The woman was limping toward me, using a black and green umbrella as a cane. I was standing at the bus stop on Second and Washington in Hoboken on a brutally cold Sunday. Instead of walking the mile home, I opted to wait for a quick ride up to Thirteenth. A canvas bag of groceries from Aspen Marketplace hung from my gloved hand.
She inched cautiously to the bus shelter. One of her sneakers had no laces; its flap dangled with each step. I pictured her foot wrapped in a bandage, the skin pink and blue and swollen. She wore frumpy, baggy jeans, a bulky jacket. Patches of her shoulder length hair were unruly and flattened. I sized her up to be in her late 60s. She was the stark embodiment of the woman I often feared my mother could have become. I thought of the night Mom died. It would be January 30 in a few weeks, two years since her body had said, Enough.
I evaluated the woman’s past as if I’d known it intimately before our lives intersected there on Washington Street. Surely she possessed an ancient suffering, pain deeper-seated than her foot injury. Her face was pale and flawless like my mother’s. “Such great skin,” Mom’s nursing home aides would comment the last few years of her life, as they washed her naked body when she could no longer tend to it herself. It’s true, until the end, Mom’s skin stayed gorgeous and tough.
As far back as I can remember, my mother always washed her face with the palm-sized corner of a towel moistened with faucet water. I’m convinced she never used soap or lotions. She’d vigorously rub her cheeks, forehead and neck, moving like a street cat grooms herself when she thinks no one’s watching, releasing a series of ecstatic sighs I found surprising. “That’s making her feel good,” I’d think to myself. “She can actually feel.”
When people complimented my mother on her complexion, I’d laugh inside at the irony of being plagued with recurring acne until my early forties. During my worst bouts of it, she’d ask, “That face, you wash it?” I did, with all sorts of products and concoctions, and I’d squeeze the red pustules until the trapped gunk squirted out against the mirror. My mother kept her feelings concealed under heavy armor too, so much that I often thought she couldn’t feel them anymore.
In childhood, fortunately, my trove of Italian relatives stepped in to care for me when my parents couldn’t, both in the United States, where I was born, and in Italy, where, from the age of nine, I lived with my maternal grandmother for six years. I remember surmising from adult conversations that my mother got sick by keeping her emotions in. That’s one way we’ve explained her five-decade fight with bipolar disorder. Non si sfoga, they’d say, she does not vent. The verb, sfogare, to let or pour out, reminds me of gushing whitewater after the raising of a floodgate.
The woman at the bus stop looked tired, like she’d been worn down long ago by something which, despite her tenacity, still ate at her underneath the skin, something she hadn’t been able to ever shake off.
At 7 or 8, I began to understand that housework or looking after us three kids wasn’t the cause of my mother’s fatigue. “Help her. Pick up after yourselves,” aunts and uncles would tell my brothers and me. Mom’s tiredness altered the woman I thought I knew, sending her to the hospital, and at times, making her see and hear things I couldn’t.
I never managed to pin down the sequence of events. Was my mother born with a chemical imbalance or with an ancient, ingrained suffering? Was immigrating to the United States and leaving her small Italian hometown behind traumatic for her, or was she disillusioned by marriage and motherhood? Only with her death at 74, in the 44th year of this life she gave me, did I begin to disassemble our bond so that I could understand my mother more.
The old woman approaching the bus stop carried two heavy white plastic bags. As she carefully navigated the small icy mounds dotting the sidewalk, I wanted to offer a hand, but she looked angry, like she might rebuff my help. On the outside she appeared stubborn, independent. Her armor was sound. Inside her, I imagined a different story. Maybe inside she’s soft, I thought, and nobody knows.
I longed to be ensconced by the warm walls of my apartment. Since my mother’s been gone, silence and rest have made me see more clearly underneath the peeling paint of our lives, as I lay my hands on the cracks. How arduous it was for me to love her while fearing the next time my mother’s mind would steal away her essence. Lying listless on the couch during her depressions, I’d wonder where the light behind her eyes had disappeared to. How heavy her burden, I think now, to wake up with that mind every day, go to bed with it every night.
