Gayle Brandeis | Longreads | February 2018 | 12 minutes (3,027 words)
The Best of Times — March, 2007
The night before I was slated to fly to Atlanta to attend the biggest writing conference of the year, I was sideswiped by one of my vomiting episodes. These hit every few months — hours of intense abdominal pain that came and went like labor, followed by hours of vomiting that often led to a trip to the emergency room; this had been going on for the past 12 years, with no diagnosis. I didn’t want to miss the trip, but I was writhing around on the floor, and heaving into a large mixing bowl, and attempting to keep the anti-nausea suppositories up my ass long enough for them to kick in. I was chanting, “Help me, help me, help me” — words that always burbled from my mouth during these episodes. I wasn’t sure who this chant was aimed at — not my husband, who tended to shy away whenever the vomiting began — but my mom seemed to hear me in Oceanside, 100 miles from my home in Riverside, California. She called and was alarmed when I told her I still hoped to get on the plane the next morning.
“I’m coming with you,” she announced. Before I had the sense to stop her, she purchased a last-minute ticket for my flight. She picked me up in her red Intrepid shortly after sunrise, and I wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into. I pretended to sleep most of the flight.
My mom and I ended up having a surprisingly good time in Atlanta — we danced together, attended illuminating panels, had a blast with her cousin who lived in the area, ate copious amounts of boiled peanuts; she even made meaningful eye contact with Walter Mosley, who she was certain would one day become my stepfather. When our flight was delayed, she was miraculously relaxed and chatty, and I didn’t feel the need to pretend to sleep on the plane to avoid her. I was plenty sleepy by the time we arrived at the Las Vegas airport, though — it was 1 a.m., and we had missed our connecting flight. The airline gave us the option of staying in the airport and flying home in a few hours, or taking a hotel room and flying home late the next day.
I was so tired, I needed to rest my head on the ticket counter, but I looked up at her and said “Why don’t we stay? Maybe we could see a show or something.” It was the first time I could remember voluntarily extending a visit with her. Our relationship had always been complicated, but when she started to show signs of a delusional disorder 14 years earlier, our connection became all the more fraught.
“Let’s do it,” she said, and soon we were giggling in a free cab on our way to a free hotel room just off the strip. Our luggage was still on the plane, so we slipped into the plush white robes hanging in the closet and crashed for a few hours. We put our rumpled travel clothes back on after our showers, then ordered egg white and asparagus omelets with our free breakfast vouchers and set out to see how much Vegas we could pack into a day.
Quite a bit, it turned out. We hit the slots, my mom holding her hands out in front of her to gauge the energy of the different machines before she decided where to use her tokens; she ended up winning about $150, while I quickly lost the $20 I had allocated for myself to gamble. We got free tickets to see the Mac King show at Harrah’s, an afternoon magic/comedy act by a plaid-suited guy whose accent sounded a bit like her cousin Jim’s. The show opened with a recording of “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Clap Your Hands,” and I found myself clapping with vigor, amazed at how happy I was to be in this cheesy hotel theater with my mom, clapping with equal enthusiasm.
We had time for one more show before we needed to head to the airport, and decided to walk down the Strip to Wynn Las Vegas for Le Rêve, a Cirque du Soleil-type review where the round stage rises out of a pool that the performers dive into and swim around. The perfect show for my mom, who hadn’t learned to swim until she was 40 but now swam laps on a near daily basis.
“I’m coming with you,” my mother announced. Before I had the sense to stop her, she purchased a last-minute ticket for my flight. She picked me up in her red Intrepid shortly after sunrise, and I wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into.
We sat in the dark Vegas theater and watched beautiful bodies leap into and out of the water. She was entranced; she moved like a manatee when she swam, plodding slowly down her lane, but I knew she felt the way these swimmers looked whenever she was in the water — sleek and sinuous, dream-like as the name of the show.
When we got to the airport, and my mom told the woman at the ticket counter about our unexpected day in Vegas, the woman upgraded us to First Class with a wink. I never could have anticipated such a fun trip with my mom, but there we were, hugging and giddy, amazed at our good fortune. We sipped champagne all the way home.
The Worst of Times — July, 2007
When my mom suggested the whole family go to Vegas together a few months later, my sister was wary. She and her family came from Toronto to visit us in Southern California every July, when she had the month off from her midwifery practice and her 12-year-old daughter and art-teacher husband were off school. Some years they flew; others, like this one, they drove.
“You can drive home from there,” my mom said. “Everyone should see Vegas at least once.”
“We had a blast last time,” I said, surprised my sister wasn’t more enthused. We should have trusted her instincts and stayed home, just like my husband and 16-year-old son.
I set out for the three-and-a-half-hour drive from Riverside with my mom and 13-year-old daughter, feeling excited about the trip, but when we stopped to get gas and snacks and I came back to the car with a Vitamin Water, my mom looked at me as if I had shanked her.
“Do you know who owns Vitamin Water?” she asked.
