The Psychic Sunburn

Catherine Shields

My phone vibrates from my pocket, annoying as a hungry mosquito, but I continue my jog up the street. One more block, I tell myself, just one. I reach the end of the street panting so hard I can barely breathe, then lean against the bars of an iron gate to check my phone. Four missed calls from Harbor Elder Care. It must be important. The phone buzzes again and I hit pause on my playlist. The chorus of Hotel California fades.

          “Mrs. Shields? This is Janet from Harbor Elder Care. Your mother had a fall early this morning and the doctor wants to —”

          The sputter of neighborhood lawn sprinklers drowns her words. “Sorry, I only heard part of what you said.”

          “The doctor wants to send her to the hospital. He’d like to consult with you before he makes any decisions.”

          “I’m in the middle of something, but I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

          “No problem. He’ll be at the facility for another few hours.”

          The line goes dead. Janet didn’t use the word emergency. I debate whether to finish my run. My eyes focus on the padlock twisted between the rungs of the rusty gates. The once stately mansion sits among overgrown weeds. I rub sweaty palms on the sides of my T-shirt. No one knows what became of the family who lived there. Long gone are the BMWs and Mercedes. A familiar longing rises in my chest. No one forgets what it’s like to be the neglected child.

          When I was seven, my mother failed to arrive for dismissal. My second-grade teacher took me to the main office to call my house, but no one answered. Every few minutes, she picked up the phone and dialed again, until she finally placed a hand on my shoulder and apologized. “I have to go,” she said, “but don’t worry. Principal Woods will wait with you. In the meantime, do this math sheet for extra credit.”

          The teacher slid a worksheet across the desk, but I kept my eyes lowered. Tears dripped onto the page and the numbers swam like blurry gray watercolors. I overheard Principal Woods ask his secretary for the emergency contacts and the next hour, listened as he dialed, then slammed the receiver into its cradle. Another hour went by. He appeared in the doorway with his briefcase in one hand and keys in the other. “It’s time to lock up the building,” he said. “I called my wife. She and your mother are good friends. My wife suggested I bring you to our house to wait.”

          I panicked, struggling to say something but the words stuck in my throat. We headed to the door, and at that moment, my mother appeared. I burst into tears, relieved I hadn’t been abandoned.

          “Mr. Woods, thank goodness you’re here,” my mother cried. “I was so worried.” Mom threw her arms around me and blubbered a list of excuses, excuses I did not believe. She said she lost track of time and got stuck in traffic. The truth was, she forgot about me.

          Although I was only seven, I knew she had probably spent the day in the department store, a woman on a mission to find the perfect dress. The tower of shopping bags usually gave it away, but perhaps she lingered too long over lunch, listening to the latest gossip. Maybe it was her beauty salon day, and she had trouble deciding: light or dark, short or long, curly or straight? Mom never explained, but this much I knew; I ranked at the bottom of her list of priorities. I vowed I would be nothing like her when I grew up.

          I return from my run, come into the house, seize the keys, and get in the car. Music blares from the radio. There’s an announcement about the heat index. Beads of sweat dot my forehead and I turn the AC on to full blast, drive to the nursing home, park, and march across the sidewalk. Heatwaves shimmer like a mirage. I tug the front of my damp T-shirt, mop my brow with the back of my hand, and approach the domed entrance. A couple struggles to unload boxes from their trunk. I try to avoid them, but they hail me with a greeting.


          “Moving in?” I ask.

          The couple nods.

          In my mind, Don Henley sings a stanza from Hotel California.

          “Welcome. I hope you like it here.”

          At the front desk, the clerk greets me as I sign in. “How’s your mom?”

          I shrug. “She had a fall, but I’m not sure how bad. By the way, there’s a couple out there struggling in this heat. Can you send someone to help them?”

          “Of course. Anything else?”

          I force a smile. “No thanks.”

          The automatic doors leading to the memory care unit open with a whoosh. In the bright foyer, I stroll past white marble statues standing like sentries, silver urns overflowing with artificial flowers, and faded murals. I pinch my nose. The mélange of air freshener mixed with urine produces a smell that makes Harbor’s lobby unmistakable — daycare meets funeral parlor.

          The murmur of moans and whispers floats from the atrium. A shrunken woman, her withered body bent like a question mark, is perched on a silk sofa, a dark-haired young woman beside her. The old woman leans against the younger one, clenches her hands, and moans. Tenderly stroking wispy white hair, the young woman straightens the pink shawl over the frail shoulders, then offers quiet reassurance. “Shh, Momma, I’m here. I love you so much. Don’t worry.”