Relentlessly, the woman made it to the bus shelter beside me and set her bags on the ground. She produced a dollar bill from her pocket, held it tightly in her gloveless hand and fixed her gaze toward Observer Highway, where the bus would turn onto Washington Street. I thought I recognized her bags the moment I first saw her limping toward me, and sought confirmation now that they were next to my feet. Printed on each were the exact words I was looking for: Patient Belongings.
Patient Belongings. She must’ve been discharged from St. Mary’s, the hospital a few blocks away. It was renamed Hoboken University Medical Center in 2007, but I still call it St. Mary’s because that’s what it’s always been to us. I’d take my mother there often throughout the nineties, when the old emergency room entrance was on Third Street. Now it’s around the corner on Willow Avenue. I ate Combos or Nutter Butters from the lobby vending machine and called my oldest brother, Mario, from the payphone. Would he come help with the situation? “Aw, Mare, not this again,” he’d say at first. Most of the time, to my relief, he’d come meet us in the ER.
Nine years older than me, in his thirties, with a family of his own, Mario had already swallowed the hard lesson: he couldn’t save our mother. He must’ve known I’d be slammed with the same helplessness in the years ahead, as her illness cycled like seasons, but it would take me longer to even begin to acknowledge my impotence. My father, after the divorce in 1985, left Mom’s care, so completely, to us three kids. My other brother, Frank, went to North Carolina for college and stayed for good. Mario was my rock and punching bag. “I can’t catch a goddamn break for myself,” he’d say, and remind me of his kids, his wife, his bills. My empathy reserves were at their lowest, then. “But I’m the one who has to live with her!” I’d shout. “How do you think she feels when you don’t show up for Sunday dinner after you said you would? Next time, don’t say anything!” When he broke promises to her, he broke them to me, too.
On numerous occasions I sat with my mother in the emergency room close to strangers in pain, and begged nurses and social workers to admit her. Please take my mother and fix her for us. I don’t know how.
The next day, I’d go to 2 North, St. Mary’s psychiatric unit, where staff screened me through a convex safety mirror. “Who are you here to see?” they’d ask through a speaker. I’d press the button, announce, “Maria De Trizio,” and wait for the harsh buzzing before pushing open the heavy, off-white door. Sometimes I’d find a patient staring out at me from the door’s small square of glass, and a nurse would ask them to step back to a safe distance before I could enter. Those who didn’t comply were escorted away.
When my mother wasn’t meek and sedated, she was wide-eyed and indignant, and I never knew which way I wanted her. The former state broke my heart; I wished she would talk, give me an inkling of what she felt. In the latter, she would. “I don’t need you to come visit me,” she’d say. No, she didn’t want any apple juice, or to work on a puzzle with me in the recreation room. Those people behind the desk saying she had to take pills didn’t know a thing. “You’re just like them,” she’d sometimes add.
“But, Ma, you need the pills to get better, to get out of here.”
“What are you, my mother?! I no need pills. I’m not sick! Leave me.”
Inside me, the same questions churned, Why does my mother have to be in this place? When will this end? Why is this my life?
Maria gave birth to me at 31, her youngest child, ten years after she married my father, Corrado, in their southern Italian town of Molfetta and uprooted for the United States. She couldn’t have envisioned the role reversal or having such debts with her little girl; separations due to hospitalizations, foster care, and my living in Molfetta with her mother, my grandmother. She must’ve thought I was better off there, away from her head sickness and the crumbling of her marriage.
After my six years in Molfetta, six years of different hospitals and drugs for my mom, electroconvulsive therapy and divorce, I returned to her, and maybe she felt ready to be the mother then. But I wasn’t a little girl anymore. I was 15, resentful for being snatched from my simple life in Italy; my friends, the boy I loved.
