For me the erasure began before she actually died. My inclination here is to write, “long before,” but that would be misleading, you see, because she had her first surgery when I was five and was dead before I turned nine. Three, four years, tops, is, in no way a long time. Even for a child.
Trauma does that, though. Erases. She had her thyroid out first, when I was five. Then it was the shock of seeing the curved scar centered in the dimple of her neck.
“Mom just had her thyroid out. She’s gonna be fine.”
As if that means anything to someone in kindergarten.
By the time I’d turned six she’d been diagnosed with cancer and had a double mastectomy. After her surgery, she told me not to tell any of my friends at school. I feel her shame even now, as I’m sitting here writing, reflecting back on this, even though I don’t ever remember her saying she was. I know she showed me her scars, although I can’t recall what they looked like.
You see? It’s already started.
The rest of it blurs, runs together with no chronology.
Her return from a hospital stay, smelling stale. So much so that it made me cringe to be near her.
The addition of a hospital bed to our home decor and the ringing of a bell — her signal to me it was time to empty the bed pan.
Another surgery that left her with a pin in her leg, this time the shock of seeing the smooth metal protruding upon her skin. You see, they’d found out the cancer had eaten a hole through the bone in her knee, about a quarter size around.
Waking up to the sound of the diesel fire engine running outside, red lights flickering over the street and the yards and the trees, I heard voices down the hall and walked in the darkness toward them, the paramedics talking to her in that very loud way that they do, then seeing her laying prostrate on the floor, dark blue shirts hovered over her, my Father off to the side. I just turned and ran, then back under the covers, pretending I hadn’t seen.
Visits to the hospital, I was always snuck in, no kids allowed in the ICU. And then into her room, relatives all around, crying and sad, I devolved into their afterthought as the end closed in, no one explaining, their hands pushing me closer, to hug my Mother.
I noticed my Father’s van parked outside as our class got ready to go to music class at two. I didn’t go that day. I was called to the Principal’s office. I walked in, my Father sitting there with Sister Curtis And then he told me, sort of matter of factly,
“Your Mother died.”
I’m still not sure if that’s how it actually was or if it’s something I’ve constructed. I remember him hugging me, though, the lump in my throat painful, the pain spreading out to stifle my tears. I just wanted to push him away.
I remember walking into our house that day with him, relatives sitting about in the living room, I asked,
“Why does everyone look so sad?”
My Grandmother told me later that day I had to be strong for my Father.
I don’t remember how long I stayed out of school. But I remember her funeral. Congregated at the back of a full church with my family, my entire class and school in attendance, I asked my Father why we couldn’t just sit down.
“We’re walking behind your Mother’s casket.”
I didn’t want to, but he made me, anyway.
We sat there in the front pew, the lump still lodged firmly where it formed, I sat there willing myself not to cry. I didn’t want them to see me as weak as they queued for Communion, look after look of pity raining down on me as my maternal Grandmother wailed in the background.
My Uncle wept over her casket before they put her in the ground, crying into the crook of his arm, my Aunt consoling him.
My Father was ill-equipped to deal. With everything. So enveloped in his own grief, I had to decorate the house by myself that first Christmas, that screamed he’d be better off dead after receiving yet another pile of bills in the mail. I sunk in a shell, playing the grown-up, raging at their pity, and pushing everyone away. Even her.
By the time he’d emerged it was too late. I’d thrown the window open and flown away from him.
Sitting together in the den, watching the news, some show or whatever. He’d try to talk to me about her,
“You know, your Mother loved to…”
Or whatever it was. And I’d sit there silently, listening, just not wanting to fucking talk about it, the lump in my throat rearing its ugly head again, nausea rising in my stomach as I collected another anecdote.
And then the day, inevitably, rolled around where I just wanted to know. So I sought people out. Her best friend, our family. I was trying to quench the thirst of wanting, of needing to know her beyond the photos and the letters signed “Marty” I’d taken to study when my Father wasn’t home.
I’m left with a collection of stories about a Mother I can never claim to know, yet whose loss and whose death defines who I am more than anything else.
Sitting in her best friend’s living room, on their familiar velour, brown-flowered couch, listening to her tell me about my Mother’s plans for us — that she wanted to travel the world with me, that she didn’t care if my Father went or if he stayed, she wanted to travel the world with me…
Christmas Eve at my Aunt’s house, standing around the kitchen listening to her talk with the brothers and sisters about the dirt-floored shack in El Paso they grew up in…
My Father’s anecdotes became a bit more tolerable, if only because of the thirst.
They’d met on Thanksgiving at my Uncle George’s house. It was a set-up, you see, George and my Aunt Yolanda’s doing. My Father drove her home and they’d kissed goodnight…
How she had to leave the theatre when they saw “Alien,” the gore was just too much for her…
Each story concluding with a variation of the same, over and over — things aren’t the same anymore, your Mother was magic. But there is darkness there, too.
On the phone with my Mother’s other daughter — she first implored me never to tell my Father that I knew what she was about to tell me. That there had been one time before, one time after my birth, that my Mother had had a breakdown, the first time threatening, the second time attempting suicide.
Visiting one afternoon with my Uncle, and Bob, his partner — they’d been together since the 1950’s and remained so until Bob’s death. They’d come into town every once in a while and I’d always go to see them. Talking about my Mother, I’d wondered what she would have thought of me, out then as a lesbian. My Uncle and Aunt,
“She loved you, she would have accepted you.”
And then Bob chimed in, in his delightfully catty, intellectual lilt,
“I hope you’re not offended by this, but I do have to say. You know, your Mother was never very kind to me. She disapproved of my relationship with your Uncle.”
I wasn’t offended. But it wasn’t easy to hear, either. I was grateful, though, for the flaw in her portrait. That’s always where the truth resides.
Hearing how my Mother saw me as a second chance to be a good mother. My siblings had stayed with their father when my Mother divorced him and she’d always felt guilty for it.
There is more, of course. And I will never be able to reconcile it all to make her complete in my mind, to know her as a woman, a human, a complex person in an intimate way.
The thirst remains, as do the stories and anecdotes, the darkness — all very much a part of my very human mother. I’ve accepted them. And her. As the ghosts in my machine, the seeds that have grown into my origin story and me. As a writer, a human, as a complex person. Into words that will remain forever.
The high art of tragedy.