May is Mental Health Month. How is it more than half over already? Before it’s too late, I want to write about my mother, who’s been schizophrenic all my life. Her brain disease first seriously manifested itself during childbirth, and after she hit menopause and my father died, she experienced a drastic decline. She’s now 83 years old, and although our visits are draining, I treasure her strength and her love. Growing up, I felt alienated even from close friends, as if leading a double life: the difficult one at home that I never spoke of for fear of stigmatization, and the public one I led at school. Still, my mom brought me up in a nurturing home. She taught me to paint with watercolors, she sang and read to me at bedtime in her low, Russian-accented voice, and awakened in me a kinship with nature as she showed me what grew in her beautiful garden.
The yard was a marvel of juniper and pine buffering us from the elements, of fragrant cherry trees that resembled cotton candy when in bloom, of pink and white oleander that grew tall at our back fence, and purple wisteria that draped around our house. Mom taught me how to gently coax seedlings out of their starter pots, lower them in the ground and water them so they thrived. Every autumn, she brought out the rakes and enlisted my help to gather the dank-smelling leaves that crunched under our feet. Despite the fact that I later resented this work – and grew more and more resentful as I approached my teenage punk years and began to rebel – as an adult I find myself returning to nature as if coming home. When I’m stressed or upset, a few moments’ retreat to this little plot of land soothes me like a balm. Now, if my mom has moments of lucidity, I share with her a story or a photo from the garden, a flower or a bird. She always says, “I am so happy that you are lucky enough to have a garden.” She’s right.
Note: Saturday, May 21 is the annual NAMI Walks fundraiser in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. For information on this or other services, check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness. This nationwide organization offers amazing advocacy and educational resources, and has been of invaluable help to me and my mother, among countless others.