I’d be instantly relieved each time Mom was admitted to the hospital, but then a profound sadness would pounce on me, seeing her in those sterile spaces, lost inside herself. I should try harder to get closer to her, I’d always think, but couldn’t. I was defective, I decided, unable to love. I’d delve instead into arranging doctors’ appointments, treatment plans, trips with the church group; whatever I thought would keep her stable and engaged.
My mother couldn’t have wanted to revolve in and out of the hospital after I’d returned from Molfetta. She’d wanted a job. “I can sew coats in the fattoria,” she said. She must’ve been excited, working in a coat factory those few months, to have purpose and a paycheck rather than a chekka from the United States Treasury. Eventually, she couldn’t get out of bed and to work on time so the government chekkas resumed. Or maybe a spat with a co-worker ended her brief employment. Maybe she couldn’t make sleeves and collars fast enough for the foreman. All I know is, this valiant mother of mine, she tried.
She hadn’t wanted her daughter to see her at times unclean, depressed, straitjacketed. What she wanted was to put a home-cooked meal on our table. “Should I wait for you to eat tonight?” she’d ask when we lived together or when she stayed with me on weekends. If I came home late, I’d find her in bed, her breaded chicken cutlets or zucchini fritters in a plate on the kitchen table, another upside down plate resting on top as a cover. Even cold her food was comforting. When we ate together, halfway through the meal, she’d say, “So, what we eat tomorrow? What should I make?” Mostly, we spoke in her native Molfettese, the brusque dialect of Molfetta, and she’d pepper broken English throughout.
She wanted to be a mother without asking for anything in return. Mothers are supposed to protect daughters, but in her world, this tenet had gone awry. The daughter felt obligated to protect the mother. This reverse dependence must’ve gnawed at her. It weighed on me like a sack of bricks – all the times I fantasized of having a different mother or no mother at all.
“I’m taking the pills now. When can I go home?” she’d ask, toward the end of her stays at St. Mary’s. I reminded her to follow the rules, shower, join group discussions. “I know you think they’re boring…but try,” I’d say. “Go and talk about what you feel.”
More than anything I wanted my mother to live at ease in her own mind and body, especially in her mind. I wanted her to dream big, take risks. Maybe she wished the same for me, every time she’d scold me for acting like a mother to her. “Go and live your life,” is probably what she meant underneath it all. The thought of her alone in this world terrified me, yet deep down–now–I think it’s how we all are.
At St. Mary’s, other patients shuffled past my mother and me in the white hallways wearing no-skid socks. Proper shoes were the sort of belongings they weren’t allowed on 2 North. Some greeted us. Others mumbled to themselves. I hadn’t accepted yet how much pain everyone is in, the heights to which we build our walls. Some of them, I noticed, never once had a visitor.
Mom also received her share of Patient Belongings bags, like the woman waiting next to me, still staring intently up Washington Street, waiting for the bus. I’d take them home after she was admitted, filled with belongings that might get stolen on 2 North: her purse, her slippers in summer, her coat, hat and gloves in winter.
I’d reach behind my mother’s neck to unclasp her gold chain with Jesus etched on the pendant resting in her cleavage. I’d remove her Timex Indiglo with oversized numbers which would light up blue if you pressed the crown. “No. I want same watch,” she’d insist, whenever it broke or went missing, and I’d suggest we buy something better. “When I can’t sleep, I see if it’s time to throw my feet on the floor.” Throwing one’s feet on the floor in Molfettese means getting out of bed to start your day. I must’ve bought five Timex Indiglos from JCPenny over the years. I can still picture my mother lying in bed in the dark, lifting her wrist close to her pale face, illuminated by the blue glow.
Or she’d come home with the bags, filled with clothes, a list of medications, and a note to follow up with her psychiatrist at Mount Carmel Guild. These were her fresh starts, her begin-again moments.
Patient Belongings bags, even on the street, still haunt me.
My kinship to the old woman grew as we stood in silence, waiting. Through the corner of my eye, I saw a tiny bubble at the tip of her nostrils. I wanted to give her a tissue, but worried she might snap: Does my runny nose bother you? “You’re always watching me, on top of me,” my mother would say.
