These are my hands, I tell myself as I watch them move. These are my fingers; they move in response to my thoughts. See, there is something I control. It’s the morning of the first day of fourth grade, and I’m combing my daughter’s hair. I watch my fingers carefully, patiently separating and untangling the wet wheat-colored strands. It feels like a sacred ritual because I am so focused on each tiny movement.
For just a few minutes I am only her mother, doing what a good mother does, and I’m treasuring this brief taste of normality. My senses want to remember it: the golden morning sun tinged pink by her curtains, the texture of her skin as I smooth the hair back from her forehead, even the artificial pear scent of the detangling spray I am using.
When I’m finished, her father will take her to school, and I don’t know how long it will be before I see her again. An hour ago we made a plan, he and I: while he drops her off at school, I will take a shower. I will put on some clean clothes and the first shoes I have worn in a week. And when he comes back, he will drive me to the emergency room. Where they will send me is unknown.
Knowing a change is coming gives me a paradoxical feeling of calm, and yet underneath this my heart aches to know I won’t be picking her up from school today. Someone else will get to hear what she thinks of her new teacher or what her friends did this summer. Someone else will tuck her in and read Harry Potter tonight.
I know I did the right thing when I told her father it was time for me to go. I know I won’t survive another night like last night; the fifth night without a single minute of sleep, the fifth night rocking and praying and gasping for panicked breaths; the fifth night resisting the urge to end it once and for all. So I’m going to go tell the truth, and accept the consequences to my liberty and our finances.
How do I explain to her that I’m leaving her so that I won’t leave her? I can’t. I’ve told her a little about mental illness and why Mommy can get sad or nervous or very tired for no reason. She’s nine, not stupid. She knows the difference between a real expression and a mask pinned precariously onto a flat or despairing reality. She knows when I’m phoning it in, and I respect that. But talking explicitly about the fact that I need help not to commit suicide would be too much sharing, and I respect that too.
We both have a full day ahead of us. While she pledges allegiance to the flag, I’ll be signing consent forms. While she puts on her name tag, I’ll be having my wristband attached. While she runs on the playground during recess, I’ll be pacing that little cubicle in the ER, and while she and her friends talk about Pokemon, the doctors and I will be talking about Depakote.
Her hair is finished now, and they must leave or be late. I tell her how beautiful she looks, and give her a big hug, and say I love her. I hold the front door open as they go through, and as it clicks shut the smile melts from my face. Mechanically, I walk toward the shower. These are my feet, I tell myself.