"CHRISTOS,” I SAY, STARTLED, AS I drop the ivory bowl into the warm soapy water. “Is that you?” I look over my shoulder. No one is there.
I’m not usually this anxious, especially in the middle of a weekday afternoon. In a household of four kids, a husband, two dogs and a bird, you get used to strange noises at any given moment. But it was a long night, and lately things haven’t been quite as they seem.
I listen carefully to the noise behind me staring into the reflection of the kitchen window. The dog is barking, but no one is there — at least, no one I can see.
It’s strange how doubt always looks different when you are ignoring your deepest instinct. I tell myself it’s nothing and continue scrubbing the ivory bowl of the tuna salad I made for lunch.
Somewhere along the way, I’ve learned how to calm that still, small voice — the one that keeps telling me that some-thing is about to go horribly wrong. I feel as if I can change fate by focusing on menial tasks like carpools and housework, or just making sure lunch is ready when Christos sneaks in from work for a quick bite to eat.
But when it comes to Nikki, I can’t afford to ignore it completely. And lately, the unrelenting whispers have been deafening.
That’s why today, Christos and I are taking our daughter to meet with a neuro-psychiatrist. A doctor who specializes in brain disorders. Although Nikki’s life is proof that miracles do happen, the highlights seem to be fading, overshadowed by an unexpected neurological diagnosis.
Despite all the maladies that have surfaced over the last ten years; pinealcytoma, scoliosis, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, Christos and I know that it’s never been quite this bad. A brain tumor is one thing; paranoid psychosis is another. And there is nothing running deeper through my mind as I dry off the dishes and check the clock above the oven. It’s almost 1:30. Just one more hour to go.
I have always lived in fear of days like these. When at any moment, my whole world could come crashing down on me. And this is exactly how it starts: a cautious whisper balancing on the edge of disbelief, hanging by a thread of a blinding fear, snapped by a moment I never saw coming.
She seems fine now, the picture of perfect health. But something I’ve learned a long time ago with Nikki. It’s not what you see on the outside that is so dangerously deceiving. It’s what you can’t see on the inside that will cut your heart to pieces.
I can’t help but to worry this way. I think deep down she knows I can’t really help how I feel. “It is what it is, Mom, stop worrying so much,” she always says.
“But it’s my job,” I tell her.
Then she puts her hands on her hips and says the same thing she said the last time she scolded me for worrying: “Thanks Mom, but couldn’t you find something better to do with your time?” I never do answer that question. I just shake my head and smile, because nothing could be more satisfying.
Another sharp thud in the hallway behind me makes me jump. “Christos…” I say, almost knocking over the Tweety Bird cookie jar with my dust cloth. “Did you forget some-thing?” As I say this, I hear a swift thunder of footsteps, dense and solid, plummeting down the back stairway.
I do this every time something startles me. Despite the fact that something might be terribly wrong, I stop whatever I’m doing and hold my breath. I am completely unaware of the idling car in the distance, or the fact that Christos is miles away from home.
Finally, I glance behind me toward the noise just in time to see the garage door slam shut. The force of the door sweeps the papers off the kitchen table, scattering them like leaves; they float gently to the ground.
Now my heart is racing. My head is spinning with questions. What time is it? Where is Nikki? I hadn’t taken my eyes off her all morning — not until a few minutes ago when she went upstairs to take a shower, which is why I am positive she’s upstairs in the shower.
For a second, I’m so confused I have to think twice before I remember how to walk.
Then suddenly, I hear it, that strong, indelible voice — soft, and familiar. “Trust me,” it says, “everything will be okay!” Without thinking, I bolt toward my garage.
I fling the door open with a great surge of panic. But not in time to stop my precious Nikki from driving away.
The fumes are fresh; she is backing down the driveway.
My body stiffens and the towel I’m holding falls from my hand.
I close my eyes in disbelief, hoping they are playing tricks on me. But when I open them up again, there she goes. It takes a full second to realize. She is driving the 911 Porsche Carrera Cabriolet.
A car too dangerous for an eighteen-year-old to drive.
“Nikki!” I shout, and she turns toward my voice as if to say she is sorry. But she doesn’t stop. “No, Nikki don’t…” I scream, louder this time, “Please don’t!” But the weight of the moment shatters, as heavy and sharp as glass.
As I take a breath, my shoulders thrust backwards into the doorframe of the house. Huge sections of my body go numb. Instinctively, I want to run, throw myself behind the car, and stop her. But my body is frozen, locked in the prison of my own disbelief.
I focus hard, try to stop her with a stare. But she turns her eyes away from me, barely missing the mailbox as she backs onto the street.
Unlike most teenagers who break the rules from time to time, Nikki is not leaving this house because she is angry, or to get my attention, or because she wants to go have some rebellious fun. She’s not thinking clearly. And she’s not in control of her mind.
I just stare at her face.
God, her face…
Her long brown hair drapes like ribbons over her shoulders. Her round, fleshy lips bloom like a rose against her pale porcelain skin. I see her eyes — Christos’ eyes, electric blue, drifting through a rivulet of thoughts.
But this child, the one staring back at me through the windshield of her father’s car, is not one I recognize. And now it’s too late. Her psychosis is back, and this time it comes with a vengeance.
It’s hard for me to fully understand Nikki sometimes; why she does the things she does — like this, something totally irrational and unexpected. And sometimes, like now, even when I believe I know my daughter so well. I realize there is a difference between knowing someone and understanding them. For me, understanding is the balance between living in fear and living with hope. It is the weight between my need to protect her and my need to see her happy.