Standing at the bus stop, another memory surfaced. It was the summer of 1995, I think. Mom was in early her fifties. I was in my twenties, desperate to move out of the Union City apartment we shared and get started with my life.
She’d been discharged from 2 North, but the staff hadn’t called my brother Mario or me. “She left hours ago,” a new nurse said when I arrived for a visit. Fifteen minutes later, the time it took to walk from Willow to Washington, I found her at the bus stop in front of McDonald’s, sitting on a bench, a few homeless men idling behind her.
I remember my mother appeared serene, not lost or helpless, which may be why I don’t fully trust this memory. That’s how I’d often think of her: lost, helpless. It’s plausible, this version of her unafraid and at peace, but I can’t be sure about it. It could be a dream I had or an event from another time transposed to that corner.
She was wearing a light dress, smiling, enjoying the bustle of Washington Street, when I rounded in on her. “What’re you doing, Ma?” I asked. “Nah-ting, I wait for the bus,” she said casually. I knew she didn’t have money. What, had she planned on boarding the bus with her patient belongings and asking strangers for the fare? “Why didn’t you tell me they were letting you out? I taught you how to call me collect from the payphone!!”
I always wonder how my mother’s life would’ve been different if I’d loosened the reins on my fear of the next time she’d lose herself, my fear of losing her. If she could’ve stitched together the life she dreamed of, what sort of life would it have been? Would she have been more confident and self-sufficient, kept a job, gone out with girlfriends, found romance after my father? Or would she have been homeless, hanging out in front of McDonald’s on Washington Street with a wild or sad look on her face?
I didn’t want a homeless mom, but those years she was in and out of St. Mary’s, I wanted to unmoor myself from her. Although I had work, friends, and other interests, I also silently, achingly, clung to my mother like a magnet. “Maybe I’m meant to care for her and that’s it. Life’s not going to dazzle me, so I need to take it at face value . . . not hope for anything more or anything less,” I wrote in my journal. Gradually, as we began to live apart, I started to understand what that ache was about. “God, I miss her…and I wish I could tell her. I really want to move on with my life, but it’s so hard,” I wrote.
I was never sure whether my mother was manipulating me or unwittingly dragging me along as she descended into her darkness. Some days I wanted to rattle her, even hit her. Others, I dreamt of breaking through my wall, holding her, telling her she was safe and loved. But I hadn’t learned how to love this mother of mine, who would sometimes say, “You’re not my daughter!” as if I’d been replaced by a doppelganger overnight, or she’d morph into a terrified child, pleading with me once not to go to work. She didn’t want to be alone, she said, sitting at the kitchen table in her cotton nightgown, tears welling up in her brown eyes.
Couldn’t she keep busy, I asked impatiently, cook something special for tonight? I’d be home regular time. “I can’t stay now, Ma. I have to go to work.”
“Work, work. All the time work. Like you fatha.”
She’d rarely talk about my father, only conjured him a few times when, I imagine, the sight of me merged with an old memory. Since the divorce, Dad had been living in our family home in Weehawken, the next town over. He kept in touch with me but had severed all communication with Mom–to keep himself sane, he has said.
In 1992, my mother went to live in the first of a series of group homes and assisted living facilities, which doctors at Mount Carmel Guild encouraged to prevent further hospitalizations. At the group home, there’d be structure, activities, medication supervision. At 52, she moved into Hudson House in Union City, ten blocks from our apartment and three blocks from Mario’s. I could have my own life and still keep an eye on her, I thought, but unmooring wouldn’t be that easy.
Sometimes, even during her healthy streaks, simply going to school or work felt like I was leaving her behind in a cloud of dust. In meetings or at the bar, I’d think of her alone in our apartment, at the group home anticipating our next weekend together, or sitting in the 2 North lounge searching for me each time a visitor got buzzed in. How can it be that you’re here and she’s there? I’d ask myself. How can you enjoy your life while hers is so empty?
