In her final hours, mum's death sleep grew louder. Morphine lost control of her body. Murmurs rose into a harrowing whine, swelling with each unconscious breath.
Whether she had fled hours ago, or had been aware and trapped in her body, she was gone now.
There is a pond full of life, fed by a brook and watched from a wooden bridge by a young mother and her child. It is so far away you will not find it on this world, but it exists all the same in the truth of another.
Amanda Johnson was born August 26, 1953, in Long Newton, England, the second of three girls (Jeanette older, and Sandra younger), with an older brother, Crosby. Their beloved mother, Kathleen, died of cancer when they were all teenagers, turning their lives upside-down. Their father, Bob Johnson, was a professional drummer who often performed in smoky clubs in Newton Aycliffe, the planned community where they settled. He remarried, but only outlived his first wife for a few years.
I never knew her parents, but Mandy was my mum and told me as much about them.
As soon as she was able, Mandy generated piles of drawings and stories, illustrating whatever she took an interest in. She led Sandy in exploration without fear, the pair gathering from nature all that they could take home to study, to then lose themselves in imagination. "And what we didn't have, she would create," Sandy says.
Life in the Johnson household was fun-filled but chaotic, with "wild but often neurotic energy sizzling between parents and children," as Sandy describes. As the girls grew older, this dynamic became troubled and vaguely infantilizing, the children expected to play their roles in a whirlwind of activity.
But in it all, a wealth of fond memories: Mandy picking all the currents out of the buns rising on the range, triggering more conflict between her and the more streetsmart Jeanette. Mandy's terrier, Judy, was another note of anarchy in their boxy, flat-roofed house, spilling out onto the grassy estates behind Stephenson Way.
Kathleen worked at Union Carbide, a foreign investor summoned to anchor the new town's sprawling industrial park. Her dark hair and pale eyes are immortalized in one of Mandy's largest canvasses. Bob worked on locomotives as a young man, but heart trouble forced the more sedentary lifestyle of a musician. Even so, they each smoked a pack a day.
Kathleen was from a landed family, the Elstobs, but a substantial inheritance evaporated a generation or two earlier, and they grew up poor in the countryside of County Durham in northeast England. As soon as he could, Bob moved his family from the tenant farms around Stockton to Newton Aycliffe, a post-war housing project whose modernist charms soon faded.
"The children were probably fed myths about how the family had been hard done by," says AA Beschizza, my father and Mandy's partner through the late 1970s and 1980s.
With a wife and four children to look after in the early 1960s, Bob turned down a touring gig with UK light entertainment legend Max Bygraves which might have brought a degree of fame. "There was a lot of disappointment and resentment," AA says. "Constraints and restraints."
Bob would come home with signed photos of the celebrity singers he'd backed for the night, Sandy recalls, only to put them in the top drawer and just leave them there. He'd talk about them as if they were his friends.
"My father was narcissistic but fun," Sandy says. "Mum suffered from all the tension and pressure. It's a common story — families don't quite get it right, they aren't there for their children all the way. Loving but unintentionally negligent."
As she entered her teens, Mandy donned modish clothes and payday was always shopping day, for dresses, coats, "anything that looked nice and was top fashion," says Jeanette. "I think she was the first person to wear wedges, clobbing up the path into the house thinking she was Twiggy!"
When her first real boyfriend, Richard, emigrated to South Africa, the hell they raised in parting was legendary. But now, even the photos of them together are a dimming recollection, the prints lost. AA recalls them taken in the Lake District, her siblings in Teesdale.
What blossomed, though, was Mandy's vivid imagination, her gift for describing unusual things with phenomenal intensity. Everyday things, too.
"Every piece of paper had a drawing of a horse," Jeanette says. "Even dad's newspaper would have them all around the edges. She was mad about the horse."
They went riding and helped look after the real things, but it was to the horse of her imagination that Mandy stayed true.
"She drew it with chalk on the side of the shed," Sandy says. "She was always drawing, and always drawing the horse. To her maybe the horse was real. Maybe it was there."
Jeanette and Mandy had a fractious relationship, and Sandy reports no real parental mediation in the pair's battles beyond shouting the two down.
"A brilliant artist," Jeanette says. "But she was clever too. It went unnoticed."
In the "here and now" of family life, Sandy says, Mandy would get knocked down. But out in the countryside "she could let go and be with whatever was. She wanted to become the things she saw and let others see what she saw. That was the best of Mandy."
Cros, the elder brother, remembers family trips to the Scilly isles, off the Cornwall coast; he fears he has lost the 8mm film from 1966 he inherited decades earlier. On that perfect holiday, Mandy would have been 13 or 14 years old. A steam train from the north to London. Then onto Penzance, in the far west, and finally the famous Scillonian ferry boat to the islands. Most tourists were daytrippers who would retreat to the mainland at dusk, but the Johnsons rented a house, offering the children endless hours to explore the archipelago.
