Poisoned: An Excerpt from My Memoir On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened

“I’m sure you didn’t mean anything by it,” she whispered conspiratorially, clutching at the wires crisscrossing her torso as if they were lifelines. “You didn’t really mean to hurt me, did you?”

I didn’t answer. I had no answer for her.

She raised herself; bent her back up off the angled, starched-sheeted bed, the skull-flattened pillow. “You won’t get into any trouble. I promise,” she assured me in her most persuasive tone, leaning towards me as if greater nearness would bring her closer to the truth.

I glanced at my mother, ragged now from our endless day of blood tests and EKGs, pitiful with probes attached to her chest and hands. Then averted my eyes and stared instead at my own hands, knuckles white on the edges of the uncomfortable folding chair on which I perched by her bedside, and wondered if they were even capable of doing her harm. Thought that if they were, that surely they would have done it already.

She bent her face close to mine, the urgency in her voice betraying the calmness of her countenance. “Just tell them what you gave me, sweetheart,” she pleaded.

Her breath stunk of metal fillings and stale cigarettes, and I backed involuntarily away. Hasty and harrowed, to her my retreat conveyed confession and it prodded her on, encouraged her investigation.

“It was poison, wasn’t it?” she whispered excitedly, almost hopefully, I thought. “Just tell me what kind!”

Why was she so obsessed with poison? I speculated, not yet comprehending that it was impossible to rationalize the irrational. She refused to eat at home anymore because the food might be poisoned; preferred the anonymity of restaurant fare. But then it was in my orange juice or her coffee, might have been sprinkled like salt on the eggs or buried deep in the butter, this mysterious killer toxin, by some even more mysterious killer who stalked us, who intended inexplicably to do us harm.

“It’s not too late,” she urged. “If you just tell them what it was, there might be an antidote. They could still save me!” She smiled at me and conscientiously ran her hands over her scalp, smoothing down the short blonde hair she’d had colored and cut in fruitless disguise.

Sometimes I even considered the possibility that she herself was guilty of administering the poison she so terribly feared. If that was the real reason why she kept snatching my meals away at the last second, in an attack of conscience over attempting to murder her own daughter. Even I had begun to look suspiciously at my food; wondered whether I should refuse it, no matter how many meals I had lately missed. I was gradually absorbing her paranoia, cinching it to my core like the belt around my sagging jeans.

“It’s not going to go well with you if something happens to me, you know,” she snarled, all at once dropping her coy sweetness. “I’ve left evidence. They’ll be able to prove it was you. You’ll be locked up for good, I guarantee it.”

I listened to the quiet bleeping of the machinery at her bedside and eyed the doctor staring curiously from the hall, the doctor who had been sent away after admitting they hadn’t been able to find any physical cause for the searing pains in her chest, the shortness of breath. My co-conspirator, no doubt.

“And don’t forget about Bellevue,” she spat. “I’m your mother and I can still have you committed. Maybe it would be good for you,” she concluded nastily, sneering her contempt of my supposed sanity.

It shivered through me, this worst of her threats, the familiar fear of the powerless pitted against the powerful. I imagined myself again, sealed into a strait-jacket, shrieking wildly in protest, proving my lunacy thereby. Being trundled into some dark hole and left there forever to rot, to die, while she roamed freely about, seeking, perhaps, another child, a youngster, a victim more susceptible to accepting her incomprehensible illusions.

“So are you going to tell me or not?” she snapped finally, whipping her head around as if to startle me into the truth, her hands clasping the bed’s guardrails, steadfastly refusing to misbehave in public, in front of witnesses. Hanging on to the cold steel as if afraid she might forget herself again, as she had lately made a habit of doing; bruise my wrists with her claw-like fingers, or box my ears with the flats of her palms.

I bowed my head as if in contemplation, perhaps in prayer. Gazed directly into the once-familiar mud-brown eyes, hollow now, as they had become in recent weeks, vague and empty and occupied elsewhere, in vast regions of runaway imagination that I couldn’t see, couldn’t possibly perceive.

I meditated whether I should try to explain it to her, the irrationality of her suspicion. How could I have poisoned her? I was sixteen, and the internet hadn’t been invented yet. I wouldn’t have known what kind of poison would work on a person, even if I’d had access to some. And how would I have bought it, with her watching me twenty-four hours a day, even while we slept?

I stared unwaveringly into them, the eyes so unlike my own, so nearly inhuman yet not animal either; alien eyes. And abandoned the hope of persuading them with my useless reasoning. Her world had an impenetrable logic all its own.

“I didn’t give you anything, Mom,” I said, turning away.

She cursed out loud. I didn’t look back.

She surrendered. Accepted the doctor’s discharge and took me home. But she eyed me mistrustfully as she ordered me into the king-sized bed we now shared.

“I can’t force you to admit what you did,” she conceded as she lay down, fully dressed, on top of the blankets. “But I still know you did it.”

She clasped her hand hard to her chest and let out a gasp, as if in pain. And almost I wished I had relented and confessed to the uncommitted crime, I pitied her so.