I shook my head and started the car again.
“Gary Shansby.” She made it sound as if his name should be as recognizable and as abhorrent as Hitler’s, but it didn’t ring a bell.
“Gary Shansby, who your dad did business with in the ’80s,” she said.
I was pretty unaware of my dad’s business doings in the ’80s, or any decade; I only knew that I loved to go to his office when I was a little girl in the ’70s because companies always sent him free samples of things they hoped he would include in the Diners Club catalog or the inserts his company created for Standard Oil mailings. Once his office was full of huge bags of popcorn in neon colors — I remember especially liking the turquoise daiquiri flavor. The only business names I knew were Hilly, his partner, who once had a big hickey on his forehead from sticking a suction cup dart there, and Doris, their secretary, who would type up the short stories I wrote sitting at my dad’s big mahogany desk, sometimes using the drafting pencils from his drawer, whose tips were wrapped with string.
“Gary Shansby, who owns TSG Consumer Group,” she continued. I stared at the road, my shoulders inching up.
“TSG Group, whose minimum investment is 15 million dollars.”
Oh god. Not money talk. Please, not money talk.
“I’ve been sending subpoenas to see if your father has an account there,” she said.
Our relationship had always been complicated, but when she started to show signs of a delusional disorder 14 years earlier, our connection became all the more fraught.
Mom, please don’t do this, please don’t do this. She had sent subpoenas to so many people she thought were in cahoots with my dad, who she believed was hiding millions of dollars from us, and as soon as she received a response saying they had no idea who she or my dad were, it confirmed her suspicion that they were part of the conspiracy my dad had engineered.
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“Your father says he doesn’t know Gary Shansby,” my mom spit. “But if he doesn’t know him, how come his Rolodex is full of every officer of the TSG Consumer Group? Name, title, direct phone number — all of it! And he says he doesn’t know these people. It’s his mantra — ‘I don’t know these people; I don’t know these people.’ Like hell he doesn’t!”
“Mom,” I started, but I knew she wasn’t going to listen. She was fired up.
This is one of her episodes, I realized with a growing sense of dread. This is one of her fucking episodes and I’m stuck in a car with her for over three hours. Her delusional episodes were similar to my vomiting episodes — we’d sometimes go for months between them and I’d be lulled into a false sense of security that everything was okay, that I was healthy, that she wasn’t wracked with mental illness. These episodes shouldn’t have taken me by surprise over a decade into both, but they still did, every time.
I looked in the rearview mirror; my daughter was plastered to her seat, trying not to move a muscle.
I took a big glug of my Vitamin Water; “Revive,” it said on the bottle, but no grown-up version of Kool-Aid was going to revive me at this point. I was screwed.
“Could we not talk about this now?” I asked.
She pulled a manila folder out from her bag. “I have it all here,” she said, and I could see printouts from the internet with photos of Vitamin Water and Famous Amos cookies smeary from her inkjet printer. Her eyes had that look they got when she went “off,” her pupils flat and impenetrable.
Part of my mom’s desire to go to Vegas this time was to try to get a meeting at the Wynn Resort, where we had seen Le Rêve the last time. My mom had learned the show was named for the Picasso in Steve Wynn’s extensive art collection, and yet another one of her many business ideas was born. She had written a long letter to Steve Wynn himself that proposed she travel around the world giving lectures about his collection. A snippet:
I bring a down to earth approach which is not intimidating to the viewer, but fun and entertaining. My presentations have been referred to as:
— Filled with wit and humor
— Appreciated for revealing issues sometimes difficult to understand
— Giving attendees a real handle on Contemporary Art to take away with them.
And much more.
The times I’d seen her docent at art museums, she had clearly gone off script and added her own questionable interpretations to each piece of art, gazing at the audience as if she had just imparted some deep wisdom. Her letter didn’t mention the squabbles that she had had with the staff at every museum where she had been a docent, the ways in which she eventually assumed all the other docents were plotting against her. I seriously doubted she’d be able to speak at length with real authority about any of the dozens of subjects she had bullet-pointed in the letter, everything from Conceptualism to Sacred Geometry; she tended to consider herself an expert on a subject after reading one short article, even a paragraph.
I wondered if she’d be able to pull off a meeting — assuming she could get one at Wynn — in her current state. Probably. She was elegant, put together; somehow, she had been able to convince a whole swath of people, including more than one therapist, that my dad was hiding a fortune from her, that he had swindled her in untold ways. She couldn’t understand why her daughters didn’t buy into her story, too.
My mom and I ended up having a surprisingly good time in Atlanta — we danced together, attended illuminating panels, had a blast with her cousin who lived in the area, ate copious amounts of boiled peanuts.
We thankfully spent much of the rest of the ride in silence, my daughter dozing in the back, but I felt about a million years older when we arrived at the Sahara Hotel on the strip than when we had left Riverside. Vegas looked different than it had four months ago — then, it was full of glitter and color and possibility; now everything looked dingy and tacky and desperate.
