the fastest way down

Easter, 1987

My mother hasn’t slept for forty-three hours. Early on Good Friday morning she made a big breakfast of Jimmy Deans and more pancakes than anyone would ever eat in a lifetime. She said her hands and forehead hurt from a touch of stigmata, then filled an old KPBS Premium Membership tote bag with coupons for every Spring-Into-Summer Sale from Macy’s to K-Mart. Now it’s Sunday evening, and she hasn’t been to bed since. For the family of someone who’s blaring her Jimmy Swaggart records and praising the Lord that a worship marathon is about to begin on the Christian Fellowship Network, that’s 2,880 minutes (if you’re the family member selected to drive said praiser to every outlet store within a twenty mile radius of the greater San Francisco Bay Area peninsula in search of just the right spandex/ cotton blend pants that don’t bind at the inseams or bunch up around the ankles, the number is easily translated into 172,800 seconds.)

For my mother who relies on many sleeping pills and tranquilizers just to concentrate enough during a manic phase to call in her donation and help Agents for Jesus deliver food and clothing to kids in Somalia—Istanbul? Appalachia maybe?—the swirling days can never be divided into calculated minutes or composed seconds.

Mania leaves no room for that kind of order.

From the kitchen where my sister Kim and I have decided to hide from our mother, be super interested in cupboard and refrigerator organization, we call out toward the living room and ask her if she needs anything.

She says no. She’s folding a stack of new nightgowns with the tags still on them. “But I’ll tell you one thing,” she yells out, “it sure would be nice if we could find a way to pack some food ourselves and ship it out to those poor hungry people.”

Kim’s head pops up from the crisper drawer. “She wants to send our food, now?”

I suggest we hide the canned goods. “I’ll put the Spaghetti O’s and pineapple slices in my closet, you put the tuna in the trunk of your car.”

It isn’t always like this with my mother, but she’s decided—for whatever reasons come with the kind of unreasonableness bi-polar disorder provides— to stop taking her medication. Two weeks ago she threw away her lithium. Last night she said Valium was against God. But on this hot Spring day, with her checkbook ready/set/go for the cause of God TV and a mountain of new clothes she’ll wear only once enough to hate, my forty-one-year-old mother will soon decide it’s not only time to end her medication, but perhaps her life should end today as well.

There’s a fuzzy Polaroid picture my mother took of a parking space in front of a three story office building in San Jose. In fresh white paint the name C. Bettencourt spreads across a cement spacer in front of her Monte Carlo. She had just been promoted to lead salesperson at one of Northern California’s top wine distributors. The first woman in the company to ever receive that title. My sister and I drove to Thrifty’s for a “congratulations on your promotion” card then met our mother in the parking lot so we could take a picture of her in front of her name. That was just two years ago, a few days before I turned thirteen. Not even in the highest phases of mania have I ever seen my mom happier than that day. She was, by all definitions of the word, a feminist. A subscriber to Self power before relying on the authority of what she once called a wish in the sky no one can even see. She said if there was a God, He was a She and to always remember the stories from the Bible were written by men who thought you could fall off the world by sailing in the wrong direction. She read me books about the Salem witch trials and ideas in modern feminine pagan practices. “Every woman has magical powers,” she told me. “And every man wants to silence them.”

Then right about the time I entered puberty and she came into an early menopause, she stopped feeling like herself. “Something,” she said, “is creeping in on me.” Now, as I watch her give away money we don’t have to all those televangelists (most of them men), the spooky way she raises her hands toward the TV, closing her eyes, swaying, speaking in a language like Hebrew mixed with Alien, I try to figure out where she goes off to during these times. Where the hell is my smart, liberal mother in the muck of all this rapture?

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