Cros remembers days in the sunshine by the river Tees.
"Mandy painted the bridge there, an aquaduct, from memory, years later," he told me. "Those later paintings, it's your mam's memories. They were her. That's what she was. That's what she did."
At 15, Mandy's talent earned her a write-up in the local newspaper, posing before a canvas. Her eyes engage not the camera but something out of shot, something distant.
"She could be sarcastic sometimes," Sandy recalls. "She loved words and when she got it right, she was very funny. She could sing Marlene Dietrich—come out of her shell by characterizing her. I would shrink into the background if things got hot, but she had this pattern of quiet happiness in her world. But it became a habit. It was too difficult for her to express or say how she felt. You had to read her. But that was true of the whole family. No one listened, so everyone read."
Mandy's paradoxical gregariousness extended to confrontation, a willingness to tick people off, to bring out words that made people think. Sandy remembers her saying "'Don't be supercilious' — none of us used that word!"
But she became protective of Sandy, too, taking responsibility for her little sister's wellbeing. "I think of that and it could make me cry, because she needed that too."
Mandy and her father would read together for hours, sharing a sofa in the sitting room with piles of books. Sandy watched intently without participating. Though he read widely, Bob didn't want his children to pursue schooling. His poor background was wedded to an anger about educated people—and a fascination with subjects alien to the academy, strange things about UFOs or past lives and lost continents.
"I remember Mandy once saying that when she had an idea about something, it would then become real."
Kathleen's sudden illness and death devastated the girls. Without their mother serving as its fulcrum, the chaotic merry-go-round of their home lives came to a halt, sending them all in different directions.
"It happened overnight. I couldn't understand it," Crosby says. "It was a problem with her neck… and it turned out to be cancer of the glands. She was taken into hospital for chemotherapy … in them days it was very primitive. Her hair fell out, and in six weeks she was gone. We were all there, clung on together."
"Everything split up after Mam died. Everything went wild."
Not long after Kathleen's death in 1969, Bob remarried on the rebound. Jeanette and Cros had left home. And Mandy wed also, for only a short time, to a man with the surname Pybus.
"Can't remember if we went to the wedding," Cros says. "Might just have been quick, like, in a registry office. It didn't go well."
Described as a flashy salesman who would spend time late at night drinking and talking sales with his boss in the kitchen, Pybus was accused of abusing Mandy; the police were called on at least one occasion and she suffered a miscarriage in the early stages of pregnancy.
"She was in a very lost state after mum died," Sandy says. "There was nothing to hold onto. She was very upset. A few screaming escapades. Sheer frustration… She was quite romantic, and it didn't go that way."
One night, Sandy and Mandy walked in the dark, from one pool of streetlight to the next. Mandy drew up, transfixed by something she saw that Sandy could not: a flock of doves flying around a sodium lamp, crowding it like moths.
Mandy soon escaped; she and Pybus were separated before a year was out. (I learned of this early relationship when I ordered a copy of my birth certificate as an adult, and found upon it the unexpected name "Amanda Pybus." I tracked down various men with the same name, but none would confirm who among them was briefly her husband.)
In nearby Durham, Sandy met a student, Mike Bennett, and the two were soon wed. At the wedding, Mandy met AA, my father, one of Mike's friends.
"She would not submit herself to others' control, least of all academically," recalls AA, who had recently graduated and was working on doctoral studies. The four of them—two overschooled southerners and two council-house girls from up north—shared houses in Esh Winning and later in the suburbs of Bristol.
Mike would challenge the women intellectually. Mandy was unimpressed.
"She would never permit him to flabbergast her," says Sandy. "I would try to meet him on his own ground. But she was true to herself. She found her business at a very early age: there isn't a past, there isn't a future, there is only now."
My parents moved to London in January 1976, leaving Mike and Sandy to simmer out west. AA had quit his doctoral studies; for a while they lived in Battersea, on Lavender Hill, where AA dad owned a Victorian rowhome off Clapham Common.
He got a job as a buyer, and Mandy as a personal assistant at a small publisher. In one letter to her Aunt Dot, back home, Mandy wrote that AA was a "decent steady chap" and that she was finally in a safe place.
My parents drifted together and never married. From the things they held back from one another I sense that there was never a deep sharing of experience or alignment of mutual purpose, no spark of apperception.
They decided to have a baby. Mandy quit work and threw herself into preparation for motherhood, reading Dr. Spock, Sheila Kitzinger and Penelope Leach. She buried herself in books and the reading material inched along from natal care to other subjects.
