Gifty considers her mother in bed at 68 and remembers her mother in bed at 52. There are differences in the images, although they are subtle. And she feels just as out of her depth now, at 28, as she did then, at 11.
For Gifty, her mother’s second depression is more similar than different to her first. Even though she’s now truly an adult—not just a child taking on adult roles and responsibilities—she still feels completely out of her depth. This new depression is forcing Gifty to relive her childhood trauma. There isn’t much that Gifty can do to care for her mother during her depression other than keep her fed, warm, and safe, and keep an eye open for suicidal ideation. Although she’s doing all of those things, her mother’s emotional vacancy means that Gifty still feels incapable, even though she’s doing the right things.
Ambien is in a class of drugs called hypnotics, and when her mother fell into her depression, at first Gifty thought that her mother had been hypnotized. One morning, she couldn’t rouse her mother. She considered skipping school but went anyway since it gave her time to figure out what to do. When the librarian asked her if she was okay, Gifty lied, although the librarian was the person most likely to have cared or tried to help. The moment she said, “I’m fine,” Gifty knew that she was going to take care of her mother alone.
For Gifty as a child, her mother’s depression is deeply alarming in part because of the way it mimics Nana’s addiction, at least superficially. Both Nana and Gifty’s mother are rendered sleepy and unrousable by drugs. But where Gifty force-fed Nana coffee, she abandons her mother to her sleep and goes to school, trying to buy more time to figure out what to do. In both cases however, Gifty allows her caretaking responsibilities to force her into an adult role. She learned to keep family secrets secret when Nana’s addiction cost her friendships, so she doesn’t ask any adults for help now.
Katherine starts dropping off homemade foods—cookies, pies, bread—at Gifty’s office. Gifty realizes that she’s not ready to need or accept help, really, but she enjoys the foods, and sometimes her mother will eat a little, too. Because the baked goods are beautifully made and presented, Gifty imagines Katherine running a one-woman bakery called “Kathy’s Cakes.”
In contrast to her childhood experience, where no one offered Gifty help and she couldn’t bring herself to ask for it, Katherine seems to have intuited Gifty’s need of support. She demonstrates both kindness and friendship through her baked goods, since food powerfully symbolizes intimacy and relationships in this book. Although Gifty isn’t yet ready to ask for help, she shows that she’s becoming more open to it by accepting and consuming “Kathy’s Cakes.”
The first week that her mother was in bed, Gifty rushed home after school each day. She would find the sandwiches she’d made uneaten, and she would wash the dishes. She deep cleaned the house, imagining her life clearing up in the process. Being emotionally alone with grief and guilt was awful. She left the TV on, hoping her mother would yell at her for wasting electricity.
Gifty’s experience taking care of her mother during her second depression, readers now learn, is very much like her experience the first time, right down to the uneaten food. In both cases, Gifty tries to coax her mother back into life through performing domestic tasks, even though now, as an adult and as a scientist who understands the brain chemistry of depression, Gifty knows on some level that these actions will not work. When caretaking fails, she tries to goad her mother into resuming her adult role by breaking the unspoken household rules, hoping for punishment.
One day, Han stops by Gifty’s office after Katherine dropped off a strawberry cake. He offers to get her something from the coffee shop, but Gifty tells him she’s going home soon to share the cake with her mother. She imagines a normal afternoon, sitting on the balcony sharing food. At home, Gifty brings her mother a slice of cake and begins to read to her the words of the Lazarus story from the Gospel of John.
Gifty’s friendships with both Katherine and Han are deepening, almost despite her efforts to keep them both at arm’s length. And both relationships are expressed, at least at this stage, through food. In contrast, Gifty can only imagine sharing the cake with her mother in an intimate, friendly way. She knows that sitting on the balcony and sharing cake is a fantasy at this point. Nevertheless, she does try to connect with her mother through the words of scripture. Importantly, in the story of Lazarus, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead after he’d been buried for four days. On one level, Lazarus’s resurrection represents a wish that Nana might have been saved from his addiction. And on another, he still represents Gifty’s hope that her mother will rise from her depression, which is like a living death.
