My Mother Died Behind a Closed Door

My 13-year-old son was supposed to play a song, “Alive,” in his piano recital, but instead, he changed his mind last minute and played “Sing Me to Sleep.”

It took me a couple of moments to realize the symbolism behind it, having just lost my mother. I sobbed, witnessing how my mom’s grandson lovingly sang her to sleep.

My mom died in Russia where she lived alone for many years and did not communicate with anyone after she disconnected her phone and stopped checking her mail or opening her door to anybody. The last time we saw each other was ten years ago.

My parents divorced when I was four and I went to live with my mom. She was a very intelligent and educated person, a doctor. She was never very social. When my dad had guests over, she locked herself in a room and did not come out until they left. We never had dinner together or went on family vacations. My mom had migraines and was hospitalized frequently. She cleaned her apartment every day.

I felt lonely living with my mom. When I was 18, I got married and left home. A few months later, I also left Russia and moved to the U.S. at the end of 1999 with my former husband.

I still called her frequently, but after I got pregnant and my husband left me, my mother promised that she would come to the U.S. and help me with my baby. When my son was born, she told me to figure out how I would do it on my own. After that, she stopped answering her phone.

In 2007, I came to see her with my new husband and a two-year-old son from the first marriage, but no matter how many times I rang the doorbell, she did not open the door.

In 2008, we came again and she opened her door accidentally as she was leaving her apartment. She finally let us in. There was no bed or chairs, and not even a bathroom door. She had fancy wallpaper and many beautiful paintings, but her apartment was almost empty and immaculately clean, dark, and eerie. There was no food in her refrigerator. I told her that I would go grocery shopping and cook dinner for all of us. She told me that she couldn’t join us.

I asked her about her life, and she told me that she was dating a painter. I did not believe her but said that I would be interested in meeting him. She said it was not possible. In fact, she did not want anything to do with us. I asked her if she could apply for her visa so she could come and visit us in America. She did not want to. I simply could not get through to her.

When we came back to the U.S., she disconnected her phone line permanently, and we never spoke again. I called her neighbor and asked her to deliver my letters and care packages by knocking on her door—but with no luck.The last few times I called her neighbor, she sounded annoyed and told me that she was tired of my calls. My mother was totally unreachable.

I tried my hardest not to worry about my mom. I did not want to just fly to Russia again with our four young children just to see her closed door.

But I had a vivid dream in April that I went to see my mom in Russia but couldn’t get in. Rather, I left feeling devastated. A week later, I got a call from my best friend in Russia telling me that my mom was dead. She had just turned 76. I was sitting on the ground, frozen for hours, just staring into the distance.

My husband had to take time off work to care for our four young children, because I couldn’t. I stayed in bed and did not eat for a few days. I couldn’t cry. I just felt numb. My life lost its meaning; somebody dear to me, who was supposed to be by my side, never really was and now never would be.

However, her door that I despised was finally open! The beautiful paintings that she chose over living people who loved her were still hanging there as if nothing ever happened. I experienced a powerful existential crisis. After a lot of paperwork and many difficulties, we had her body brought to the U.S. to bury her next to my dad. At the funeral, I told my mom that I wanted to remember the day she brought me home from the hospital when I was born and gazed at me with motherly love.

I called my mom’s only friend. She told me that she often invited her for tea, but my mom would not come. I called her brother, and he said that she had always been quiet and did not sit with her family for dinner. He also told me that her stepfather was physically abusive, frequently using a belt and locking her in a room with him.

I also went to see a medium. She told me my mom was waiting for me, even though she couldn’t let me in. She loved me, but her love was like a bird in a cage that could not escape her fear of leaving her surroundings and communicating with people. Her stepfather had abused her, physically and sexually. In the end, she was very unwell—and death was a welcome relief. The medium’s message to me was to not judge her harshly, because she simply could not connect with anyone—although one of her biggest joys had actually been having me.

Now, as I am pursuing my graduate degree in counseling, I realize that my mom had a severe mental illness: social anxiety disorder, PTSD, OCD, depression, agoraphobia, and possibly schizophrenia. My goal in life is to overcome fears, because fears are what destroyed her. I love my mom immensely. However, the best thing I can do to honor her is to never become like her.

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About the Author | Inga Wismer

Inga Wismer is a Russian immigrant, a former biochemist, and a mother of four (one with autism), and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in counseling to help people heal from trauma.

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