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May 7, 2014

Outside the box: Mom’s back from her mysterious departure to hear the leaves crackle under her feet

On Mother’s Day last year, my mom was missing.

In January 2013, I’d gone home before the start of spring semester. My dad met me at the airport. Mom wasn’t with him. Odd.

Dad told me that I’d have to stay at a hotel. He would take me by the house first. On the ride, Dad tried to explain what had happened.

I got to the house. Dad opened the door and my mother shrieked and ran into the farthest corner.

“Don’t come in, Cheryl.”

Her face was gaunt and pale — a dull gray really. She had her arms pulled in tight. In her tiny, T-Rex hands, she clutched a disinfectant wipe and a white tissue. She literally wrung her hands, pleading with me to leave.

Mom was afraid. She thought she was carrying an infection, that she was toxic, a health hazard. She was trying to protect those she loved, as she had done for as long as I’d known her.

No one had an explanation for her altered state.

One night, I went to bed with my wife and I woke up with a different woman, Dad said. My wife was gone.

Around Christmas, Mom had been ill and an emergency room doctor prescribed a combination of antibiotics. Days into the medication, my mom said that she felt like she was going nuts.

No one listened. She followed the doctor’s orders and stayed on the meds.

My father is an engineer. He searched for answers on the Internet and from a variety of doctors and specialists. He wanted to rule out physical causes.

I am a photographer. I took a visual, storytelling approach to my mom’s disappearance. Holistic. Metaphoric. Less literal. And a less practical or realistic approach, according to some.

Mom had a voice. She wasn’t being heard. In spinning “out of control,” my mom was actually in control.

She was losing weight, vanishing physically as well as mentally, before our eyes.

My mother and father grew up on an island, a mile apart from one another. She followed my father throughout his military service, shelving her own career as a teacher to be an officer’s wife and mother of four.

It’s been years since either has traveled anywhere without the other. My dad was not going to leave my mother. He just wasn’t sure how to bring her back.

I told my dad that my mom was still in there. Her intellect. Her humor. Her powerful will. I told him that she was trying to find her way back. He wasn’t convinced. He was frustrated and frightened.

I thought of the ocean my mother loves so dearly.

It’s like we’re in the ocean, I told my mom on a subsequent visit. We’re treading water. I’m right here with you. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll tread water with you as long as it takes. And when you get tired, reach out your arm and I’ll hold onto you.

I looked into my mom’s eyes and made a promise. I will never leave you and I will not lie to you. Call me any time, mom.

She called often — sometimes a dozen times in a row — and I listened to her frantic, fragmented sentences and thoughts. Sometimes I’d call and hear her former voice on the answering machine, chirping, light, happy. Have a good day. I missed that voice.

It was a long, terrifying journey for our family and for mom. It was staggering how quickly she’d left and how far she’d gone from us.

I flew home for a long weekend nearly every month. With each visit, mom and I would make a goal for the next visit. Next time I’d get to stay at the house.

Dad admitted he wasn’t a patient man and mom’s relentless and often completely contradictory barrage of worries and pleas were wearing on him. Her deteriorating health weighed on him. His helplessness in the face of her suffering crushed him. His nerves were shredded, his emotions raw.

We didn’t always agree on what was happening or what was best for mom. I’d argue. Shout. He’d growl. Shout.

When Dad took me to the airport after one visit, he hugged me tightly. Never stop defending your mother, Cheryl. Count on it, Dad.

As the months passed, Mom made slow progress. We celebrated small events like the epic accomplishments they were. Mom started eating more. She left the house for short walks if Dad would follow in the car.

She fought her fears each day and through her sleepless nights.

I took her for a pedicure, a favorite ritual before she’d gone M.I.A. She wanted to bolt that day, but she stayed the course and left with painted toes. She deserved an Olympic medal for the strength she showed.

She tried on the new clothes we’d bought her. That July, she made it to their favorite restaurant for dinner. She nearly turned back several times. The owners had prepared a private table in a corner, far from other patrons. Not for romance but to assuage mom’s fears of contaminating others. When they raised a glass that night, they had more than Dad’s birthday to celebrate.

One fall day in October 2013, my mom walked out of her bedroom.

I’m back, she announced. And she was. The cause of her departure remains a mystery.

In November 2013, I was walking the beach on the island where my parents grew up. Mom called. She was walking, too. In Texas. A time zone away from where I was and light years away from where she’d been.

“I love the sound of the leaves under my feet.”

Welcome back, Mom. My strong, brave, mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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