It started almost imperceptibly, after she had unexpectedly become the single parent of too many kids. Small breaks for contemplation over a cigarette and a cup of coffee lasted longer. Moments of introspection lengthened into mornings of mulling and afternoons of inaction. She was letting go of exercising her maternal obligations in favor of the internal occupation of thinking about them. Hard decisions, bad memories and fears plied for her attention alongside hopes, fantasies and recollections - and ruminating on these had become an addiction. She thought incessantly on ways to keep her family safe and well cared for with only one parent. She was their mother, it was her obligation.
As some of her brood got older and more able to handle the daily routine without her help, she had more time to think about how she shouldn’t let the children do all the work. The children would say her name three or four times before she would hear it. Her irritation was evident in the sharp snap of her reply or the slicing redirection of her gaze from the window to the intrusive child. Alternatively, she’d often let a child sit on her lap while her hand would gently stroke their arm or hair in time to some invisible metronome. They thought of her as a loving mother because of those moments. That she would, perhaps once a week, sit them all down for lengthy and repetitive lectures on How to Be a Good Child in the Face of Adversity, showed them that she cared.
The smaller children figured out that if they waylaid her coming out of the bathroom or getting back from a cigarette run, they might get to occupy her attention for a short while before she was drawn inexorably back to the chair. There were more and more days that she would answer the older children’s questions, but in a dazed manner, as if she’d been struck on the head recently or was just coming out of a faint and wasn’t sure where she was at the moment. There were nights when she never made it to bed. One of the smaller children would make a midnight potty trip and see the glow of her cigarette reflecting off the windowpane, and a pang of loss would clench their heart. Misunderstanding that pang for fear, they’d hurry back into bed and hold tightly to their bears or blankets until falling back to sleep. She had begun to slightly frighten some of the children, but she was unaware of it. For her part, when she noticed a small child padding from the bathroom at night, she was wracked with guilt over the state of their sad little lives, or the fact that they didn’t call to her for help anymore. She didn’t understand why she’d lost them, so she would contemplate that as well.
The school officials dealt endlessly with behaviorally difficult children and parents, so her quiet and unobtrusive family was somewhat of a relief, regardless of the fact she never showed up to the children’s concerts or conferences. It was all too easy for her to continue, even intensify, her introspective ways. The eldest children graduated but continued living at home to “help out”. They’d hold family meetings and discuss important matters by her chair, more out of respect than necessity because they rarely could break her reverie. The children took good care of her - fixing her food, which would often sit for hours unnoticed unless someone took away the coffee and cigarettes , at least until she’d get a few grudging bites in her mouth. Only the braver children would take away her necessities though, risking the cuss words hissed through clenched teeth, flashing eyes and invariably repentant tears at having been mean to one of her children. Years passed by and nothing much changed except the children’s height.
It started almost imperceptibly, after she had stopped caring for herself altogether. Through the years, small trinkets and fresh flowers had often been left on the table by her chair from this or that child, as tokens of their love. But now that she needed her personal hygiene attended to, the children made small changes. Increasingly, she was dressed in more colorful houserobes and wore more jewelry. She had become a sort of living icon, enshrined on her chair with her cigarette smoke curling through the air like incense. They brushed her hair until it gleamed, and applied soft make-up to her wan cheeks. They kept her safe and well cared for between them all. She was their mother, it was their obligation.