To The Grandmother I’ve Never Known

Dear Grandma,

I wasn’t really sure about your name: Iris or Ines? I’ve heard both. Either way, you’re grandma.

Anyway, I’d like to catch you up. There’s a lot for you to know now. I have a few questions I’d like to ask you myself. I’ll start with Blanca, your daughter and my mom.

When you left her, she wound up in a foster home with her siblings. I think you know that. But I’m not really sure what you know. I know barely anything about you. I would like you to tell me why you left her and your other children.

Where did you go?
Did you miss them?


I guess it worked out ok because my mom had a good life. At least, that’s what she told me. Her foster mom in Long Island (someone who I call grandma) gave her a family and a stable home: something you and my grandfather couldn’t. I know that you’re not to blame. But maybe you are. There is no residual anger. I’m just confused.

 

I don’t even have a picture of you. I heard that you could barely speak English. I heard about your height (short, like my mom.) I heard about your long, straight black hair and dark eyes. I heard about your beauty. That’s all I’ve heard. No one talks about you much. They just tell me that you left because you went crazy. There was nothing they could do.I want to tell them that they’re wrong.

But first you have to explain to me why you didn’t come back.

When my mom left, she came back. She came back for me and for my brother. She came back for love.

Wasn’t there anyone that you loved the way my mom loves me?

My mom left twice. The first time I was very young. I remember how I felt when she left. It was a mixture of fear, anger and sadness but not really surprise. Maybe she felt the same way when you left her. I knew my mom was going to leave eventually. Things hadn’t been normal. Her behavior wasn’t right.

**

One night she took us far away into the Bronx and up to New Rochelle, after we came home from school.

That’s another thing I think I know about you. I know you either lived or were born in the Bronx.

As we arrived home one day, she stood outside the apartment refusing to enter. She told us there were people inside that our grandfather had sent to kill us. She was crying and scared. A part of me believed her. So we never went home that night. We turned around. She told me and my brother, Joey, that she was looking for you. You know him, right?

That night, we walked for miles and miles. We slept on the side of the highway where my brother and I laid amongst leaves as my mom sat up. She waved her hands back and forth in the thick piles of foliage as a child would, placing them on us like a warm blanket. Even in her madness, she was still nurturing. She was still a mom. We couldn’t stay there too long because I was so cold that I began to shake uncontrollably.

We walked until we were out of the Bronx and in New Rochelle. Over the course of what seemed like an eternity to me but was probably a week, we went to homeless shelters, hotels and finally after enough begging, she took us back home. But she wasn’t really home. She still thought she had to run to you and run away from the people who were trying to kill her.

She was crazy, too.

She didn’t find you that night, and she didn’t find any peace within herself either. Her sleepless nights were spent crying and telling us things that never made any sense. Like:

“They’re chopping up bodies upstairs, I can hear them.”
“They’re going to kill us. Daddy is going to kill us.”
“They’re watching us.”

She didn’t like us to watch certain TV programs. Once, Joey and I were watching Pinocchio in the living room. Not the Disney version. It was a weird, darker version. But it was still a cartoon. We were seated side by side on the couch, mesmerized by the screen. Then she came barging into the living room in a state of frantic paranoia.

“What are you two watching?” she said
“Pinocchio.” My high pitched voice dripped with innocence.
“Turn this shit off! This is evil. This movie is about the devil! Turn this off now!”
“ I want to watch this! Please! It’s just a cartoon. There’s nothing evil in it.” I started to cry.
“This cartoon has creepy things in it,” she said.

Joey and I begged, pleaded and cried over the cartoon so she let us watch it. She wasn’t too happy though. She glared at us as if we had done something wrong.
“I don’t like this.” She said while walking away and shaking her head.

She often interrupted our TV watching. She came into the room many times to cover the remote control sensor on the front of the television set. She would bring in a piece of paper, tape it over the red light, and tell us that she didn’t want the government to watch us.

Did you think people were after you too? Is that why you left?

You can see why when she finally left us, we were scared but not altogether surprised. My mom said that you did strange things too. She told me that you left her baby sister on the train, and left them home alone many times. So I’m sure she wasn’t too surprised when you left either.

**

I remember the Saturday she left.