We met up with my sister and her family in the lobby of the hotel whose glory days were clearly long gone; in fact, the place was slated to be closed within a couple of years.
“She’s having one of her episodes,” I whispered to my sister and watched her face drop.
My sister had booked our hotel rooms online; she had asked for three rooms next to one another, but we ended up with two adjoining rooms and one in a different part of the building. My daughter and niece wanted to be in a room by themselves, and my sister suggested I take the second bed in her and her husband’s room, which meant our mom would be off on her own.
“You did this on purpose,” my mother spit.
“I swear I didn’t,” my sister said. “I asked for all the rooms to be together.”
“You expect me to believe that?” Her funk grew worse when she didn’t have any luck setting up a meeting at Wynn; she was sure our father was behind it.
“I wonder what lies he’s spreading about me this time,” she said.
Later in the day, after she had calmed down, my mom took my daughter and niece to an oxygen bar while my sister and brother-in-law and I went off to do some child-free gambling. When we returned, the girls had finished their doses of scented air and were rubbing each other’s heads with scalp massagers that looked like giant metal spiders. My mom was still hooked up to the oxygen, the pink tubes in her nose attached to a bank of glass cylinders filled with glowing, bubbling liquid in a variety of colors. She looked a bit out of it, although it was hard to tell, since she was wearing her sunglasses and a woman dressed in black was etching circles on her back with two paw-shaped vibrators.
When my mom suggested the whole family go to Vegas together a few months later, my sister was wary. We should have trusted her instincts and stayed home, just like my husband and 16-year-old son.
“I have to get a picture,” my sister whispered as we approached.
Our mom looked over just as my sister snapped the shot. She was always accusing people of taking photos to embarrass her. At my MFA graduation a few years before, she was sure my brother, her stepson from my dad’s first marriage, was taking a picture of her profile to make fun of her nose. This time, however, when my sister was intentionally taking a picture of her looking ridiculous, our mom didn’t seem to notice.
The woman in black turned off the massagers and removed the oxygen tubes. “How do you feel?” she asked my mom.
“A little dizzy,” my mom said. “I don’t think this was such a good idea for my low blood pressure.”
A bit of panic crossed the woman’s face. She was clearly not prepared to deal with medical conversation.
“Mom, oxygen is used to treat low blood pressure,” my sister jumped in.
“I think something’s wrong with my heart,” my mom said, and I could hear my sister sigh at the same time I did.
Later, we watched our mom pick at her salad and herring from the lavish buffet we had pillaged for dinner, a pinched look on her face.
“I really think the oxygen did something to me,” she said, wavering a bit on the wildly patterned booth. “I think I might have congestive heart failure.”
“Do you need to go to the ER?” my sister asked half-heartedly. We had been through this before; nothing was ever wrong with her heart.
“No, no,” she said, putting on her best martyr expression. “I just need to get in bed with a glass of wine.”
“Do you need us to go back with you?” I asked, thinking, Please say no, please say no.
“I’ll just take a cab,” she said, and relief flooded through me even though her tone was clearly meant to inspire guilt.
My sister and I walked her to the front of the hotel. After we hugged her, she said, “Remember, if anything happens to me, I don’t want to be resuscitated,” and stepped into a waiting taxi. And, as was usually the case when our mom reminded us of her mortality, as soon as she was out of sight, we started to laugh so hard, we could barely stand up. Laughter that could easily be mistaken for, that threatened to veer into, tears.
In the morning, my sister got up early enough to swim laps with our mom.
“It’s a nice pool,” she said when she came back, but I knew that’s not what she really wanted to tell me. She looked pale.
“Are you okay?” I asked. She collapsed beside me onto the bed.
My sister and I walked my mom to the front of the hotel. After we hugged her, she said, ‘Remember, if anything happens to me, I don’t want to be resuscitated,’ and stepped into a waiting taxi.
“It’s worse than I thought,” she said. “She thinks someone is spying on her from the parking garage.”
My heart plummeted. It had been a long time since she had thought people were watching her.
My sister brought me to the window and pointed at the parking structure across the courtyard. “She thinks someone has binoculars trained on her room.”
“Oh god,” I groaned. “What should we do?”
“Just get through it,” she said, and that’s what we did. We got through two more years of our mother’s delusions until she hanged herself in a different parking garage. A garage where no one was watching her, a garage where she was so unwatched, her body wouldn’t be found for several hours. But we didn’t know that yet. We were still stuck in Vegas, land of wax Michael Jacksons and faux Venetian canals and a mother whose mind had created an artificial world of its own. We were still leaning against one another, feeling one another’s warmth, holding on to what we knew was real.
* * *
Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide. Her other books include the poetry collection, The Selfless Bliss of the Body; the craft book, Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write; and the novels My Life with the Lincolns, Delta Girls, Self Storage, and The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize of Fiction of Social Engagement. She teaches at Sierra Nevada College and Antioch University Los Angeles.
Editor: Sari Botton