"She retreated from the world too soon," AA says. "There was always this fascination with books about UFOs, gods as astronauts, pyramid secrets and all kinds of things I listened to but couldn't take seriously."
I was born in 1978; photographs show happy days out, to Kew Gardens and St. James Park. But Mandy suffered from the baby blues and sought solitude in our Battersea apartment.
"She wouldn't go out with you for walks in the buggy up the common; I'd go with you alone," AA says. "Next door were student doctors-one of them mentioned to me that she was speaking to herself."
In October, a few months after I was born, her father Bob died. His second wife was so distraught that the daughters finally took pity upon her.
AA's career took off and we moved several times while I was a young child. Mandy loathed the smarmy pitchwork of London's late-'70s real estate agents. The running joke of it, AA wonders in retrospect, was a sign of feeling under threat.
She set out (with startling rigor and AA's help) to tracing her family's genealogy, hunting churchyards for gravestones, linking each life back to another. Some spectacular hits turned up in the bloodlines, including Grace Darling and a notorious 16th century murderer. She somehow found her way past the Dissolution of the Monasteries to medieval times, each generation a little less concrete than its children.
Eventually, my father heard Mandy talking to herself too. But she wasn't talking to herself; she was talking to her dead mother.
I rememeber the stacks of thick-textured paper, the artwork and notebooks. I remember our London apartment being almost empty before a move, her hairdryer the last thing still plugged in, dropped on the wood floor amid the fuss. I watched transfixed as the element glowed red in the casing, brighter and brighter until it tripped and went dim.
I walked with her in Plashet Park, a block of greenery in London's East End near our home on Hilda Road. I remember looking down a long hillside street (surely not in East London), the marvel of it slowly turning up in the distance, the sun glinting off of distant glass and metal.
I remember that I used to remember more.
When my dad got a job in Sussex, a leafy chalk-hilled region so ancient its name predates the shires, we moved to Worthing, a faded resort town on its coast.
Our small brick rowhome on Ham Road, backed by elderberry bushes looming over an old flint wall, was about a mile from Worthing's downtown area and sat at the end of its promenades. It was a perfect starting point for a beachside walk to the pier, and my father and I walked it countless times.
I made new friends and we wandered the streets of east Worthing, sunny and languid, through the eighties. The great storm of '87 left cars parked a half-mile inland pockmarked with pebbles. For weeks each year, vast sheets of kelp smothered the sand, crawling up to the beach huts and fishing boats.
We had Prue, a black-and-white cat, for as long as I remember, and got Glen, a rough collie puppy, when I was five—after a brief misadventure with a mad rescue dog, Snoop.
At home Mum painted endlessly. She sold it off the walls whenever someone came over. "Especially annoying when it was one I liked," says AA.
Sometimes I'd be dragged along when she went shopping at Debenhams. In the `80s, they laid out the store by marking pathway outlines on the carpet with tape; looking back it seems comically, cheaply British.
She'd stay home, though, when my father and I went on adventures in the woods and hills of the South Downs.
My fondest childhood memories were formed at home with Mum or on these trips with Dad. But I understand now how rarely my parents were together in these memories, and that Mum's withdrawal into herself bled into dangerous introspection.
Back in Bristol, Sandy's relationship with Mike ended, and she moved out to her own flat in Minchinhampton.
We visited once; it was great getting to hang out with my little cousin, Sam, and the pair of us, wee children, shared a bathtub as the parents caught up. But things soon went awry. An argument between Mandy and Sandy exploded into the living room.
"She got cross when I was washing up, with the clattering of it," Sandy recalls. "Like an echo of something from the past that she couldn't quite square up."
This was one of many family visits to end abruptly with Mum's negative reaction to something done or said: a perceived threat or infringement. My memories are fragmentary; I remember being ready to act as ringbearer on an uncle's wedding, but something happened and we returned to our coastal isolation.
"If you challenged Mandy, you had to tread carefully," Sandy says. "She wouldn't be willing to talk. Growing up with her I learned to go with it."
Mum was never mean or cruel. But she was often distant and withdrawn. I learned to take care of my own emotional needs. I was extroverted, boisterous; perhaps with an edge to it, as I got older.
In her paintings, though, was a world she could share with me, if not explore together. She showed me how to mix watercolors, to lay washes, to draw and mask.
Mum sought therapy and memories of abuse were evoked during sessions, but the nature of the therapy cast doubt upon the recovered experiences.
"I remember her ringing me and saying she'd gone to see a hypnotist," Sandy says. "She said something about our mother, that she'd tried to smother her. Our mother was neurotic but … I don't think so."
