After lunch, Gifty decides to give herself the afternoon off to take her mother to the beach. She’s not surprised when she enters a silent apartment, but when she peeps into the bedroom, her mother is gone. Gifty remembers her childhood confidence that things happened according to divine order, a confidence that vanished after Nana’s death and her mother’s depression. She realizes that her mother’s suicide attempt felt like the thirty-ninth day in the desert without water, and she’s spent the last seventeen years waiting for the fortieth day. And now it’s here.
Gifty understands the experience of her mother’s suicide attempt by way of a Biblical metaphor. Three of the four gospels tell this story. After his baptism, Jesus retired to spend 40 days in the desert, fasting and praying. During this time, Satan appeared and tempted him several times, but each time, Jesus resisted Satan’s offers. The themes of this story that seem to resonate with Gifty are the tremendous isolation, loneliness, and suffering of Jesus in the desert. But whereas Jesus relies on God for strength and resists Satan, Gifty lost her faith in God through the trials that surrounded her brother’s death. When she connects her mother’s two depressions into one sojourn in the desert, she suggests a powerful continuity between the two. But this also shows at least one of the ways in which Gifty has gotten stuck. Forced too young into a caretaker role for her mother, she doesn’t feel like she’s ever been relieved of that post. She spent the years between her mother’s two depressions just waiting for her mother to attempt suicide again.
Gifty calls, “Ma!” as she searches the small apartment, specifically the bathroom. She runs outside but stops short when she realizes she has no idea where to look for her mother. She pulls out her phone and calls Katherine, who answers by asking if she’s okay. “No, I’m not okay,” she replies. And she wonders if or when she’s ever made that confession before.
Gifty’s mother is not lying, suicidal, in the bathtub as she did on that other day many years before. But she isn’t in the apartment anymore. In a way, finding her in the tub might have been easier for Gifty, because then at least she would have known what to do: call for help (as she called Pastor John when she was a child) and turn her mother over to the care of medical professionals. But because her mother is gone, she doesn’t know what to do. And because she doesn’t know what to do, she does what has been unthinkable for her since she was a small girl: ask someone else to come and help her.
Katherine drives over and she and Gifty begin to drive around the complex and the neighborhood while Gifty catalogues the bridges and bodies of water her mother could have used to attempt suicide again. Just as she resolves to call the police, Gifty sees her mother on the side of the road, sitting beneath a tree. She shouts, “Where were you?” but her mother is stiff and unresponsive as they put her in the car.
With Katherine alongside her, Gifty can at least take some action to find her mother. But Gifty, who has always seemed so assured that she understands her mother perfectly, is wrong. This wasn’t a suicide attempt, or at least it doesn’t appear to be. Katherine and Gifty instead find Gifty’s mother sitting beneath a tree, looking out of place and confused.
Katherine drives them home, where Gifty refuses her offer to stay. As Gifty’s fear dissipates, pity for her small, disheveled mother replaces anger. Gifty runs a bath, then gently undresses her, and begins to bathe her. When she pours water over her mother’s head, she sees shock and pleasure in her eyes. She says, “Mama I beg you” but doesn’t know how to finish the sentence: to live? to stop? to wake up? While Gifty gently washes, her mother grabs her hand, holds it to her heart, and says, “Ebeyeyie,” it will be all right in Twi. It’s what she said to Nana when she bathed him during his withdrawal. Gifty doesn’t trust it: it was true then only until it wasn’t. But her mother grabs Gifty’s face, looks into her eyes and insists, “Don’t be afraid … God is with me wherever I go.”
Part of the trauma experienced during her mother’s first depression was being forced as a young child into the role of an adult caretaker. When Gifty and Katherine get her mother home, Gifty runs a bath and bathes her mother as if she were a small child and Gifty herself was the mother. But this act of role reversal doesn’t seem traumatic. Rather, it seems to release Gifty of the need to take care of her mother on her own and at the expense of her own personal mental and emotional health. The bath is where Gifty, as a child, tried to baptize herself. So bathing her mother acts as a sort of baptism marking her own rebirth, rather than her mother’s. Gifty is reborn as her mother’s caretaker, but also as her own individual person, no longer completely dependent on her mother’s or her family identity for a sense of meaning. In addition, while Gifty bathes her mother, her mother speaks tenderly to her, reminding her that God takes care of her, releasing her daughter from her feeling that she is solely responsible for taking care of her.
Once Gifty’s mother is asleep, Gifty sneaks out of the house, despite feeling like she needs to stay and hold vigil. She drives north to San Francisco, relishing the feeling of the wind from the open windows on her face. She’s trying to escape mice and humans and herself, especially herself. She wants to hear God’s voice telling her the way.
With her mother bathed and her newfound sense of release, Gifty engages in a much-delayed act of rebellion. Like a teenager, she waits until her mother is asleep and then sneaks out of the house to be on her own for a while. As she drives around, she wishes to escape her responsibilities, fears, and traumas. She wants to be told where to go and what to do. And she realizes that she’s still listening for God’s voice, even though she stopped believing in the faith of her childhood many years ago.
When they were children, Nana and Gifty used to sneak into the community’s gated pool—which their parents had refused to let them join—while their mother worked the night shift. Neither were good swimmers, so they just waded in the shallow end. Gifty fretted that God would be mad at them for sinning and doing something against the rules. But Nana replied that it’s a nice sin.
As Gifty drives, she remembers sneaking into the community pool late at night with Nana. Her memory suggests that God isn’t watching her as closely or as critically as she always thought: she has always had the leeway to make her own choices and her own mistakes. Like her mother, who didn’t much care if her children went into sports or medicine or science as long as they worked hard, God doesn’t seem to care about every tiny little action and thought Gifty has. In this memory, she realizes that sometimes it’s nice to let go and let down her guard. But it’s also clear that she hasn’t been able to do this since Nana died and left her on her own to take care of their mother.
Gifty drives around the city until it gets dark, then parks her car. She tells God, someone, anyone: her mother will get better, and she will finish her paper. Her work will have meaning, and her mother will be alive to see it. She fantasizes about driving home and finding her mother awake, making dinner. She begs “Please, please” into the darkness, waiting for a response or “some bit of wonder,” before beginning the drive home.
As she thinks about what she will do going forward, Gifty’s thoughts are poised between prayer and talking to ghosts. Earlier, she talked to Nana to ease the pain of missing him; she talks to her mice while she does experiments; and she spent much of her childhood talking to God. In all of these cases, the relief followed the talking, suggesting that it’s less that God is listening that brings her comfort than that she’s allowing herself to express her true feelings. But as she waits for an answer, she realizes that she is the only one who has always been listening. And what she has heard in these moments of inspiration and silence have made her into the person she is.