As a child, Gifty thought this story was too miraculous. She believed that Jesus could do it, but she didn’t understand why. What made Lazarus so special? She was fascinated by him and wanted to know more: how he lived afterwards, what it felt like to have received this gift from God. She realizes how easy this is to psychologize, in the context of her life.
It's another sign of continuity between Gifty’s adult, scientifically-minded self and her childhood persona that even when she believed in the miracle of Lazarus’s resurrection, she still wanted to know more about how and why it had happened. It also points to the larger questions that neither science nor faith can answer: why do some people become addicts but others don’t? Why do some people have safe, easy lives while others suffer? Why do some people get to be reborn or to recreate themselves, while others can’t?
In college, Gifty read a philosophical examination of neuroscience that claimed that neuroscience can’t replace psychological explanations for behavior; the brain “make[s] it possible for us—not for it—to perceive and think.” Her TA gave her the book to read because she wanted to know what accounts for reason and emotion if the brain can’t. Is it the soul? Her Christian upbringing had primed her to believe in the mystery of human existence, but she was frustrated that the mystery seemed to get farther away the more she tried to uncover it.
In conjunction with the Biblical text of the Gospel of John, Gifty thinks of a scientific text that has helped her to understand her life, which tries to draw a distinction between the brain and the self. Earlier, she thought about how neuroscientists aren’t really comfortable with the idea of a soul and realized that she herself now thought of the brain as she used to think about the soul: as that thing which made a person an individual. But neither science nor religion has yet helped her to fully unlock this fundamental mystery of what makes someone themselves, and she’s frustrated that the limits of her new belief system (science) are the same as her old one (Christianity).
As an adult, Gifty understands that sometimes science fails, that its questions turn into philosophical hypotheses. She thinks that the dichotomy between science and religion is false because both fail to provide ultimate answers.
This brings Gifty to an important admission, but one which she wouldn’t feel comfortable saying out loud in the scientific community. She realizes that science doesn’t have all the answers for life and its mysteries. Sometimes, science leads right back to philosophy and religion. Philosophy and religion have always attempted to answer the questions that science can’t.
Gifty remembers Anne asking if she believed in evolution. Their friendship was full of arguments and wouldn’t last, but Gifty felt that Anne truly knew her and truly saw her in a way that no one, not even her mother, could. Anne argued that creationism and evolution were “diametrically opposed,” and Gifty answered with the words of her high school teacher that people are made of stardust, but God made the stars.
More than anyone else in the book, Anne represents the idea that science and faith are irresistibly opposed to each other, something that Gifty herself disagrees with on a fundamental level. However, despite this irreconcilable difference in their belief systems, Anne nevertheless seems to truly love and value Gifty as a person, offering her the first real taste of intimacy she’s ever experienced. Through Anne, Gifty starts to learn that it’s possible to have intimate relationships with people who are challenging (like her mother) or who have different beliefs and values than she does (like Katherine).
Why Jesus would resurrect Lazarus is a mystery, but so is why some mice stop pressing the lever and others don’t. Gifty stopped believing in extravagant miracles after Nana’s death, but she still hoped for smaller ones, like her mother getting up. She created and clung to a routine with her mother, so she felt as if her efforts had been rewarded the day she came home to find the bed empty. Like Jesus she’d willed her mother, in the words of the Biblical text, to “come forth.” Gifty called Pastor John, who called an ambulance. As Gifty’s mother was lifted onto a stretcher, she apologized for not letting the Chin Chin Man take Nana with him to Ghana.
Gifty stopped believing in extravagant miracles after Nana’s death because God hadn’t healed Nana as she had asked. But she still clings to hope that she can salvage the remnant of her family. This is the smaller miracle of her mother getting up. But when her mother does appear to have risen from the grave of her bed, it’s a false hope. In fact, she’s tried to commit suicide. In a way, however, this act saves Gifty’s mother, since it's what gets her the psychological help that allows her to get back on her feet after Nana’s death. Now, in her scientific research, Gifty looks for the smallest of small miracles: the tiny, finite part of the brain that she can stimulate to stop an addicted mouse from risking his health seeking the high of a shot of Ensure.