Though also skeptical, AA was haunted by another of Mandy's recollections, an ambivalent memory from childhood: Kathleen in the kitchen of their home in Aycliffe, coldly, aggressively hacking at veggies, the metal clattering against the plates, unaware of her observer.
"It impressed upon me this an idea of deep frustration and anger with life," AA says. "Yet Mandy remembered this affectionately … Kathleen seemed at times to be almost beatified in her recollections."
He was also unsettled by how my mother would scratch the side of the bed at night.
"It had something to do with the marriage to Pybus," AA recalls. "There was something unfathomable about it. I'm not sure if it's something he did. It was like she was doing it to… when I start thinking about it, I overlay it with my own story. It's as if there was more going on in her head that she was not prepared to talk about, and the scratching was her way of trying to communicate about it."
Each morning Dad headed off to Ciba-Geigy in Horsham, a half-hour drive, and I headed off to school, leaving Mum home alone. One evening, Mum was quieter than usual; eventually, she told my dad that earlier in the day, a man had knocked at the door to ask her for a sandwich.
"She must have known or suspected it wasn't the right thing to do," AA recalls. "He came back again another time, and she said, not today. Did she give the sandwich out of sympathy or fear? How can we know?"
Until then, AA never really caught on to the paradoxical mix of suspicion and inappropriate trust woven through Mum's interactions with others—and of course I remained unaware. She got a job in a department store in 1988, but it only lasted two weeks. Mum was inordinately disturbed by her supervisors' close eye on her from the outset, as AA recalls, but stuck with it long enough to be sent to a training session. He drove her to a rendezvous point, where a coach was scheduled to pick up new staff to be whisked off for the day, but Mandy seemed suddenly hesitant about joining up.
"She made me park at a distance from the coach, so that she could see yet not be seen," AA says. "I recognised this as weird at the time and discussed it with her, but it was easier to go along with her packing work up."
Still, we went on breaks, visiting Sandy in the west country; Jeanette and her carpenter husband Jeff up north, where my cousins were inspirationally misbehaved; Crosby and old family friends. Jeanette's relationship with Jeff was tempestuous and soon finished. Just as Mandy resented AA's parents, Jeanette disliked Jeff's.
At some point, a school counselor determined that I was learning-disabled. In art class, I had been unable to draw my house and family to the satisfaction of teachers. This suggestion infuriated my parents, who perhaps sensed it might be intimately keyed to things subtly awry at home. Though my father was satisfied that what I had done was simply an abstract way of tackling the assignment, and insulated me from the consequences, it was one disappointment among many, and insidiously reinforced the judgments hidden in laughter at my antics. My mother, growing protective to the point of possessiveness, was left feeling more threatened and isolated than ever.
"You were a bright boy, but something was off," AA recalls. "I was astonished at the implied suggestion that we should do something about your behaviour because you wouldn't stop still, or because you led the class off on a spider hunt. Outdoor play has since become very fashionable! But your mum got it in her mind that you were in fact a 'gifted' child, and wanted to explore special schools."
AA wasn't so keen. Nor her when she found out the distances involved.
"She didn't want to be controlled, but she was very loving," AA says. "All these diagnoses seem to unburden us parents of responsibility."
We went on holidays to the Isle of Wight and Bournemouth, regions with enigmatic wooded coastlines, and walking with my parents down the gulleys and chines remain among my most vivid memories of childhood, of Mum.
On a trip to Treuddyn, where Cros operated a quarry machinery business, I was hit by a car on Mount Snowdon and suffered a nasty head injury. We'd driven out to the mountain, amid dreary Welsh weather, and were all set for a classically disappointing British daytrip. On a stop halfway up the peakside, though, I chanced across a cave—in memory there are glistening stalagmites and stalactites in an enchanting overhang, waiting to be found by those who stray just a few yards from the obvious path.
I ran, without thinking, to tell my mum, who had stayed in the car as my father and I explored. I dashed into the road, fixed upon our Vauxhaull Nova on the other side, where my mum sat oblivious in the passenger seat, looking over the crag. I called to her but she didn't hear me. I heard the screech of tires and turned to see headlights and the dark glass of a windshield emerging from the gloom. I tried to jump back, but it was too late. I don't remember the impact. Dazed and sideways I saw car after car pulling over, then blood on my father's hands as he carried me to the roadside. Someone wrapped me in a foil sheet. An ambulance arrived. I remember the hospital in Bangor, and a tutting doctor's unenthusiastic application of stitches in the top of my head.
My parents' relationship deteriorated.
The downs above Worthing are a patchwork of fields, villages and the ghostly ramparts of neolithic hill forts, a Britain long reclaimed by chalk and turf. I accompanied my father on country walks, soon too old to sit on his shoulders, armed with Ordnance Survey maps but no idea where we might head.
