The floors in our house in Mahopac, New York, are icy cold and creak loudly when we walk across them, especially in the early mornings. I am eight or ten but my age doesn’t really matter. What matters is the distant sound of rain, the darkening skies outside, and how alone we are.
My mother has locked herself in her room again.
The air in front of that room has created a kind of bubble, one my brother and I know cannot be broken. I want it to break of its own accord.
I want my other mother, the one who cooks food for us, makes us toast in the morning we spread with marmalade, jam, or sometimes the Marmite she buys in specialty shops to remind us of our past, of where we come from, of the fact we carry pink cards that proclaim us “aliens” from another country. I try to extricate the me from the alien.
I do this alone, far more often now than before.
Our mother’s long absences, the times she is behind that door, have grown more frequent. My brother and I eat tinned soup and nosh on saltines.
We walk up the street to friend’s houses and surround ourselves with other families, houses so full of people, I wonder if that’s why they’re so much warmer than ours, or if it’s our cold wooden floors, coupled with the tall ceilings, that keeps us frigid.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s my mother, this thing she carries with her all the time that hibernates and waits for such long periods. I wonder if it’s gone. I hope it’s gone.
But it’s never gone. The mother who screams and rages and sobs and whose heart is so broken, so raw and bloody and naked, even I can see it, all the time, open and pulsating beneath her dressing gown.
I can see it in her face, the worry lines that crack into her ivory skin, the way a silverish film clouds her emerald eyes, the way she stops brushing the long, dark brown hair that cascades all the way to her small waist.
She’s stunning, my mother, absolutely beautiful. Even child-me can see this. But she’s also dead sometimes; so dead, she is a ghost of herself, shuddering through the halls of our house and occasionally hovering above my bed while I pretend to sleep.
Her glazed eyes examine me, and it’s like I can hear her thoughts. “Why am I here?” they scream to no one, or to the universe, or to other ghosts. “Why am I here, and why did I have these children?”
I will not know what to call what happens to my mother for a long, long time. I retreat into myself when she dies like this, when her ghost emerges and terrifies us.
I have learned to hide in my own body, and when I do I begin to see how she became like she is. It’s a hiding— a hiding from the world, a hiding from herself, from her past.
I discover possible names for her condition, learn that we hold genetic propensities for the schizophrenia that landed her sister in an institution and caused our grandmother from another state to buy us all books on mental illness, on coping with it in the family.
I read them all, and see my mother in the shadows of the words, though her fits are hidden from the rest of the world for some reason.
When she dies, it’s in front of my brother and me, no one else. The world never sees her at these times. Calls ring through the house unanswered and the sharp piercing of a doorbell does nothing but amplify the emptiness of our condition.
I am sad and scared and lonely every day, all the time. My brother is, too. His eyes are so dark, they’re almost black, large, and rounded like the rest of ours. He’s gentle, much quieter than I am, and he misses our father. I can see it in him.
He’s even uttered it, though I know how horrible an idea it is to speak of it. Talking about our father will trigger her, catapult her into the worst of rages. We are bad when we mention his name, so I don’t. The problem is, we are also bad because part of him lives in us; we are half him.
Sometimes, I wonder if this makes us half-dead too, half-ghost.
My father is dead/alive. Though I know he’s from England, he still lives in Nigeria, where my mother left him — or he left her, I don’t really know what happened.
All I know is that he is a horrible person who ruined our lives and it is bad to want to know him, or love him, or receive love from him. So he is dead, too, and my brother and I are left alone to be raised by ghosts. We raise each other, we raise ourselves.
Occasionally, there are the good times, when my mother forces her way through the ghost and emerges, radiant and present, even funny. I don’t know why, but these times have grown less and less frequent, and I am scared.
I have to say something to the ghost-mother or my brother and I will be trapped in this big, empty house for the rest of our lives. Our condition, this life will swallow us whole and we will be dead, too, for real. I have to bring the real mother out, pull her towards us so she sees we’re getting hungrier, lonelier, more frightened by the day.
A couple of years ago, my brother and I bought a pink, mirrored #1 Mom sign my mother still proudly displays on that door she locks herself behind. I write a note to the ghost of her to place beneath this sign. The cold seeps beneath the door, I have temporarily burst the bubble.
I’m in a graveyard at night, surrounded by shadows and demons and terrible, tiny creatures clawing up from beneath the soil. I am hasty in affixing the note to the door because I hate being there, confronting something I am too small to handle.
I should leave her behind that bubble, behind that door, let her be dead like she wants to die endlessly and forever because she’s stopped understanding how to live because the world is huge and monstrous and as terrifying as her filmy, vacant eyes when she yells.
It’s not us she attacks, it’s that world she sees, the one she doesn’t want. I should leave her there, but can’t.
My brother and I are small and hungry, and alone, and we want her alive. We want her love.
We love her, all of her, and want her back. We want our father, too, and his love, but that is another battle for another time. Slaying these demons is hard work and my arms can only do so much.
I don’t know who you are, or where you came from, but I’m scared and hoping you could ask my mother to come back. You’re scared, too, and that’s why you’re screaming and just staying in your room, but we miss our mother.
We need her and want her to go back to how she used to be, cooking dinner and watching TV. I am sorry you are sad, but please ask her to come back, and please go away. We need our mother.
Also, tell her we love her and miss her.
It works. She comes back, though the ghost-mother remains all over her. Her clothes reek of it: ash and soot and soil and sadness. She carries her body like it’s a thing, heavy and tormented and too old, but she comes back.
Our dinner is fried tofu and okra and she pours herself one of her goblet-sized glasses of wine. She has gotten skinnier, her long fingers like those on the doctor’s office skeletons I’ve seen on T.V. shows, but she eats, her mouth slowly churning, heavy eyes staring at the plate.
“I love you,” I say, my voice too high, too piercing.
Her lids lift and she is there, for real, I can see the life in her. She wants to smile, somewhere there lives a smile, even if it’s tiny.
My brother says nothing. He and she are what my mother has called “introverts.” I, she often proclaims, am an extrovert, and that’s why I talk too much and take up so much space.
I wait for a response, like teetering on the edge of a massive cavern, holding that huge love for her, hoping she grasps it.
If she doesn’t, the weight of it will pull me down into that cavern and I will fall forever, clutching it, pressing my own heart into my chest so I can keep feeling the world. I’d rather die than let go of it, so she has to take it.
A real tear slips out of the corner of her eye. I know it’s real because it’s not angry, not turned inward. It’s not a ghost-tear, it’s a human one. She reaches for my shoulder and pulls me into her. She is warm. I can hear her heart beating, the blood pulsing.
She is human and alive. Her grip is so tight, I almost can’t breathe.
She pulls my brother in, too. We are smashed together so close and the most wonderful feeling overwhelms me.
We are propped up and we are not alone. We are supported in her human arms for that moment, which will shift and change like it always does. That’s how life is.
That’s what it’s like to be raised by ghosts, even if real parents may appear once in a while.
For now, though, at this moment, our mom grips even harder and whispers into our hair.
“I love you so much. You can’t possibly know how much I love you.” The moisture on my scalp tells me she is alive. “You can’t possibly know,” she repeats.
She’s wrong. I do know how much she loves us. I know every inch of it, have devoted a huge part of my whole being towards reaching for it, trying to keep it close, to keep her from dying all the time.
I’m a ghost-fighter, but she doesn’t know this. How could she? It’s her death I’m trying to keep away.
Jenny Mundy-Castle is the author of Every Time I Didn’t Say No, her memoir inspired by educating high-trauma youth in New York, New Mexico, and Nigeria. For more, follow her on Medium.
This article was originally published at Medium.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.