          My therapist’s voice echoes like a ghostly whisper, and it lifts the curtain of resentment. I picture Dr. Reisman, the way she uncrossed her legs and leaned forward to pose her question.

          “Have you ever heard the term, psychic sunburn? It is a term I like to use when a patient receives wounds from a parent. I suggest you protect yourself. Go see your mother, but if she starts to criticize, cut the visit short. Remember you are the one who suffered burns.”

          I spot Nina, the assistant director, speaking to one of the blue-uniformed aides. I approach them from behind and politely wait for them to finish their conversation, but I’m close enough to hear them. The aide shakes her head, complaining about one of the residents. “My fourteen-year-old daughter says it’s like caring for a bunch of zombies.”

          Nina clucks her tongue like a mother hen, dismisses the aide, then turns and sees me.

          “Cathy!” She offers an air kiss. “I’m sorry if we made you race over. One of the aides found your mother on the floor and couldn’t get her to stand. She called the doctor, who ordered x-rays, reviewed the films, and saw nothing broken. Mom won’t need to go to the hospital.” Nina’s tone sounds cheery. “Let me take you to her.”

          She strolls beside me, her high heels clicking on the marble floor like a pair of castanets. Her voice drops to a whisper. “When the aide asked her why she got out of bed, your mom said Joe was on his way. Isn’t Joe your father?”

          “Yeah, he passed years ago.”

          “Of course. Most of the folks here don’t realize where they are.” She chuckles, the sides of her mouth attempting a smile. The expression reminds me of a plastic doll. “Seriously,” Nina continues, “we do our best to help them.”

          “I appreciate your efforts,” I answer. And I’m sure the zombies do.

          Nina taps her watch as we face the dining room. “I’ve got to run, but Yamile, your mother’s assistant is with her, over at the back table.”

          I maneuver around the maze of tables, careful to avoid the servers, through a sea of blank faces. It is like a zombie warehouse. Is this my fate?

          Last Thanksgiving, I asked my girls what they planned to do with me. My youngest insisted I wasn’t allowed to get old. “Plus,” she added, “I’d just move you in here with me.”

          Karen, the eldest, draped her body over mine and let her head loll back dramatically. “You can sign me up for Grandma’s nursing home.” She sighed. “I want someone to wheel me from place to place all day. I’d never had to wash a dish again. And the food is pretty decent!”

          I snatch a chocolate chip cookie off the dessert table as I make my way across the dining room. I shove it in my mouth and swallow the dry crumbs before I reach Mom and plop in the chair beside her. My running shorts barely cover my legs and my sweaty thighs stick to the plastic chair.

          “Where have you been?” Mom’s gray eyes cloud with annoyance. “I waited for you all day. I thought you weren’t coming.” Her words make me bristle with indignation, but somehow, I am grateful. She taught me a special sort of alchemy; how to turn rejection into love, a love I created with daughters who know they are cherished.

          Mom holds a soup-filled spoon in her trembling hand. I wrap my fingers around hers. The spoon almost reaches her mouth when green liquid spills onto the plastic bib. I grab a napkin. “Here Mom, let me help you.” Mom swats the napkin as if it were a fly. Twin frown lines crease her forehead.

          “Cathy? When did you get here? Why are you wearing those shorts? Can you at least dress decently on the days you come to visit?”

          She is not always this lucid, but at least she recognizes me. “Thanks, Mom. If you hadn’t fallen out of bed, I would have had time to change.”

          If I sound sarcastic, she doesn’t appear to notice.

          “I did not fall out of bed.” The folds of loose skin around Mom’s mouth pucker like a softened prune.

          I stare at the web of lines on Mom’s face and wonder why she has always been so critical. My grandmother wasn’t like this. I wish she were still alive.

          “Mom, do you remember visiting Grandma in this very same dining room? You used to come here every day. Grandma told stories about her life in the old country.”

          The memory makes me smile, but Mom doesn’t say anything. She stares at the chipped polish on her nails. Years earlier, she wouldn’t have left the house until she was perfectly coiffed. She said she had to put on her face. The staff beauticians try to maintain the elegance that once defined her. They polish her nails and style her hair, but somehow, Mom usually appears bedraggled. Sparse hair covers her head like tiny sprigs of brown grass. She’s like the abandoned mansion I passed on my run.

          “Mom,” I shake her arm. “Do you remember the visits with your mother? Grandma sometimes told me stories about crossing a bridge. She said the Aibishter wouldn’t let her cross.”

          I lean forward. “Mom, I think Grandma was speaking to God. She said every time she tried to cross, the Aibisthter turned her back and told her it wasn’t her time. Did you ever hear this story?”