My dad and I hopped onto buses and off the trails, into the bluebell-infested woods between Worthing and Arundel, whose magic is to be spooky in sunlight yet welcoming in darkness. England's climate and wildlife are well-behaved, so it's safe to wander; you'll rarely go more than a mile in any direction without hitting a footpath, bridleway or hedge.
One late spring day we picked aimless through Clapham or Wepham Wood to stumble from the thicket into an odd patchy clearing, full of brambles. Walking into the sunlight, I noticed that the place was full of berry bushes. The abundance there was profound; it seemed like we'd stumbled upon a secret place. We were surrounded by an infinitude of glinting black and purple fruit for jam and madewine—or for scoffing on the spot—and it was ours for the picking.
We returned to Worthing and insisted mum join us, returning with bags and hampers and anything we could to carry the harvest. She was enchanted by the scene, which reminded her of her own childhood days spent out in Woodside farm, the countryside of her early childhood. "I'll take you there, one day," she said.
For a day, everything was serene and embracing. A reminder that nature has something special for all of us and will contrive to provide it with such generous and uncanny cunning that it will seem planned in advance.
"That dear old fence," Mum said. She wanted it replaced, but Dad thought it was fine. "AA and his dear old dilapidated fence!"
That was funny, but on evenings and weekends, their arguments were less amusing. I don't remember the details. Just the song of their voices, pleading and angry. The confrontations grew worse. In one incident, she smashed his spectacles; in another, she tore up books.
I was about nine or ten, alternatively sympathetic to one or the other, picking up a weird protectiveness of my own, triggered by the emotional landscape before me. Who was sad, who was angry, who filled the victim role and who the antagonist? These phases of identification might last for a few days at a time then shift.
"She was often on edge, boiling up," AA says. "Your mum and I drifted into being together. For thirteen years! But if your mum trapped herself in a safe place she plotted her escape."
Mum took me for a visit to her hometown in October 1988, and AA recalls a letter she had written to family asking about the possibility of moving to the old farmers' tithe cottages outside Stockton. My father set about looking for a new job, but none of the options were satisfactory. There were warnings, AA says, and negotiations. She suggested two apartments adjacent to one another.
"I felt threatened by that," AA says, "by the thought that that could be a solution to whatever our problems were."
The day they split, I thought it was because of a book.
We'd just had a day out at a book fair in Lancing, one of the cemented-over villages on the Sussex coast. I found an unabridged copy of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, having recently enjoyed a Ladybird picturebook version my mum gave me. My father buying the thick, literary original precipitated the final and conclusive argument.
They yelled in their bedroom as I waited at the foot of the stairs. When they found silence I felt a rush of happiness, but then dad walked grimly downstairs past me and out the door.
I didn't hold myself responsible for long, but truth told I've given Verne a wide berth since.
Life became strange and dreamy. Dad visited every weekend, taking me to get fish and chips in Brighton and hang out for a day. I was happy and enjoyed time with friends, but there were fights at school: I once got pulled out of class over something, a few days before we moved away, and cried. The details escape me.
They sold the house and Mum took me back to Newton Aycliffe. She wanted to reconnect with her childhood, to the people she knew and a past she'd never let go of, to an idea of herself free of others' expectations.
We did some rounds up there visiting people she knew years earlier. We saw Jeanette and her new husband on a few occasions, though, and I got to know my cousins again. Sandy organized a small exhibition of her paintings, but it didn't arouse enough interest for a repeat and precipitated another cooling of their relationship.
Our library at home was a mix of National Geographic, wildlife guides and offbeat secrets and pseudoscience, from Jungian mythographies and Golden Boughs to esoteric cosmologies and fairy bestiaries. But as I approached my teens, she warned me off the "occult," calmly but sternly, and her own interests became more abstract. She hovered in a peculiarly English space, where an immediate, even scoffing materialism dances with a deep connection to liminal worlds.
After we settled into our new home, Mum and I went on a trip to Crete, my first time abroad. There was a tour itinerary, but we overslept and missed day one, so simply drifted our way through the week, wandering together through Hersonnisos's olive-lined backroads and bustling beachfront verandahs. She'd long dreamed of the sun and the landscape, the whitewashed walls and ochre pottery.
From then she painted watercolors of nature almost exclusively—landscapes and animals and birds and bees and butterfies—and Mediterranean idylls.
We went to the ruins of the palace at Knossos, where all that's left is the foundations, and from high up you can discern the plan of the whole complex. I said Mum, remember when I was in trouble at school because I couldn't draw our house right? Well, I was drawing it like this, as if from the sky. And she looked at me a while and started crying.