At first, she’d say she was happy in the group homes, and for a while, the set routine was doing her good. But what kind of happiness can you have with so little privacy, when you’ve always cooked your own meals and suddenly you can’t, when you share a bedroom and bathroom with someone you don’t know and take pills that make you feel like a zombie? Your fingers twitch, your mouth’s dry, and, still, sometimes you hear voices and the despair comes, and you can’t sleep.
After a few months or years, my mother would grow tired of her living arrangement. She’d demand a better place, her own place, or to live with me again. “You can’t be by yourself all day, Ma,” I’d remind her. She’d tried living alone for a year, in a one-bedroom apartment near Mario, but soon it started up again: someone was messing with her telephone wires, neighbors wanted to kill her, she downed all her Haldol. It was back to the hospital and group homes. “You no worry about it,” she’d declare, waving her chubby hands at me. “I’m ok by myself all day.”
And she had been ok at times–for months on end–going with Mario to St. Rocco’s for Bingo on the occasional Tuesday. “She always wins,” he’d report. I remember the day I took her to see Les Miserables on Broadway, and I don’t know if it was during I Dreamed a Dream or Do You Hear the People Sing? but I’ll never forget that moment in the dark theater she was so naturally and beautifully moved to tears.
When Mario’s son Nicholas was born, he brought brand new light into my mother’s eyes. In a photo from his first birthday, Mom holds him in his little bleached jeans with hope on her face. We were taking her to the hospital a lot that year, and yet she’d always get back up, my mother, every time.
At The Garden of Eden in Brooklyn, where she lived for seven years, my mother once packed all her belongings into cardboard boxes and set them up against a wall in her room. They were filled with clothes, shoes, towels, knitting projects in shopping bags, her Women’s Day magazines, papers from the organizations she’d regularly mail two dollar bills to: the American Heart Association, the Franciscan Mission Associates.
She lived with the boxes there for three months, threatening to run away.
“I go from here.”
“What are you talking about, Ma? Where are you gonna go?”
“Call Staten Island,” she said, where she’d been in a group home before.
“You said Staten Island was worse than this.”
“I don’t care. It’s no worse. I can’t stay here no more.”
Next weekend, I promised, she could stay at my place, or we’d go to Coney Island or to Michaels, the crafts store, whatever she wanted. Ultimately she resigned herself to stay, but what if the next time she got restless, she’d really run off? I might have to take her in, and that prospect terrified me. Although the bit of distance I’d put between us was laced with guilt, it was still a welcomed distance.
I blamed myself and my desire to break free every time my mother went downhill. I knew how I’d botched things, too. It must’ve been when I promised we’d have lunch at the diner on Sunday but canceled because I was hungover. Or the month before, when she stayed overnight, pacing throughout my apartment and I yelled at her for disturbing my sleep. Or because I hadn’t married and bought a house in the suburbs where she could live upstairs, and because I hadn’t given her grandchildren.
During good stretches, Mom knitted scarves, hats, blankets. When we lived together, her days revolved around cooking, crafts, and tending to the apartment. Holidays at Mario’s house, she cooked lasagna next to his wife who made chicken with rice and beans for her visiting siblings. One of them would inevitably coax my mother away from the kitchen, in her apron, to dance Salsa in the living room. I loved watching her brighten up in those moments, but worried she’d miss that joy when she got back to her lonely reality. Parties and dancing couldn’t sustain her forever, I thought. I didn’t want her longing for something, receive it in her soft hands, only to lose it again. But these were my dreams and fears.
The rhythm of our lives together was like a seesaw. She was sick, healthy, then sick again. I accepted our lot one minute, resented the whole world the next. “Don’t listen to her,” Mario would say to me, when she was ill. “She doesn’t mean what she says when she’s like that.” How could that be? It was her voice, coming out of her mouth, the thoughts coming from her head.
When she pushed me away, when she tried to kill herself, did she know how lost I felt? I wish we could’ve talked more. I wish I’d asked her to tell me all the ways she felt cast aside and empty too.
