Under here, Underwear

Today marks eight years since my mother died and I am honoring it by purchasing new bras for myself – and not just because my dog has gone on some weird, hateful, and very personal vendetta against my current collection. His kill count has reached three in three months and at this rate I’m convinced he’s a Vietnam War-era bra burner stuck in a dogs’ body. My purchase of new undergarments is strictly for the little bits of self care that go completely overlooked by so many people these days.

I used to help my mom fold laundry all throughout my childhood. We’d park ourselves on the living room floor with two baskets of clean clothes in between us and just fold away. Usually through some deeply engaging movie like The Color Purple, she and I would be matching socks and ugly crying together. I swear it would take us at least an hour just to fold a week’s worth of socks for four people because Oprah would be on screen absolutely taking my teenage breath away. I’d fold my dad’s undershirts for work, my brother’s jeans, my own clothes – and my mom would fold a little bit of everything – glass of wine nearby – but always her own underwear and bras and pantyhose. One night, she told me very indignantly, “All of my goddamn underwear have holes in them!”

Easy fix. “Mom, why don’t you go buy yourself some new underwear?”

“I’m too busy taking care of the rest of you all.”
I thought that was a very silly thing to say considering she and I both shopped in the women’s section at the local Walmart or Target. Why couldn’t she just pick up a pack of Hanes and call it a day? Her bitterness towards her holey underwear and considering the time of day (nighttime meant drunk) led me to drop my questioning very quickly. And, for the rest of her life – 20 years of my own – I probably saw her purchase underwear for herself maybe twice.

Nowadays if I get an email from Aerie, telling me they’re selling underwear 10 for $27, my ass is down at the mall faster than I can screenshot the coupon code onto my phone. Some people don’t like Aerie underwear and that’s fine, but if I have some underwear at home with a hole in the lace or a stretched out elastic band I replace it. First of all, I feel like underwear just isn’t made like it used to be; Everything is on the extremes of granny panties to lace and very little in between at times. Secondly, I love the feeling of having new underwear because it’s like a little secret of self care that no ones sees daily but it’s something I’m consciously doing for myself.

My mom’s excuse of not being able to buy underwear because she was too busy taking care of everyone else wasn’t about the underwear at all. It was about the fact that she was so far gone in her own world of self care that she couldn’t even muster to do a positive thing for herself that no one else saw. When she and I had that conversation I was about Junior High/High School age, and only a few short years later, she was gone right before my eyes. Her anger at not being able to go out and buy some basics for herself was more like a cry that she had such little feeling of self control or autonomy that something as simple as new underwear was out of the question. No one could see that she was doing it for herself, so why do it? No one could see her surrender to alcoholism either until it was too late, so why stop? She hid her vices in cabinets and behind washing machines and at the bottom of hampers, but she couldn’t have a little good thing for herself hidden.

Now, makeup, lipstick, hair dye, blush – things that everyone else could see, things that she could slap on and give the illusion of taking care of herself were fair game. Except nine times out of ten she’d send me into the store to buy it for her while she waited in the car.

“I can’t go in there like this. Here, you know the shade of lipstick, Burnt Amethyst.” It would roll out of her mouth like a junkie about to get his or her next fix. She never left the house without lipstick on. She never left the house without mascara. And god forbid her ever stepping a foot outside without dyed hair and large, impressive bangs.

We can advertise our outward self care until we’re blue in the face but what are we doing in private for ourselves that no one can see or assess? This post about my mom is pretty different from what I normally talk about, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that we are all going to face some struggle at one point or another, and it’s what we choose to do for ourselves when no one is watching that really determine where we are in our path of self care or self help. The word self is right there. If we think we’re too busy taking care of someone else (or more than one someone) to do something as simple as buying some new under garments, then maybe it’s time to assess where our energy is going.

Today, my energy is going to a little bit of self care (hopefully on sale) that I can put on before my clothes and my war paint and face the day knowing I’m covering bases, even the little ones. No one’s care is worth having uncomfortable, worn out underwear over. And to broaden that for anyone who still thinks this post is only about underpants, take care of yourself, even if others can’t see it. You shouldn’t be in a competition to be the one who can put yourself out there for others the most; You shouldn’t burden yourself with folding the world’s laundry if yours are in tatters. You’ll only resent those around you if you enter the cycle of being the fixer and the caregiver. Love yourself a little bit today.

I Broke up with my Therapist

Jodi has been my email therapist since my break-up in February. It was when I was still sleeping fourteen hours a day, not showering, not eating, not leaving my house that I realized it was probably best to reach out to someone. I stopped recognizing myself and that frightened me, because I spent so many years trying to get to know me better. Suddenly, I wasn’t there anymore. It wasn’t being in the dark – it was being the dark. 