When I was 12 she suffered a breakdown. I heard strange talk and went downstairs to find her talking in voices.
The kitchen was a dim yellow, a chain-smoked mist around everything, one burner on to warm the room and art stacked weirdly and neatly in a corner.
She moved around the room, addressing her ancestors, pushing them back to the astral plane. I can't remember how I knew that's what she was doing but in some way the ritual qualities of the scene made it apparent. Confusing at first, it soon took on a greater intensity and an unfamiliar mantle of danger.
AWAY! AWAY! AWAY! AWAY!"
The next thing I remember I was at Dad's house, 300 miles away, and Mum had been taken away. She was resting, I was told, and was told little more.
Looking back, I'm frustrated that I can only describe this from my own perspective; I can certainly imagine it from hers, but her viewpoint is locked away in a word that many people used to place it: isolation. To craft a facsimile of it would obscure something irreducible and inexplicable about its cause. Something that shares nothing in common with storytelling yet drowns in the murky human instincts that storytelling emerges from.
I stayed with my Dad a few weeks. Eventually Mum was ready and we went to see her. Mum was calm and didn't talk much. We went home to Aycliffe and Dad headed back off down south. Then things were quiet. There were no more incidents or episodes.
There was a new barrier between us, calm and mysterious. And it remained to the end. As I slipped into a reverie of adolescence, I came to think that I had betrayed her (though not at her suggesion) by being fearful of her interactions with ancestors. Even if in the light of day it made no sense.
She did her best. She cared for me as I grew up, yet there was always that vague barrier, cold and invisible. It makes no sense and it never did. We drifted apart. We disconnected.
I left to live with my dad when I was about turning 16. Glen, our rough collie, died a few days before I left. He'd slowed down on walks but I never realized it was time; he was just nine or ten years old. He lay on his side in the yard and couldn't move. Mum called the vet and there was nothing to do but kill him. The vet administered an injection and Mum and I cried over Glen's long silky fur as his breathing slowed and his eyes went dead. After a few minutes the vet quietly reached over and picked him up and put him in the boot of his car and drove off.
Mum was alone.
I visited a few months later, stayed for a few days; we barely spoke at all and our conversations were abrupt and confusing.
Lurking upstairs as she painted, I chanced across a diary, stashed amid history magazines in the extra bedroom, a room overflowing with books and her artwork. There were few entries, all dating to the mid-1980s, a decade earlier; the desire to snoop swelled in me, thirsty for answers. But there was nothing much there. It was an experiment abandoned; no answers, no clues.
I asked why she didn't work, maybe got out there, hang out with people. She was upset by the question, but silent when I asked why.
I went to university and got married. I moved to America. I wrote but replies soon ceased. I sent postcards and birthday greetings. I phoned a few times, the intervals between calls stretching to years. She talked about the FBI. About black magic. She didn't want me to come visit. I tried to press it. She was unwavering. "No," she said. "Stay away."
My granddad made a suggestion: get to know a neighbor of Mum's and have them keep an eye on her. It seemed such an odd suggestion that I ignored it.
One time in 2011 or so, after a particularly difficult call, I told her I loved her and never called again.
Crosby visited her, I later learned, giving her a portable heater and some money. He visited again but she refused to come to the door. Sandy reported similar interactions.
"Calling Mandy I'd sometimes catch her light voice," Sandy says, "but some times more angry, unable to articulate."
They wish they'd known more too. We all do. But we didn't know. She kept so much to herself.
I always thought I'd have time to figure out Mum. When she hit 60 and didn't reply to a birthday card, I checked out the house on streetview and wondered. It needed a lick of paint. I was well off by that point and wondered if I shouldn't insist on visiting, just to see, to make sure appliances were in good nick and the roof tiles in place, the flues clean and the larder stocked.
And maybe to talk again, to talk about everything. But I felt unwelcome, and feared more than anything meeting the same old barrier, cool and mystifying.
"I would love to have seen her before she went away from us," Crosby wrote. "But I couldn't get near."
The last time he spoke with her, another too-brief call, she interrupted to say she had to go.
"Where are you going, Mandy?" he recalled asking her.
"Out for fish and chips," she said.
"You never realize it's happening until it's too late," Cros told me. "I still think lots and lots about her."
The call came on a Friday in late January, 2015. The caller introduced themselves as Anna, a nurse in Darlington, and asked me who I was, and if I knew Amanda Johnson.
I said I was her son.
"She's very poorly," Anna said. "I'm afraid she's here in hospice. It's cancer."
The time I supposed I had was gone. I called my dad, and then my wife Heather and I sped to the Pittsburgh USCIS to get a passport stamp: my green card had expired as I waited for U.S. citizenship paperwork to be processed. We arrived just before it closed for the weekend and, hearing my story, they issued me on the spot with a temporary visa that ensured legal return.
