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.