She was dead long before she stopped breathing.
Her sunken, empty eyes
held no hope as she sat idly
on the deck or face-down on the beach as the sun
breathed her in.
She seized her moments of clarity around their necks
and submerged them, whining in ether.
She starved her body of loving embrace
and recoiled to touch like she was toxic
And when her eyes fused shut when life burnt out,
she reached towards the ceiling for God to hold her.
The evening following her death was quiet. Too quiet. My dad sat on the floor of my grandpa’s living room, surrounded by heaps of papers and bills that my mom hid around the house during the last year of her life. I later learned through my own investigation into the mind of an addict that they’re particularly good at keeping secrets. My mom’s secrets were of a financial matter. She had a credit card no one knew about, bills left unpaid, stuffed into drawers here and there, and now my dad was sifting through all of it.
It made sense to me, though, watching him look at old bills for the first time and have no idea who was responsible for them, or how they were so well hidden. That previous summer, my mom and dad were living with my grandpa who was recovering from surgery. My brother and I lived in our childhood home across town. One afternoon my mom called me and asked me to bring the industrial-sized jug of coffee to her because they ran out and she would rather die before ingesting instant decaf.
Dutifully, I made a pit stop to the kitchen and pulled out the jug. Behind it, my mom’s Minnie Mouse glass – a souvenir from our first family vacation to Disney World – sat behind it, half-full of clear liquid. At first, I thought it was a glass of water and thought it was very strange that it was in a food cabinet. I pulled it from the shelf and brought it to my nose. Vodka. How? She never drank vodka.
I brought it up to her that same night. Her response was, “Don’t judge me.” I knew she was drinking vodka before she wound up in the hospital, before she turned yellow, before she forgot who she was. Yet, I said nothing, because she told me not to judge her. She told me to stay out of it, and that I wasn’t the parent. So I obliged. Partly out of fear and partly because I thought maybe if I kept her secrets she’d have more to tell me until there was nothing left to hide and maybe – when all other forms of avoidance were exhausted – she’d want to get sober.
It was uncommonly warm – the day after her death – and we opened all the windows in the front of the house, the ones facing the creek. I grew up accustomed to the smell of low tide, the oddly sweet, rotten, organic smell that rose up from the muck when the water receded. When we were little, my brother and I would blame it on the other as our parents drove us near the water. As we aged, we could pinpoint the difference between creek smell and a fart.
The smell at first wafted gently and slowly into the living room. I saw my dad wrinkle his nose a bit – especially since he was on the floor and the odor was too dense to rise up the cathedral ceilings in the cape house. My grandpa, whose diet consisted all-too regularly of things like Jarlsburg cheese and canned sardines, was unaffected. When the smell arrived to me, on the couch, it round-house kicked me in the face. Putrid, rotting organic smell. Human-organic smell.
“What,” my dad began. Then, cut off by his own sense of smell, inhaled deeply and regretfully.
“Oh my god,” he said, “what the fuck is that?”
“Huh?” My grandpa finally looked up. For a moment, my dad and I thought he soiled himself and was trying to play it casual.
“Shit, pop, shit,” my dad said to him. “It smells like shit.”
Our attention turned to the four or five open windows that faced the creek. It wasn’t the creek, so my dad and I both got up and walked out onto the deck.
“I think it’s coming from the basement,” I suggested.
My dad put on his sandals and opened the basement door only to be struck with the affirmation that yes, the smell of raw sewage was down there. Enough, in fact, to flood the floor and anything buoyant enough that once sat on the concrete was now adrift in a sea of poo.
It was concluded that the influx of visitors over the last week to my grandpa’s house overloaded the septic system and backed up a combination of water and waste, creating an ankle-deep tide pool downstairs. My dad grabbed a Shop Vac and I recoiled to the couch. He called an emergency plumbing service to pump out the tanks and, within maybe three hours, all the crap was gone – except for the smell.
“Look at this,” he said as he walked back into the house. I did not want to look at whatever he had in the bucket he was carrying.
“They floated out from behind the dryer.” He tilted the bucket towards me and inside I saw several large, empty bottles of Absolut vodka.
“Holy shit,” I said. Immediately, I thought back to the summer before, and how I wasn’t able to figure out how my mom was drinking vodka and keeping it from everyone. It all made sense. Laundry, chores, grocery shopping – she hid everything in plain sight.
I often wonder what moment
for you was the pistol
and what moment
was the decision to pull
It’s usually a split
decision that moves like
brush stroke, uniform –
An obvious beginning
and end but no sign
of the climax.
I often wonder what life
you would have led
if you didn’t stay –
If you didn’t say yes
to a rock that was below
your worth –
If you didn’t measure
your life in poorly
assembled dominoes –
A uniformity doomed from the moment
you began self-medicating.
You were never meant to fall straight.
Would you have
in the Native Land
with red clay to call
home and ground yourself
to ancient beings who never fell from the sky?
Who would you have become
if you stopped
holding on so hard?
I may have never been
but I speculate the sacrifice
would have been worth you knowing
In my grandmother’s kitchen my mother told me,
You will never get a boyfriend
with your hair parted down the middle.