We rushed to the airport and boarded a flight to New York, then London, then Newcastle; 10 hours of fear and awful anticipation. At Newcastle we grabbed a taxi. Familiar roads led past Aycliffe and into Darlington, to St. Teresa's hospice, an old building near the hospital. The front desk, unmanned, the irrational panic after ringing the bell, standing there waiting to find out if she was still alive.
Someone came and sent us up a short flight of stairs. I saw a door and knew it was hers and pushed through it.
Mum lay yellow and emaciated on the bed, her mouth open and gasping. But her eyes were still her own and she smiled when I said hello and she saw me.
"You came! You came all that way," said Mum.
My father was there, sat on a chair by the bed with a styrofoam cup, tired and drawn. I sat down by the bed and introduced my mum and Heather. They took a shine to one another.
"Why didn't you tell anyone, Mum?"
There was no answer.
"I lost a bit of weight too," I said. "But I didn't take such drastic measures."
Heather said I had her eyes.
"I know," Mum said. "That's my boy."
"I have to keep him in line, box him around now and again," Heather said. Mum smiled and laughed again.
"That's what wives do," she said.
We reminisced about Crete and Glen and the berry patch. She drifted in and out of coherence as we talked; she'd close her eyes and mumble "anyway, anyway" over and over when fading out.
I rested my hand on hers and she smiled and said my name, and said she loved me. I said I loved her.
"The pain's terrible," she said.
A nurse adjusted the drug pump. After a little while mum slid into semiconscious quiet. She murmured and among the murmurs were questions about the afterlife.
Was she holding on, or waiting, or arranging? Was it luck to have arrived so soon before the end, just as she slipped back into the haze?
That evening, my father and his wife, Donna, headed to a hotel. Heather and I stayed in the same room as Mum, on a sleeper-sofa set up by the staff.
I listened in the dark to her slow breaths, the rhythm of her body in the final false sleep. Heather says I woke up with a start in the night, dreaming that none of it was real.
In the morning I saw it on her paperwork, neatly organized on the side of her bed. Her name, age, condition (carcinomatosis), and other key factors. There, in capital letters, next to a prescription for atypical antipsychotics, was something else, a diagnostic note:
Through swelling waves warmed by light, the day falls to darkness and her questions.
"She'd always had imaginings. Delusions. And she encouraged me to see them," Sandy says. "I remember her dragging me to shed and she said, you can see them, can't you see them? Fairies. I was three or four years old, she was about six or seven. But I didn't see that."
Mum's case worker, Michael, agreed to meet me. We had coffee at the Tescos in Newton Aycliffe, a huge Americanized discount store of the kind that simply did not exist in town when I was a kid.
He explained the nature and limits of Mum's mental illness. She visited fortnightly a clinic in Bishop Aukland for checkups and prescriptions. I learned that these prescriptions were most likely what caused the calmed, numbed change in personality I recall from my teens, after her "rest."
Michael explained how, in interactions, the worldview of someone suffering from paranoid schizophrenia can't be challenged by reason or argument. It's better, in helping people to lead the best lives they can, to accommodate their beliefs.
She explained to him her world. The voices. The Darkness in The South. The Fortress of Home. He checked in on her every few days and she let him in, bit by bit. At first, she only ever let him in the side door, to sit at the kitchen table, and then only in the spot closest to the exit. Eventually she let him fix a thing here and there in the room: a snarled blind, a loose chair leg.
But in late 2014, Michael said, she became less forthcoming. Early in the new year, he couldn't get a response at the door. She eventually relented, he said, and let him in.
"I'm sorry," she told him. "I'm just not coping."
He took her to the hospital and waited with her for hours in the cold light for tests.
The cancer was everywhere.
After a few days she slipped into a coma and they almost didn't send her to hospice. But she rallied and they did. At St. Teresa's still they could not get her to say anything about who she knew, who her family was. She was stubborn. Eventually she relented again, and gave them names.
Thank you, Michael. You weren't there in the last hours but I know that in her last days, you were her son.
The listed cause of death, carcinomatosis with unknown primary, occurs when you ignore the cancer you have until it spreads and overwhelms your entire body, and organs are patterned throughout with it, like an unbound fractal, and the doctors can't find the first iteration. But schizophrenia killed her.
Had I known, I wonder, perhaps the knowledge would have opened a way to her. When she told me not to visit, I might have seen it in another light. When phone conversations went wild, I might have understood why. But the more I look at the scant strange details of her life, the more I wonder if anything can be known about it at all.
