Singing my mom to sleep

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

“Wait a second, let me catch my breath
Remind me how it feels to hear your voice
Your lips are movin’, I can’t hear a thing
Livin’ life as if we had a choice

Anywhere, anytime
I would do anything for you
Yesterday got away
Melodies stuck inside your head
A song in every breath

Sing me to sleep now
Sing me to sleep.”

It took me a couple of moments to realize the hidden symbolism behind it, having just lost my mother. Last time we saw each other was 10 years ago. Once I realized what it meant, I sobbed being moved by the beautiful music, literally witnessing how my mom’s grandson lovingly sang her to sleep.

She did not open the door to anyone

He only sang to her spirit as her body was in the Russian morgue at that time, thousands of miles away, after it was found in her apartment SIX days after her death. 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 since 2008.

Nobody was allowed to enter her apartment

My parents got divorced when I was FOUR and I went to live with my mom and my dad had weekend visitations. My mom was a very intelligent and educated person, a doctor who was working as an infectious disease specialist. She used to tell me that she liked bacteria more than people. She never was very social, was quiet and reserved. I remember when my dad had guests over before their divorce she locked herself in another room and did not come out until they left. She did not allow me to bring friends to our apartment. When my mom came home from work, she would go into her room and close the door. We never had dinner together or went on any family vacations. My mom had frequent migraines and was hospitalized many times for “headaches”, at least this what I knew as a child. I did not know what mental illness was back then. One thing I still remember about her is how clean she was and how thoroughly she cleaned her apartment every day.

Her only daughter moved away

It was difficult for me to live with my mom as I often felt very lonely. When I was 18, I got married and left home. A few months later I also left Russia and moved to the US at the end of 1999 with my former husband who got a job as a computer programmer while I was accepted at the university.

I still called my mom frequently when I first moved here but after I got pregnant and my husband divorced me because he did not want to have children, my mother promised me that she would come to the US and help me with my baby while I worked. When my son was born, she told me to figure out how I would do it on my own or I could always come back to Russia and live with her under her conditions. I did not want to do that and was devastated by her lies when I was most vulnerable and desperate. I stopped calling her for about a year. After I got over that betrayal and called her again, she did not talk much and our relationship became very strained and most of the time she just would not answer the phone.

Visiting my mom in Russia

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 it to us.

In 2008, we came again and she opened on a second day accidentally as she was leaving her apartment to go somewhere, and we just happened to be right there! We talked a little and she let us in and we slept that night in her apartment. She had no bed for us or chairs, not even a bathroom door and she herself slept on a floor. She had fancy wallpaper and a lot of beautiful paintings in golden frames, her apartment was almost empty and immaculately clean and looked like a gallery, it was dark and eerie. There also was no food in her refrigerator.


I told her that I would go grocery shopping and cook dinner for all of us so we could all sit down and have a meal together. She told me that she could not join us and went to her room to sleep. We followed her into her room to talk to her and she smiled at her grandson and I have precious photos of two of them smiling together! After a few minutes, she told me she had a headache and we needed to go in the other room. I could not sleep all night and about 2 am heard her going into the kitchen. In the morning all the left-overs were gone, she ate them all alone at night.

I asked her about her life and she just told me that she is dating a young painter, thus she has all the paintings that he gave her. I did not believe her but said that I would be interested to meet him. Of course, she said it was not possible.

I told her to join us for a play, movie or to go see our friends or shopping or anything else that she would want to do with us. She told us to go by ourselves because she was too tired. I could not get through to my mom. I was very sad and hurt and mostly felt like I failed to help her in any way despite our best efforts.

Our communication stopped

When we came back to the US, she disconnected her phone line permanently and we never spoke again. I called her neighbor and asked her to put my written messages by my mom’s door but she never picked them up or replied to me. I sent her letters, pictures of my kids, my dad’s book that I published after his death, care packages, and asked people including her neighbor to knock on her door with no positive result. She was totally unreachable.

I tried my hardest to concentrate on my life and not worry about my mom because I could not change anything about her. When people asked about my mom, I always used to say, she doesn’t talk to me anymore and I don’t know why. I did not want to just fly to Russia with our four young children without my mom first telling me that she would let us in.