After my mother died, I was reading a mental status assessment I’d saved from St. Mary’s; the time vampires were after her. I imagine the nurse scrutinizing her then writing her observations next to prompts meant to establish my mother’s judgment, insight, and suicidal ideations. Question 6b under “Role Relationships” still pierces me:
How are the problems handled in your family?
Beneath it, in the black ink of the nurse’s handwriting, my mother’s voice shoots off the page.
They send me to the hospital.
Now I know why my mother was sitting on the bench at Third and Washington that summer day in the mid-nineties. She wanted to get home, where her effects wouldn’t be stuffed in a plastic Patients Belongings bag. If I hadn’t confined her to hospitals and group homes, if I had taken her in, could I have lessened her pain, or would it have been the same?
I always feared the day my mother would die, but also dreamed life would finally dazzle me. I’d travel more, find a more fulfilling job, seek out romance, perhaps. Instead, I’ve got a heart that’s fuller than before, despite the cracks. I couldn’t see it slowly and silently growing alongside my mother’s suffering. I still think of times I could’ve been a more empathetic caretaker and daughter, but I can’t rewrite the past. I’ll have to learn to be a better caretaker to myself now, to those living around me, to the planet.
That cold Sunday afternoon, when we saw the bus turn at Observer Highway, the old woman reached for her Patient Belongings bags, and I said, “Wait, I’ll help you with those.”
“Gracias.” It was good to hear she wasn’t angry.
New Jersey Transit’s 126, headed north on Washington Street, stopped for us, and I leaned down to take the bags. She wagged her finger at me. “No,” she said, “Ochenta y nueve.” She needed the 89. I climbed on, hoping another stranger would help her.
I wasn’t sure anymore if she had been a patient at St. Mary’s, or if she’d brought a loved one to the emergency room or to the psychiatric unit, someone she cared for enough to take their possessions home for safekeeping, as I had done for Mom. She reminded me, now, of myself.
Later that afternoon, I wondered if the old woman had shelter, food, heat. Was she alone in her life? Was she a mother? Would she fall on the ice with those heavy bags? I should’ve helped her onto the bus, I thought. The 89 would’ve taken me to Thirteenth and Washington just the same.
I could have carried her patient belongings.
Months later, I ran into the old woman again on Washington Street, and we began chatting regularly at the empty storefront she now made her home. Her name’s Maria, like Mom, and she came to the U.S. from Colombia 30 years ago. At first, I thought this was a cosmic signal, the universe saying to me, “Here’s another chance! Save her!” But since my mother’s death I’ve been trying to flip old scripts.
“Where’ve you been?” Maria asked one day, after I hadn’t stopped by in a week. I needed distance from her; I knew I couldn’t save her. I decided instead to cherish that desire and be grateful for where it comes from, but I wouldn’t carry it like a sack full of bricks over my back.
“I’ve been busy,” I said, laughing nervously. My feet hadn’t moved, but I felt as if I’d taken three steps away from Maria.
Sometimes I fancy Maria as unbreakable. Sometimes I don’t trust her, and sometimes I’m afraid she might die out there.
Sometimes, I want to walk past her like the people I see on the sidewalk, slightly startled by her there, crouched in the doorway of the empty storefront, but they just march on. I know, I’ve done it a hundred times myself. But I can’t anymore. Not with Maria.
Sometimes, before I fall asleep at night, I think of her.
“Buenos dias” she said, emphatically, as I dropped off coffee and a muffin one morning. Next to her belongings on the ground I noticed another fresh cup of coffee topped by a Saran-wrapped bagel. From another passerby, I presumed. Maria piled together the goods and thanked me. Hasta Luego, we said. I went on my way to work, into the dense, frenzied crowds of the PATH train, where the faces surrounding me that day seemed different, softer.
Maryann De Trizio has studied memoir writing at Gotham Writers Workshop and New York University. A corporate project manager by day, she volunteers for CASA of Hudson County as an advocate for children in foster care. The daughter of Italian immigrants, she’s working on a memoir about her family and living with her maternal grandmother in Molfetta, Italy, from the age of 9 to 15.