K. J. Bagnall

Writer. Editor. Illustrator. Mental Health Activist. Christian.

Short Memoir: Asking After The Mentally Unwell

Mum was crying on the crest of the hill, crushing herself into a ball. Her back was turned, but the shudder of her shoulders gave it away.

A few minutes ago she’d been hugging the local barista. He’d struggled all morning, agonising over his recent break up. Mum had freely offered her ears, and loving words. I glanced over at him, shoulders visibly lighter as he cleaned. So why was mum crying?

I looked back. Dad was with her, and a friend sat beside her. Whatever it was, I was sure the adults would handle it. At fifteen I was old enough to know that I’d probably just get in the way. Besides, there was work to be done. We helped run the local farmers market, held every second weekend. I pulled my brother over, and we put double effort into packing up our marquis. Mum would be fine by the time we finished, and we’d all go home to enjoy the Saturday afternoon. Just like any other week.

But when we got home, she was still crying.

1. Don’t call the family

The shrill sound of the telephone ripped through the silence, shattering the fragile balance of the house. It grated on my ears. It was incessant, obtrusive. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. But that sound was unbearable. My brother wouldn’t leave his room for anything except food and school. My dad… well, if the sound even penetrated his consciousness that would be a miracle.

I dragged myself from my room and began the treacherous journey towards the kitchen. But the path was littered with eggshells, their broken edges trimmed with sharpened steel. To disturb the silence by crushing an eggshell was heresy. I stepped carefully, but rushed to stop the ringing.

The phone grew louder, and I snatched it off the hook.

I wondered if I still remembered how to speak. “Hello?”

“Hello, this is so-and-so. Is that Lisa?”

“No, it’s Kyla.”

“Ah. I’m calling to ask how your mum is.”

I wish I knew. Or maybe I didn’t. “She’s in hospital.”

“So how is she?”

“In hospital.”

“Oh. Can I call her?”

“Probably not.”

“Well, can you tell her I called?”

“What’s your name?”

“So-and-so.”

“Right.” I had already forgotten.

“Thank you. Bye.”

Silence took the throne once more, and I breathed out. I made it safely to my room, and sat down to my grade eleven assignment schedule and almost wished I’d taken longer on the phone. Almost.

The shrill ring echoed throughout the house again.

Bloody phone.

2. Don’t call the unwell person

Mum had been in hospital four days before my brother and I were allowed to talk to her. I waited impatiently for Dad to pass the phone, for proof that Mum still existed somewhere and hadn’t dropped off the edge of the world.

“Hello, Mum?”

“H… hello.”

I pressed the phone into my ear to hear her better.

“Mum?”

“… y-yeah?”

Something heavy descended and spread like barely liquefied steel through my veins. Down my neck and straight to my heart, taking a brief detour to smother my lungs. The person on the phone wasn’t Mum. Mum had a cheerful, strong voice: her years in radio a couple of decades ago were testament to that. Mum was clear-minded; always knew what was happening; always knew what to do. The person on the phone wasn’t Mum. The person on the phone had a weak voice, a weak mind. The person on the phone could be dying.

I handed the phone to my brother.

3. Don’t ask complicated questions

The phone rang.

I strode with precision around the eggshells. I swear, if I had to listen to a second more of that ringing I’d—-

I answered. “…”

“Hello?”

“Yeah?”

“Is Lisa still in hospital?”

“Yeah.”

“How is she?”

“Same.” The same as the last time you called. The same as the last time everyone called. Nothing had changed. Mum was in hospital, and I had no answers.

“What’s actually happening?”

I don’t know. “She – uh – depression.”

“But what’s she in hospital for?”

That was my first question, too. “Depression.”

“Oh. Right. Well, can you tell her I called?”

No. “Yeah.”

“Thank you. Bye.”

4. Presence is more important than words

There was traffic and it was 5pm when our school bus dropped us off. We walked home, and my brother headed to his room. I noticed Dad in the kitchen, halfway through making dinner, but he was leaning against the bench, his glasses in one hand, rubbing his eyes with the other.

I dumped my school bag and then came back and gave Dad a hug. Words weren’t necessary; words weren’t possible. We hung off each other for several minutes, and would’ve for hours if I didn’t have an assignment draft due the next day, and if he didn’t have three mouths to feed.