* * *

“Poisoned” received an Honorable Mention in The Avalon Literary Review’s Spring 2014 Contest and was published in that issue. The piece is an excerpt from my memoir On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness, available in paperback and audiobook on November 7, 2014 from retailers worldwide, and available now for Kindle pre-order on Amazon.com.

It’s interesting to note that “Poisoned” is actually an alternate version of a flash fiction piece that I wrote and had published in the amazing Journal of Microliterature in November 2013. At the time I had decided to beef up my writing resume by seeking publishing credits, which are naturally far easier to obtain if you write short stories than long novels. However, short work requires more ideas – a multitude, in fact – and as my fingers flashed across the keyboard day after day, the idea well ran dry and I very quickly found myself searching through my brain for memories I could transform into fiction. As It hadn’t yet occured to me that I would be writing a memoir, the original story wasn’t about my mother and I at all, but rather concerned the relationship between a husband and wife when she is taken mentally ill. You can compare the two versions by reading the original along with my commentary here. Which do you like better?

“Poisoned” is also available as a FREE eBook; you can download it at your favorite eBook retailer.

19 thoughts on “Poisoned: An Excerpt from My Memoir On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened

  1. Lisa Reiter

    Awesome piece Lori. Awaiting my Kindle download impatiently now. Your writing is superb and knowing you were only 16 at this point is heartbreaking. If I may ask, do you think it was useful to you then, that her accusation was so concrete and therefore so obviously wrong? I think many young people accept blame from more insidious threats and accusations that allow more self doubt and confusion. But then.. I’ll wait to read the rest of it. There’s nothing simple or detachable about any of this kind of experience is there.
    Lisa xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lorilschafer Post author

      Actually, yes, it was very helpful to me seeing her so convinced of something that I knew for certain was untrue. In the beginning especially, there were times when I wasn’t sure. How do you doubt your mother’s word, even when the things she’s saying seem utterly unbelievable? On the other hand, I didn’t know what actually was wrong with her, and that was pretty scary in itself.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Annecdotist

        Have to chip in here to totally agree with you both on this important point. In a close relationship it can be really difficult to work out which one of you is mad. Helpful when there’s something concrete to show you it’s not you, but then another level of scary when the mad woman is the mother you rely on. I think this is an extreme version of the process many of us go through with our parents and, even if they’re not exactly mad, they may have extreme beliefs that it can take some courage and working out to reject. Some of us never manage!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. lorilschafer Post author

        Absolutely! Same struggle, different degree. The real problem lies in the parent-child dynamic, in the conflict surrounding the authoritative relationship. It’s difficult for any child to disbelieve or reject the ideas and claims of a parent, and even if that is an essential part of growing up, some are certainly more successful at it than others.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Lisa Reiter

        Totally agree with Anne below. It took me til I was in my 30s and 40s to get to grips with some family madness! And Lori, because of that I know I cannot imagine how it was, facing what you had to at 16. It takes a lot of time and insight before you can stand separate from anything to do with the family you grow up with. And as Anne says, we don’t always achieve that, even if we want or need to. 2 days til your book is delivered to my Kindle.. :D

        Liked by 2 people

      4. lorilschafer Post author

        I’ve actually often thought I had an easier time of that, simply because of my early separation. No family = no issues with which to come to grips. I see other people still struggling with familial relationships, and it’s almost as if I’ve cheated somehow by getting around that. What a strange way to feel!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Elizabeth

    Got to this a bit late, but the excerpt definitely shows the exchange between you and your mother and its corrosive effects on the both of you. Congratulations on the launch of both your memoirs, by the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lorilschafer Post author

      Thank you very much, Elizabeth! I love the way you put that – the corrosive effects on both of us. In spite of everything, I think it’s important to remember that this situation was just as tough on her as it was on me.


  3. Charli Mills

    You’ve had a strong inner compass to navigate from this point in your life to now. Yet, it’s also what makes you a deeply insightful writer. Many people go through life not having to think about choices or their familial influences. But when your gut says something’s wrong, you tend to be more alert and develop a sense of observation. First out of survival, but then it becomes a gift. One you share with us as a writer. Hope the #ammarketing is going well!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. lorilschafer Post author

      Wonderful insight, Charli. We don’t always get to choose the circumstances that we’ve been given, nor do I believe that we necessarily get to choose how we instinctively respond to them. But there’s no question that they do shape how we feel and how we think – and oftentimes that’s more important to our development than if we were never forced to feel or think at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Annecdotist

    Interesting that you started telling your story as fiction and then switched to memoir, and amazing that you’ve kept yourself saying with such a disturbed parent. I do think however that in madness people do give voice to some of humanity’s deepest unacknowledged anxieties – just think how fairytales are full of murderous parents and parental figures. But, as children, we need those caring for us to keep this safely at the level of fantasy.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. lorilschafer Post author

        Yes, actually, it was fortunate that I knew that you used that software, and that I’ve had a fair amount of experience with such a program myself – I knew instantly what you meant! :)

        Liked by 1 person

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