I was twenty-four years old the first time I visited my mom in prison. I can’t remember what kind of car I drove to the facility, what I had for breakfast that morning, or what I wore. I don’t remember what I did afterwards – whether I was alone or with a friend. The details blur as in a dream one can’t recall, yet I will never forget my mother’s expression as she peered at me through the glass divider.
She looked stressed, disoriented and haggard. Always immaculately preserved, her hair showed grey roots I had never seen. Without make-up, her face seemed to have aged five or ten years, yet the body underneath the orange scrubs seemed fragile and childlike. Her gentle, Bambi like eyes darted back and forth, frightened. Depression was plastered on her face.
“Isn’t it terrible?” she kept repeating on the phone. I twisted the cord on my end of the receiver.
She was an apparition before me. I wanted to run as far away as possible. What the hell was I supposed to say? I stared back, willing compassion to be reflected in my eyes, yet my body was numb. I couldn’t feel any sensation in my heart. It too was in prison, locked behind bars.
Somehow the car made it back to my mom’s ex-husband’s house. I was staying with him for a few days, even though he and my mom divorced when I was eight. As a graduate student, I didn’t have the money to stay in a hotel or to rent a car. I had barely been able to afford the plane ticket for the visit, but the prison social worker had urged me to come. She said my mom was suicidal. They thought my presence would help. My mom was supposed to discharge two days after Christmas and they didn’t want her to make an attempt.
My love had never been enough to keep her from drinking. I had never been enough. How was my visit going to save her life?