5. Ask after the family members too

My friend drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. The engine was off and the silence hung above, around and in-between, listening, watching. We were sitting in my driveway after an evening at youth group.

“How’s your mum?”

“Well, she’s at home now, but…” But she wasn’t back: not entirely. But sometimes she looked like she was dying. But she might never get better.

“How are you?”

I didn’t say anything for a moment. In all those months, had I ever been asked that? “Tired,” I said. “Really tired.”

“Not sleeping well?”

“No. And I’m doing the dishes and the laundry and I’ve got a ton of assignments. And I’m just… generally tired.” More like exhausted. We all were. We’d been thrown into a foreign country, with a foreign culture and a foreign language we studied once, a few years ago. Everything was the same; everything was different. Why were jokes funny? Why did students always talk about assignments? Why did the sun rise, and then set? Or did it set, and then rise?

“I had no idea,” he said. “I mean, your mum is one of the most cheerful, kind, amazing people I know.”

I’d heard that sentiment many times, and the same thoughts always came to mind: you think you were surprised? How do you think I feel? He didn’t know what those words did to me.

I looked at the car door to hide my eyes. “I should head inside.”

“If you ever want to talk, I’m here.”

“Thanks.” If I ever find the words, I’ll tell you.

6. Send cards, emails and text messages

Mum was having a good day. Well, a good hour. Which was lucky, because it coincided with the hour we were visiting.

The room was small and simple, with sunlight streaming in from hazy white curtains. It reminded me of a school camp dorm, but there was only one bed.

“I get calls. On my mobile.” Mum was sitting up on her bed. She got tired quickly if she moved around a lot. Her eyes were dark, and her skin grey, but she looked better than she had a month or so ago.

I felt a wave of annoyance wash over me. “I told them not to.”

“They say I’m not worthless, but then I’ll forget they called. I write it down so I can remember, but sometimes I’m too tired.”

“You’re not worthless.”

She smiled wanly. “Thank you. I’ll forget you said that by tonight.”

I didn’t know what to say. Mum’s “good hour” only lasted thirty minutes, and we left early.

7. Offer meals and food

The knock at the door was gentle; unobtrusive. Unlike that shrill, demanding ringing. It was dark and we were sitting down to dinner in front of the gloriously mindless square box that flashed pictures and sound. Dad stumbled his way to the door.

I didn’t know her name at the time, but I know it now: Mel. Tall Mel, willowy with sun-kissed skin and hair, and a sunny smile. My brother and I crept over, like moths to light. But cautious, always cautious.

“Sorry, I’ve disturbed your dinner, haven’t I.”

You could see right into the lounge room from the door.

“I should’ve come by earlier.” She held up two white cardboard boxes. “I was driving past the shops, and ducked in to buy a pie for my family. Then I thought I’d buy one for you, too.” She gave the boxes to Dad. “Sorry, I really should’ve come earlier.”

“No. We’ll – uh… tomorrow’s dinner. We’ll eat it tomorrow.”

“In the other box is a cheesecake. I didn’t know which flavour you like, so I got berry. Everyone likes berry, don’t they?”

We did, at least.

“Oh, and I baked some biscuits for the kids. They’re nothing special, though.”

Dad glanced at us and I came forward to take the offering. The Tupperware box could’ve been diamond, and the round mouthfuls inside gold. They were uneven, each with a unique print: a message, a testament of the time they were formed, and the hands that did the forming.

“Mum always made biscuits,” I said, cradling the treasure in my hands.

“Oh, I’m sure mine aren’t anywhere as good as Lisa’s.”

“They’re perfect,” I said.

8. Keep in touch over time

Initially the phone rang about three times a day, more on weekends. Then it was once a day. Then three times a week. I knew them only as “Mum’s friend so-and-so” and “Mum’s acquaintance such-and-such.” Then once a fortnight. How many different people called? Somewhere between three and fifty.

Then one day I realised it hadn’t rung in a while. I was relieved. Then I was angry. Mum was back. Dad had convinced the doctors that home was a less stressful environment, and they’d agreed to release her. She was back, but not really. She barely left her room. And the phone didn’t ring.

 

 

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