Her cigarette burned down as I burned down to a pile
Clearly, naively, innocently, I listened.
I heeded the woman
whose hair was frozen in Aquanet since 1984
that my romantic endeavors were reliant on where my hair
fell from the top of my head
and how delicately my hair sat atop my shoulders
and how I should probably brush out the curls because they look messy
You look messy.
For years, I concerned myself with the aesthetics of my coils
rather than the intention of my character and the intentions that fell
from the bottom of my heart
and how loud my heart beat on my sleeve
and how unimportant my hair was but I could not see —
Could not see past my hair
past what I needed to be for my mother
in order to be loved by another.
That I was raised to be thin
to critique what I was
and not who I am.
To be thin and pretty God forbid I be a fat child and love my middle part —
Because we need to be thin and pretty.
My mother was thin and pretty
And had sky-high hair and box dye status.
As an adult I could be fat and pretty but not pretty fat and ugly
and only after I found someone to love my hair placed delicately to the side
could I be fat and pretty or ugly and thin
because at least I’d be thin.
I could let myself go only after
I placed my intentions and the messy heart on my sleeve
delicately to the side.
I could unravel like my mother did and stand behind the kitchen island
and treat it as a podium and tell my daughter,
You must change before you are loved.
So I walked the line of my middle part of
black and white —
Of judgment —
Of hope someone would fall in love
with my placement and one day I woke up too many years later and realized
This. Was. Dumb.
My hair coils and curls and speaks for itself
and spoke for me before I found my voice.
My body moves and grows and shrinks like my mane
and I am ever-changing
and always speaking.
Some days I may feel thin and pretty
or fat and ugly and now instead of dwelling
I release my hair
I appreciate the entropy
and whoever can love that entropy will love everything
I’ve come to love about me.
Smoke coiled through the seams of the car
and we sat in the back in the haze while classic rock blared
into your ears and you forgot for a moment that you were a mother,
that you were my mother.
Loosely strumming on the steering wheel,
palms and thumbs drumming.
Music maker child maker —
I wanted to be just like you.
I wanted to be like you until the sun went down because
when the sun went down the bottle came out
and there was dracula —
And the werewolf —
You damaged, fermented
Dragon Woman with hands that curled
to knotted tree branches and poison spat out of you.
I hid in my closet until the lightbulb died.
And I realized I never wanted to be like you.
But you taught me so much.
You taught me to be afraid
(I was afraid of my mother)
So I had to be strong
And you taught me to be strong and to question you
Question everything —
Go against you.
Your vicarious wishes of who I should be
who I was —
But I didn’t have a fucking clue.
And when the morning came that I watched breath escape
your chapped lips for the final time you somehow taught me right there to look Death straight in his face
and fear nothing because I already knew you, Dragon Woman.
And I don’t want to be you but I came from you
you created me — me.
I am the daughter of patricia —
Of teased hair and electric blue eyeliner —
Of wild coolness.
I grew up at the altar of an ‘03 mustang
With empty diet coke cans and Bic lighters on hand.
Bic lighters everywhere
fire always on hand.
And you drummed your primal ancient animal skin beat to the chant in your head —
Do no harm. Take no shit.
The final lesson of my mother.
I didn’t know that people could be empty. Every vampire movie – every soul-sucking, weirdo zombie flick – I finally felt like I was on the same level as those creatures. Empty of blood, of soul, of life. How could I be alive if my entire being felt cold and dead like my mother?
Patricia was on the opposite side of that spectrum, actually. She requested to be cremated. She requested a closed casket, too. No one got to see her in the state she was in; partly because we didn’t want people to remember her bloated, yellow and diseased, and mostly because her bangs were flat and she would have never stood to be in public with her hair in such disarray. Naturally there were comments on how a closed casket must have meant she looked awful. But really, what dead person looks Instagram worthy? On the morning of the funeral we stuffed her shirt with childhood photos to be burned with her and headed to the church. From there, she was carted off to a crematorium, incinerated, and placed in a jar on the mantle of the house she almost died in to serve as a reminder that we were alone and addiction was real.
“Mm, the casket is closed. It must have been awful,” whispered one strange man to another strange woman. I sat in a high-back chair against a wall in the middle of the funeral home and observed them. I observed everyone. Each passing face, each person who I didn’t recognize but said to me, “Oh you have her smile! You look just like her!” But I didn’t look just like her. If they could have only seen what she looked like under that rented casket they’d have different opinions.
“How did you know my mother?” I glared up at them from my throne. I was the one mourning. I had the power.
“Oh, well, uh, we didn’t. We’re friends with her sister.”
“Well my aunt isn’t here. So you can either stay or go home.”
I felt like a wild animal, protecting a dead pack leader from the hoards of scavengers, all sniffing around for a part of her name to shred off. It was kill or be killed. I couldn’t believe that even in death there were comments about how she probably looked – how she probably died. What did it matter? She was dead. Period. We just had to ride it out, collect the flowers that would also die, and go home.