AA suspected since at least the 1980s, but only found out when she died. Sandy was startled to hear the word, but seemed familiar with it in the context of her sister's life; she resents the thought that schizophrenia might define or label her. Cros and Jeanette both seemed ignorant of the diagnosis.
"I was too liberal in my understanding of mental illness," AA says. He'd noticed prescriptions, but mum was secretive about what they were for. "If I had recognized the problem I might have insisted on going with her to the doctors … she also saw quacks. Hypnotherapists, regression therapy, false memories. I would be trying to fix the damage they would add on top of everything."
The understanding AA speaks of is that of psychiatrists such as Rollo May, Viktor Frankl and R.D. Laing, who deconstructed the perceptions of sufferers and posed psychosis as way to make sense of trauma—particularly dysfuctional family dynamics. In an age when treatment of mental illness was carceral, even sadistic, Laing's existential approach was revolutionary for its humanism and empathy for patients. But it was also a scientific dead end, and it didn't help Mum.
She "always thought someone or something was against her," he adds.
AA approach to Mum's illness was defined by the relative isolation of our family life and his familiarity with outmoded models of mental illness, but also by his experience of her inappropriate behavior, of ambiguities that seemed to suggest cynical motives, her ultimate unwillingness to confide in him.
Her own family's approach was defined by their own knotted relationships, tangled all the way back to childhood.
Cleaning the house after all was said and done, I found mum's clozapine.
"We who live in the present can engage with each other, but there is no guarantee that we will tell each other the truth," my dad told me. "But we can try. I wonder if you've set up a windmill to tilt at for yourself, in that you can't engage with your Mum, and when she was alive it was and would have been increasingly difficult. There is the urge to reconstruct from the things she did and said, and then the wish to represent."
When I was young, Mum had a consuming desire to protect me; her possessiveness led to conflict with my father's parents, though the anecdotes I have heard are garbled. Like lost photos, themselves a simulation, everyone's memory is slightly different.
And she was affectionate, too, more than I think others know. She had a powerful idea of motherhood, animated by a sense that I was failed potential in others' eyes—but never her own, because she refused to accept their frame of reference, a pattern that defined her to the end.
The whispers and flickers that wove themselves into her from childhood inspired her but left her talent unfocused. She imparted the lesson that one's voice can be silenced by the voices of others within oneself.
I remember now her fleeting efforts to resume motherhood after her breakdown. I remember her unaffected blankness; maybe disassociation, but also efforts to reach out to me in moments of inspiration that make sense only in retrospect. The little things she did, everyday to others but rare surprises for me: snacks and funny drawings and conversations. I remember none in particular but see all of them in dreams as a wall of shimmering colored stones, lighting the path back through the dark of childhood, to the better place she imagined for both of us.
"To focus, to observe, to be with the world, to be here now," Sandy says of her talents. "The opposite of the label she has. To live in the now, that way, was her way of being in reality."
Mum died on February 1, 2015.
Back at her house, now in daylight, a cold truth sank in. Everything was gone. She'd stripped it bare, but for a few items of furniture.
Excepting a few faded, decorative examples on the walls, her artwork was missing. All her books and memories, letters and photos, even the diary, vanished. Carpets were torn up, leaving only rough pine. A few threadbare items of black clothing hung in her closet.
The second bedroom, once full of paintings and books and notebooks and photographs and old tapes, was empty. So was my bedroom, right down to the boards: not a chair remained. A few things were stacked in the downstairs toilet. She kept a few photographs, including one of myself and Heather that I'd sent years earlier.
She obliterated a lifetime of work.
Few clues point to where it went. I learned that mum was recently cited for flytipping, but I somehow managed to contact the municipal staff who'd pulled her rubbish bags out of a bush, and their dimming recollection was that it was just standard household trash. They'd have made a fuss if they'd found paintings, they thought. I toured the local thrift shops, called places that might sell art: no luck. I hold out hope that someone, somewhere, bought it from her. But I fear that in the darkness and paranoia of her last years, she found reason (or was told) to abandon it.
On a shelf in the house I grew up in and left, hidden between the few books that remained, we found a thick sketchbook, with a black buckram cover and dozens of heavyweight pages illustrated with watercolors, favorite quotes, stories of her childhood haunts. Trees and grassy fields and feasting squirrels and robins, transmission towers and medieval myths, metaphysical poetry, Merry England and continental cafes, a unique, strange, unfinished testament to her world.
For the last decade before her death, I thought that she was done with me, and ignorance kept me away. Now, beyond memories, her book is what I have left. It ends in a quote from the anarchist poet William Morris:
"I know a garden close,
Set thick with lily and red rose,
Where I would wander if I might,
From dewy dawn to dewy night,
And have one with me wandering."
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