          “What story?” Mom’s paper-thin lids flutter. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

          The waiters arrive to clear the table and remove the tablecloth. Mom snatches it and twists it with her knobby hands.

          “Stop Mom. Let the man take the tablecloth.” Like a tug of war, I pull my end, but she holds tight.

          “No, I need to fold it.” Mom struggles to match the ends. “Help me with this. I need to fold it. I can’t get the ends to meet.”

          “For goodness sakes Mom, it’s a tablecloth. You don’t have to fold it, just give it to the server.” I tug. She refuses to let go, then narrows her eyes.

          “Help me with this. Don’t you know how to fold anything? Where’s your father? He’ll do it.”

          Don’t you know how to fold anything? The slap echoes from the past. Mom said the same thing while we folded my wedding invitations into envelopes. She repeated it the first time I attempted to swaddle my newborn. Don’t you know how to fold anything?

          “Miss Rebecca, let me help you.” Mom’s aide appears beside us and takes the tablecloth from her hands. I thank her. She deftly folds the tablecloth, hands it to the waiter, then unlatches the locks in the wheelchair.

          “Miss Rebecca let’s go to the activity room. Jeremy has a game planned. Your daughter can come with us.”

          The activity room is crowded with wheelchairs. Yamile parks Mom’s chair near the end of the row. Jeremy struts across the room tossing a small multi-colored beach ball. His animated voice resonates throughout the room.

          “I’m not supposed to be here.” Mom shakes her head. “I don’t know where I am supposed to be.” Beside me, Mom shivers. “I need to get out of here. It’s cold in here isn’t it?” She hunches forward and clutches her hands around skeletal arms.

          Yamile pats Mom’s shoulder. “She gets cold after lunch; I’ll run to her room and get her jacket.”

          I offer to stay for a few more minutes, but I feel like a fraud going through the motions. I only pretend to be the devoted daughter. My grandmother would praise me for my effort.

          “Thanks,” Yamile says, “I’ll be right back.”

          Mom lifts her puckered brow. Her eyes beg for help. “I’m so confused. I don’t know what I did with my papers. Did you take them? I saw you put something in your pocket. Did you take them? Where did you hide them?”

          “No Mom,” I sigh. “No, I don’t have your papers. Why don’t you play toss the ball with the others?”

          Mom’s expression twists with annoyance, her angry witch face. “Don’t tell me what to do. Why don’t you ever listen? What’s wrong with you?”

          Shaking my head, I remember my therapist’s words. “Your mother’s criticism caused a psychic sunburn. You recovered. Visit your mother, but if she starts to criticize, it’s your signal to leave.”

          My cellphone pings and I glance at the text. It’s from my daughter, Karen.

          Mom, what time are you coming over? I need your help. Call me back.

          I tuck the phone into my purse and silently thank my mother. Although it was unintentional, she taught me lessons in how to love. I search for Yamile. What’s taking her so long?

          I wave to one of the blue-uniformed aides. “Can you come over here? I need a hand.”

          “Be there in a minute,” she replies.

          “Hey Mom, I’m going to find your papers.”

          Distracted, I back into a parked wheelchair occupied by a shirtless old man.

          “Hey, you!” He waves his white T-shirt above his head like a white flag of surrender. “You,” he shouts, “Get me out of this place!”

          Get me out of this place? Buddy, you got that right. It’s time to leave.

          The man twirls his shirt and points at me. “Hey! I’m talking to you.”

          The aide comes toward me, shaking her head. “Don’t worry, he’s harmless.” She places a hand on the man’s shoulder. “Murray, settle down now and stop scaring this nice lady. We need to get your shirt on. You don’t want to get cold, do you?”

          I brush my lips to Mom’s cheek. The skin shifts like a sheet of tissue paper. “Mom? I have to go. Karen’s expecting me.”

          “You’re leaving? But I’m the one who’s supposed to leave.” Mom presses her palms against the sides of her head and screws her eyes shut. “I’m confused!” she wails. “I don’t know where I’m supposed to go. You have to help me.”

          “I will. I’ll come back.” I hurry past the front desk and reach into my purse. The jangle of keys reminds me of something, part of a song.

          “Don’t worry Mom,” I murmur, “you can leave. Anytime you like. And thank you for everything you taught me.”

Catherine Shields is a retired educator with an M.S. Ed in Reading. She resides in Miami, Florida where she and her husband raised their three grown daughters. Catherine is a member of the Florida Writers Association. Her short stories have appeared in ’45 Magazine Women’s Literary Journal, Levitate Magazine, Flash Fiction Friday, and Ariel Chart Literary Journal. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

© Variant Literature Inc 2021