I got up at 7:15. I was going off to my weekend acting/dance class and she wanted to make sure I woke her up early. I jumped out of my bottom bunk bed, checked the time and opened the door to the room. I saw that my mom’s bed was empty and I immediately knew something was wrong. I went to the living room and she wasn’t there. She was gone.

I ran back to the room to tell my brother.
“Joey, wake up!” I said
“What is it?”
“Mommy’s gone.” Joey’s eyes widened and his sleepiness suddenly disappeared.
“What do you mean she’s gone?” He said.
“She’s not home.”
Joey looked down at the bed, at his Mickey Mouse comforter. He looked as sad as I felt.
“Maybe she went to the store. We’ll wait for her.”

So we waited.

We went to the living room and sat next to each other on the couch, with our legs crossed. We stared at the TV in complete silence for the next 5 hours. We watched the entire Fox Kids Saturday cartoon line-up until my brother’s favorite show, X-Men, came on. Once that finished, we would tell someone. Unless, of course she came back from the store.

There was no store.

12:00 came and I got up to call Titi Annie. You know her. She’s the woman who married my grandfather after you left. I called her with the intention of saying words but I wasn’t able to formulate any, they were lost in tears. She told me to put Joey on the phone. He took the phone, explained that she was gone and then exploded into his own ball of teary confusion. She told us to stay put; they would be right over.

After a few days, you know where they found her? She was on a highway in the Bronx. She didn’t even know her name.

I think she found you.
In herself.
She was now you.

But still, she came back. And you never did.

She went to a mental hospital for a while and was prescribed some medication. Everything was ok. Maybe if you would have taken your medication everything would be ok now too. Was there medication? Maybe no one understood what was wrong with you back then.There’s always been a lot of misunderstanding about mental illness. Were you even diagnosed? How old were you when it first started? Was there anyone there to help you? Did you even know what was wrong with you? Please tell me, I need to know.

Almost ten years after her first one, your daughter had another breakdown. This one was her worst. Her behavior had been abnormal for months. Maybe longer than that. I think for a long time I rationalized her weirdness. I assumed because she was on medication she was impenetrable. I never thought about changing dosage levels or medicine not working anymore. I thought she would be ok. But for a long time she wasn’t.

As it got progressively worse, she wasn’t ever happy. She was short tempered and irritable. She wanted to be left alone. She worried too much. About things normal people don’t worry about. She was fearful of strangers and situations where danger could be imminent. Her mind always seemed to wander. Her eyes were distant.
Her paranoia came back. But she was smarter about it this time around. She became more deceptive in her hiding of her illness. She was very self aware but also not more aware than the illness. I thought that I was smarter and older and that I’d be able to recognize the symptoms. I thought I could take control of the situation should it ever come up again.

My brother moved to Pittsburgh for college. So, it was just my mom and I then. I always asked her if she was ok.She always told me she was.

Over the course of a few weeks her behavior got much stranger. Her sleeping stopped. Her crying increased. She regained her obsessive habit of looking through the peephole to see if anyone was lurking outside the apartment door.
One night left me sure of what was happening. And also unsure of what to do next.

“Madonna? Madonna? Wake up. Are you awake?” my mom said, as she walked into my room in the middle of the night. The room was dark. The light of the street and from the city skyline was the only one that allowed me to see her face. If It hadn’t been my mom standing there, I would have thought someone was trying to kill me. It was an eerie scene. Quiet. Terrifying.

“What is it?” I was still half-asleep and groggy.
“Madonna, you should get up.” She stood over my bed. Her eyes were wide. Her voice sounded firm and serious.
“What are you talking about?” I said, slightly annoyed by her presence and the idea of moving out of my bed at all. Also scared.
“We have to leave.”

Hearing this, I sat up, realizing that everything was not alright. She continued: “There are people in this building that are going to kill us. We’ve got to leave, Madonna. Please, let’s go.” She pleaded. She sounded desperate and helpless. She was as sure of the danger as I was of its absence.

My heart was now in my throat. It raced along with my brain, filling with possibility. It was happening again. It was a bad dream, only I was wide awake.
I stood up to face her. I thought being firm would work.

“Mom, what you’re saying right now does not make any sense. I’m not going anywhere and there’s no one trying to kill us, ok?”
“Please, listen to me. Come on, just come with me. Let’s go.” Her voice sounding more anxious by the minute.

