget a little.
I sit on the edge of the bed. My brother stirs, opens sleep-crusted eyes.
“Hey, I’m taking off.”
“Oh.” He tries to rise to sitting, but I stop him. “I’m gonna miss you.”
My throat starts to hurt. “Me too.”
Pia jumps onto the bed, near my brother’s feet. She seems totally unconcerned, as if on some level she’s already made peace with the transition. Or perhaps that’s only wishful thinking.
“When I’m settled, come visit. Anytime, it doesn’t matter.”
He nods, but I know he’s preoccupied with his own dreams and visiting me won’t a priority. To this day, I’m amazed at how easily he can make friends. His likeability is infectious and socializing doesn’t exhaust him like it can sometimes exhausts me. It’s an amazing set of gifts, but he doesn’t seem to really be aware of them. Maybe that’s for the best. One thing we’ve always agreed on, though, was the importance of carving out lives beyond the shadow of our mother’s illness. We grew up with others pitying us, being very polite to our faces before whispering amongst themselves what a sad thing, these boys with all their potential having to see the nasty underbelly of things. It sparked a fire within that manifested itself in very different ways, but all that really mattered in the end was making sure the flames never die out.
We hug, and for a moment the sterility of our surroundings fade. “Go back to sleep,” I tell him.
A last shower and shave. A last look in the mirror that has borne witness to the struggles of my family for the past twenty years. After she’d bottom out completely and a new personality would be reveling in her place, it would only be a matter of time before the ambulance and police arrived, always with sirens doused, to take her back to the hospital. Sometimes I’d hide out in the bathroom, listening to her protestations below. Those in charge always spoke in subdued tones; they had done this many times before. But the hollow feeling in my chest never went away no matter how many times this ritual was played out.
My Dad surprises me downstairs. He’s taken off work to see me off. Before leaving the house, my mother recites a Bengali prayer and makes some motions about my head. “That’s enough,” Dad says after a few moments, and opens the front door.
The drive to the bus station passes mostly in silence. In the late 70′s, my father was one of those brave searchers who left their country of origin to start over in the West. He had less than what I was bringing with me. His degree wasn’t recognized and he had to work days while going to school nights. It couldn’t have been easy, particularly with a pregnant wife at home, but he succeeded beyond all expectations. Whereas my mother can exert a negative pull, my father has always supplied the positive energy in our family. Against all odds, he has kept us all together and I will never be able to communicate just how much that means to me. The very idea of starting over would be ridiculous were it not for his steadfast support and insistence that neither my brother nor I serve as her caretakers. But in the moment, preoccupied with what lay ahead, I don’t tell him any of that. I just promise to call once in the States.
At the border, the Customs agent motions me forward. “Anything to declare?”
I am terrified and lightheaded. I’ve skirted the edges so many times and now, finally, I was jumping. There would be no going back.
I shake my head. He checks my passport, then hands it back to me. “Welcome to the U.S.”
I was out.