The last few times when I called her neighbor, she sounded nettled by my inquiries about my mom and explained to me in no uncertain terms that she wass tired of my calls and my mom doesn’t talk to anyone and I should stop calling her. She was my only connection with my mother.

Her death notification

I had a vivid dream at the end of April that I came to see my mom in Russia but did not know the passcode to open a door to the common entrance of her apartment building. I was waiting all day and all night for somebody to open the door for me but not a single person was there and I left feeling completely devastated. I woke up in tears. A week later, I got a call about her death from my best friend in Russia. I came home from a morning jog. When my Russian friend talked to me, she told me that she just had a new baby. I was so happy for her and asked many questions, but then she proceeded to tell me that my mother was dead. It was simply surreal. I sat on the ground and stared in front of me in shock and disbelief. She just turned 76. We did not get a chance to say goodbye. I thanked my friend and told her that I could not talk anymore. I was sitting on the ground, frozen for hours just staring in the distance.


I went to sleep and slept for more than 12 hours. I did not care about anything. My husband had to take time off work to care for our four young children because I couldn’t. I stayed in bed. I did not talk much. I did not eat for a few days and barely drank. I stayed in my room, just like my mom used to do. I did not cry. I 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 was finally open, that door that I despised was finally open! Her beautiful paintings, objects of her admiration that she chose over living people who loved her, are still hanging there as nothing ever happened even though she is gone. I experienced a powerful existential crisis. I would describe the first few weeks as a state of dissociation, unreality, a frozen state.

Later I experienced profound sadness and the only consolation was when I felt my mom’s presence. I walked in a hallway and a small red glass heart fell on my foot. It felt as if she said that she loved me!

Bringing my mom to this country

After a lot of paperwork and many difficulties as well as help from my stepbrother in Russia, we had her body brought here so she can be buried next to my dad.

At the funeral, I told my mom that I want to remember the day she brought me home from the hospital when I was born and gazed at me all night with motherly love and tenderness. I want to hold on to that moment forever despite different, darker, more painful moments we had later on in our relationship.

Then in the next few weeks, I had a roller coaster of emotions ranging from despair and sadness to anger, to guilt, numbness, and sometimes to nothing. I am currently seeing a therapist for my grief and it helps to talk to somebody who understands.

Talking to her friend and brother

I called my mom’s only friend and talked to her so she could share memories of my mom with me. She told me that she invited her many times for tea but my mom did not accept those invitations. She told me that when my mom no longer needed something to be that a person or a thing, she would let go of it without any regrets. I called her brother and he said that she was always quiet and did not sit with her family for dinner and never wanted to be in any family photos and her mom (my grandmother) was worried about her mental state when I was a child. He also told me that his father and her stepfather was physically abusive toward her and frequently used a belt and would also lock her in a room with him.

Seeing a medium

To find resolution and the better understanding regarding my mom’s life and death, I went to see a medium. She told me my mom was waiting for me even though she couldn’t let me in and she sat in her chair for days and looked at the paintings. She loved me without a doubt but her love was more like a bird in a cage that could not escape her intense fear of leaving her surroundings and communicating with people. She had a profound mental illness and emotional pain. The medium told me that the stepfather was awful to her, abused her physically and sexually without feeling any remorse. She was deeply hurt in her childhood. At the end, she was very unwell and suffering and death was a welcomed relief. Her message to me was to not judge her harshly because she simply could not connect with anyone, she lived her life “behind a glass” and one of her biggest joys was actually having me. She wanted to remind me that we also had good, happy times when I was little and she will cherish them forever. I felt her presence, her love and it gave me some peace.

My resolution

I feel better and less helpless for being able to do something in such a hopeless situation. Now my goal in life is to overcome my personal fears because fears are what destroyed my mom. I love my mom immensely. However, I think the best thing I can do to honor her is not to become like her in that regard.

Inga Wismer is a Russian immigrant, a biochemist in her previous career, a mother of 4, one with Autism, currently a graduate student studying Counseling, spiritual seeker and a nature lover.




Image courtesy of Riccardo Mion.