The house plants were certainly neglected back at my grandfather’s. Fall took an express lane to the backyard and everything that was once flourishing now hung skeletal and ominous. The dahlias I got her for Mother’s Day, Nan’s geraniums, and the hydrangeas were all limp; Grandma’s peace lily from her funeral in 2008 was also down to one, measly leaf. I didn’t have the heart to toss it so I just kept watering the same shitty greenery inside and hoped for the best. It drowned a little more each day but I didn’t know where to put my need to care for the dying. I had spent the first 20 years of my life trying to prevent Patricia from killing herself and, in my mind at the time, failed miserably at that. I felt selfish for going back to school, like I didn’t deserve to grow away from her. I was alive, and that wasn’t fair.
I wandered campus, juxtaposed between the pressing social lives of my friends and the isolated void that my mind became. My priorities included meeting with professors – all of whom were wonderfully understanding that my situation was tragic, unplanned, and unfair. In particular, kudos to my social work professor who didn’t require me to shadow a hospital for six weeks following my residence at my mother’s bedside (although, I might add, she gave me a C for the semester for not shadowing a hospital, and it was “favoring” me by giving any more lenience). Post traumatic stress disorder was something I believed to be limited to soldiers and victims of national tragedies; I didn’t know it applied to my own personal disaster until the project announcement sent me into a panic attack in the middle of class.
My friends greeted me in varying levels of sympathy and awkward comments of reassurance, because none of them experienced consoling a friend who lost a parent to addiction. Anthony, in his usual silent manner, brought me in for a long albeit soft eyeball-to-nipple embrace. Most friends were silent, and simply hugged me, which I appreciated more than the words. One friend in particular, though, unsure of where to grasp condolences told me, “Wow, I can’t believe you’re back already; If my mom died I would have killed myself by now.” He meant well, and I found it pretty laughable after the exchange because I didn’t know how to react to a statement like that as much as he couldn’t control the backhanded sympathy dribbling from his mouth.
I turned heavily into baking for some reason. Almost weekly, I ventured into town and bought dollar boxes of brownie mix, or dollar cake mix – whatever was on sale. I’d concoct delicious, although dangerously sweet, experimental desserts that my five other roommates loved and I loved eating. I thought to myself, if I wasn’t the only one eating a Kit-Kat filled brownie with melted peanut butter swirl then it was fine, right? Baking seemed almost cathartic at the time too. There is a preciseness to baking that doesn’t come with cooking meals. Baking is measuring cups and scales, whereas cooking is based off of feelings like, is this enough garlic or do I want it more garlicky? The answer is always more garlic. But, for me at the time, my feelings were so fucking catastrophic that I needed some regimented direction. Baking was a win-all – I had to follow steps and had control, and I could eat my feelings surrounded by friends who wouldn’t dare tell me I was spiraling out of control. For me there was no spiral; I was long gone.
The isolation began to extend from within my head to my circles, especially my social work class.
“Who here has lost a grandparent?” My professor raised her hand by example to the 28 of us, all of who raised a hand – almost proudly – in response to the question. “Alright, all of you. Makes sense. Everyone in here is over 18. Now, who of you has lost a parent?” She kept her hand down.
All of the kids kept their hands down. I felt hot and cold at the same time, like a fever. I also felt like for some reason she was challenging me because I had an ace in the hole to get out of the final project. Everything about my being was sensitive and vulnerable and I resented her in that moment. I raised my hand from the back of the classroom and her eyes met mine. Like magnets, all of the students’ eyes turned to see who she was staring at. I was the only person who raised my hand. I picked up my notebooks and walked out of the classroom.
That was the first time I really wanted to die.
I thought, if I just surrendered to the pain I felt then maybe it would overrun my body and my heart would just stop, and that would be the end of it. I barely made it a month and I wasn’t ready to face the world without Patricia. She was the strongest person I knew and all of that shattered when she died – when she proved to everyone around her that she didn’t want to live anymore. I was so angry when she died I blurted out a couple of times that she killed herself, because I couldn’t understand the hold alcohol had on her. And I was angry with myself for saying it because I remembered how fucking terrified she was looking at me the night before she went into a coma. She knew she fucked up. She knew there was no going back. The end of her life came at 51 years old and I saw her trying to undo years of abuse in her mind for a second chance that she would never receive.
I thought back to that summer, a month before I left for Oxford. I came home on a lunch break to find her in bed, blinds drawn, dog beside her. I lay down next to her and I asked her if she was sad.
Three words. Are you sad? She immediately began to cry – the first time I saw her show any emotion other than anger in a year. I didn’t ask her to explain herself; she didn’t owe it to anyone to feel sad. I was just relieved that she finally opened up to me. Eventually I coaxed her out of her room and we stood in the kitchen. She lit a cigarette and took a long, personal drag.
“Maybe I’ll just kill myself,” she said passively through a cloud of smoke.
I took that statement so seriously. I offered to call out of work, take her somewhere – just the two of us. I didn’t want her to be alone.
“We don’t have to tell anyone,” I said.
“No,” she said, “I won’t kill myself.”
No, I thought, I won’t kill myself.