But I do understand this about my daughter: when you live your life on a moment’s notice; you can’t afford to think twice. You find reason in the unreasonable, humor in the things that feel so sad. You measure worth by time and not by weight. You understand that when things become too black and white, you just add in your favorite color. And when everything turns upside down, you simply stand on your head. When you live with the constant reminder that life can be wiped away in an instant. You learn very quickly how to live as fast as you can.
In the distance, I hear the roar of the Porsche shattering the placid stillness of our neighborhood. Suddenly, everything in front of me turns dark, and for the next several seconds, time changes its meaning — and everything about me. It doesn’t exist. I don’t exist. The world around me spins fiercely. I am lost somewhere in the middle of timelessness.
Until a warm sensation sinks into me; a feeling of peace and assurance pulses through my thoughts like a drug, sooth-ing and somehow comforting me. I hear it again, a promise that everything will be okay. “Just trust me!” it says. “This is what you agreed to…remember.” But as hard as I listen, and as much as I try, for the life of me, I don’t know what it means.
It seems ridiculous to believe, but somehow, I know my daughter is about to die. I know that in a few moments, she will be ripped away from me, away from this world I have brought her into. It’s as if I have lived this moment in another time or place. I know exactly what is going to happen next.
As I argue with my thoughts, dismissing them as non-sense, my need to stop it from happening has me running in the house to find a phone. There is a mixture of Downey fabric softener and the warm smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. A subtle reminder that my life is normal and things are perfect. As I listen closely to the voice inside of me — “It’s okay,” it says again. I know despite what is about to happen, and all the pain it will bring. Even death will not be enough to take Nikki away from me.
My hands begin to tremble at the thought. I grab the phone and dial my husband’s cell. He just left the house a few minutes ago, so I know he can’t be too far. I am scared, so scared, yet there is a feeling of understanding — confidence — as if everything makes perfect sense. As if this is what I have always known. As if this is what I have agreed to? But then suddenly, I can’t breathe. It’s like all the oxygen is being sucked out of the room and I can no longer think.
I clutch the phone against my cheek. And the second I hear my husband’s voice, I just cry. “Oh, Christos, it’s…it’s Nikki…” I squeeze my eyes let the tears drain out. “She left, she took the Porsche. Oh God, Christos, she’s, she’s…I think something awful is going to happen!”
I hear the sound of his car accelerate. “What?” he exhales hard. “Where the hell did she go?”
I cry even harder. “I don’t know. She just left.”
Then I hear a sigh. “Don’t worry, babe, I’ll find her.”
I met Christos when I was only seventeen. I fell in love with him for many reasons, but mostly because he fights hard for the things he loves.
Although it’s true Christos is Nikki’s hero, and she his princess, her impulsiveness has been a challenging task for both of us. But it is always Christos who swoops in at the last second to pluck her from whatever dangerous circumstance she has found herself in. He has spent eighteen years fighting for his daughter, and I am certain he will do whatever it takes to bring her home safely, to me.
“She can’t be too far,” he says. “I’ll bring her home… I promise.”
I close my eyes and nod. Because even though I know it’s not true. I believe him.
It is moments like these when the tiny knots in my stomach twist up tight questioning the existence of God. This is when I grab my keys, and rush to my car praying harder than I have ever prayed in my life.
I’d spent years convincing myself I was the only one who knew when something was about to go wrong with Nikki. That the intuitive bond between us was so strong it made it possible for me to see things that parents were not supposed to see with their kids. Because I knew, at any moment, I could lose her. Now, as I step into my car something is telling me I already have.
I back quickly off my driveway, slamming the car door as my wheels hit the street. I drive hard and fast, begging God to take anything, anything at all, just not my child.
Nikki is not like most girls her age, typical and predictable. You won’t find her out shopping, or getting her nails done on her days off. Instead, you will find Nikki on a hill taking photographs of nature, or sketching a stranger playing his guitar in the park.
Sometimes you will find her just sitting against a tree somewhere alone, reading Freud, sipping on her favorite Boba tea.
But today, she is not in any of those places. Today, she is nowhere.
I drive first toward the high school, but on second thought, I head toward the beach. I drive excessively fast, will-ing her — in my head — to turn around and come back home. But before I have made it to the main road, the urgency within me stops completely. A tingling sensation creeps up my arms and then into my chest. A sinking feeling, heavy and sharp, drops me like an elevator. The life inside me turns cold, and again I am struggling to breathe. I look at the clock on my dashboard: it’s 1:52.
Somehow, I’ve managed to pull over to the side of the road. Cars zip past me as if I’m not even here. I feel the tears trailing down my cheeks while I try to calm myself down. It’s getting harder to breathe, harder to think, because somehow, I know it’s true. I know my daughter is never coming home.
The humming of my car grabs my focus. I remember that bad things don’t happen to my family. That miracles are what Nikki’s life is made from. I try to convince myself Nikki is fine, that it’s only my imagination telling me she’s not. But that doesn’t stop the anger welling up inside of me. Or the sting of despair so strong it steals my sight.
I clutch my head with my hands and try to block out the thoughts. But I can’t stop them. I know what I know, no matter how hard I try to will them away. I take in a deep breath, grab hold of the steering wheel firmly with both hands, and I scream into the air.
I force my attention back to Nikki’s face and my breathing slows. I squeeze my eyes, concentrate my focus — make a U-turn — and drive, willing away the truth that’s been building for the last ten years of Nikki's life. I take everything that is in me — fear and determination — and search for my daughter. Because grief doesn’t exist in your heart or mind or soul. If you ask me, it’s found in the distance between a mother and her child.