The conversation went in a gigantic circle. She pleaded with me. I told her she wasn’t making any sense. She pleaded some more. She wasn’t listening to anything I was saying. She was looking right at me but she was five million miles away. I wanted to scream at her. I wanted to shake her. I wanted to yell so loud it would rearrange the cells in her chemically imbalanced brain.

“You’re not making any fucking sense. Stop talking like this. You’re acting like you did when you had your last breakdown. Hello?! Can’t you see that! Just wake the fuck up!”

She stared at me. I was sad that I had yelled at her. She was hurt as she looked at me. But I thought I saw a glimpse of recognition in her eyes. I think she knew she had lost her mind. Her wide eyes were like saucers. She was scared of something that didn’t exist. I was more afraid of what existed in front of me.
“Ok, Madonna. Just go to bed.”

I went to bed. I was determined to help her tomorrow.

When tomorrow came, I devised a plan that I figured would make everything ok. My high school mind was incredibly naive. Every step of the way, she fought me. When we left the apartment. When were in the elevator. As we walked down the street. When we were on the bus. She was angry at me. She threatened to turn around. All I wanted to do was to take her to the pharmacy to get medication. She entered the pharmacy while I stupidly waited outside. She returned and told me that they had run out of medicine and we should go home. She was smart about this. There was nothing I could do. She stared suspiciously at people as we walked down the street. She feared everything and everyone around her. She didn’t want any help.

We came back from our futile attempt to get medication and I attempted to call Annie like I had done years earlier. My mom didn’t let me. She picked up the phone as I dialed. She yelled at me and claimed that I was siding with “them”. I felt so completely helpless.I made the phone call as my mom screamed at me in the background. They told me to go where they were. So I left. I walked out of the house. It didn’t feel like the right thing to do. But I really couldn’t do it alone. I spent the entire day with my family, trying to figure out how to deal with this. They worried. I worried.

I came home later that night. My heart felt like it would rip through my chest as I put the keys into the door. I wasn’t sure what awaited me on the other side. Was she going to be standing there? Would she try to kill me? Was she dead? I opened the door to a pitch black apartment. Not one single light was turned on.

“Mom?” I whispered.

“Mom, are you here?”

Nothing.

I turned on every light in the apartment and found nothing. She was gone. I sat on the couch and stared at my reflection in the TV, which was turned off. I was completely paralyzed.

She went missing for ten days. Ten days. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t stop feeling guilty. I wonder if anyone worried about you like that when you were gone. My mom told me that she walked for miles and miles during that time.

Where did you go? Were you looking for something or running from someone like she was? My mom told me she was scared. Were you scared? I hope no one hurt you. I hope that you did okay out there on the streets of New York City. I hope that you weren’t in any pain.

When they found my mom, I wasn’t sure what condition she would be in. She was found on the streets of Manhattan. Someone called an ambulance for her because they could tell she was in bad shape. I walked into the psych ward and sat in the doctor’s office with my brother, my aunt and Annie.

I waited for the doctor to bring her to us.
We sat.

We stared.

We waited.

Then I saw a figure making her way towards us. She could barely walk from the blisters on her feet. Her hair was disheveled. Her face was severely sunburned. Her eyes wandered and made no contact with us. She was sedate and calm, expressing no emotion at the sight of us. She was moving closer to me but I could tell that she was very far away. It didn’t look like she immediately recognized my brother and I. Her first words to me as she cupped my face in her hands were:

“Are you ok?”
“Am I ok?” I said. “Do you know how long you’ve been missing?”
“No.”
She didn’t know.

That’s why I wrote this letter to you. Maybe you don’t realize how long you’ve been missing, either.

There was lots of crying when I left the hospital. My mom got better. She got new medication. She was officially diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic which she managed as well as anyone could, until her death a few years ago. A death that had nothing to do with mental illness. Which has taken me a long time to reconcile.

None of this even matters anymore to anyone except maybe me.

Has she found you yet in the great beyond?

I wanted to let you know that I love you. You’re always with me. I have your death certificate next to your daughters’.

Even though you died homeless, you didn’t die unloved. You left but I want you to come back. You and my mom. I really do miss you both so much.

 

Your loving granddaughter,

Madonna