The break-up was the breaking point, I guess. There were the deaths before that; the stress of the relationship before it imploded and then released an amalgam of lies and cheating and false identity. It amazed me how repulsed I became by someone I loved so deeply, and the true root of it was he didn’t know who he was – he never got to know himself. He couldn’t face his past in a way that allowed him to grow upwards out of it, rather, he rolled around in the filth and tried to play himself off as polished.

Polished shit is still shit.

I just didn’t think I was able to have my heart broken further than it already was. I didn’t think anyone could hurt me after seeing the hurt I had been through for sixth months prior. But that’s what’s funny with people – selfish people – they do what they want, oftentimes devoid of conscience. And I still loved him for a time after. I wanted him to be alright because I knew I was stronger than him and I honestly thought he broke himself in the process. I knew he didn’t break me, because I already know me. I just became afraid of myself in the end. That’s when I reached out for someone to talk to. 

My counselor was at the tips of my furiously typing fingers for months. I was reaching out to her multiple times a day, lost and wandering around in the shell of myself. I had zero guidance and for the first time in my 28 years I truly was unable to figure out how to unlock my torment. Things came out of me that I thought I cleansed years prior; moments and experiences that unfolded like a flower and I realized that no, I was not completely OK to begin with. But that was OK. I needed an unbiased third party who I could tell my darkest secrets to without having to look them in the eyes. It was critical for my healing to say things that I never said to anyone, for some weird Catholic fear that I’d be punished if the words existed in the open. I whittled myself down – once again – for the sake of un-becoming the dark that I took on in the winter of this year. I realized too, unfortunately, how many awful things I’ve endured in my life. I know I’m not the only one, but there were so many moments that peppered my youth that I thought at one point were normal. The stupid saying panged the back of my head, “God only gives you what you can handle. Remember that!” I chose to remind whoever that I can also handle an abundance of good. 

Therapy made me question if I’m truly grateful for the things I have, or if I’m selfish for constantly wanting more. It helped me to establish for myself a boundary point of striving beyond my means and living beyond my means. I have felt less materialistic in the last few months. I haven’t tried to reach out for disingenuous connections with men who couldn’t care less that I’ve seen death or that my youth molded me into a person who is hardened while maintaining an unbelievably sensitive core. Therapy made me look at myself in a way I wasn’t able to alone. 

Then I woke up today and realized the last email I sent my therapist was a four-month progress photo of my rescue dog, Randall, who I took into my home this April. That was twelve days ago. My mom’s eight-year anniversary is coming up next month and I don’t feel overly anxious or depressed about it like other years.  I am no longer ashamed to say that I resented my mother – not for who she was – rather, for the choices she made that destroyed who she was. Her reliance on alcohol fueled her belief that she could not function as a human without ether as a catalyst. Booze was her God and her Devil – her Heaven and her Hell – and she just existed somewhere in the middle. And while I don’t find myself reliant on booze to be someone in the world, it scares me to be like her one day. It’s why I ask for help even if I’m embarrassed or afraid because, yeah, sometimes we can’t handle it all on our own. That’s when we get sloppy and selfish in a way that is detrimental to ourselves as well as those who care about us. 

I emailed Jodi and I thanked her for her help. I told her that I’m me again. I’m not the dark anymore – not completely enlightened either – but I’m balanced. I unfolded upwards and I look down at all the dirt I came out of, and I am appreciative of how the mess below me nurtured me to be the person I grew into – someone my mother would be proud of, more importantly someone I’m proud of. 

Twenties

I thought my 20s

would be when everything 

made sense – 

I don’t know what I was expecting, though,

since my 20s began with the death

of my mother

and ended with the death 

of my limitations.

My 20s held funerary services 

of who I thought I was –

who I thought was worthy of me.

It was the death of ignoring myself;

My 20s ended with me coming to life.

Self Actualizing Shit Show

The phrase, “I really love you,” in American Sign Language is awfully similar to the sign for the Shocker, which is funny because that’s the same phrase my ex kept telling me while we recounted all the ways he fucked me over during the span of a year. He, like other uninformed hearing-abled people who might not understand what a person is signing to them, got the phrase, “I really love you,” confused with fucking me over. It’s the twist in the ASL sign that throws people off, I guess.

The day after the Super Bowl, my boyfriend texted me to tell me that he wanted to hang out before he had work that night. I welcomed it, because he went home early from his brewery job the night before and I didn’t get to spend much time with him. He said he’d felt sick that whole weekend. I felt bad for him. He worked so much we’d barely seen each other – I even wrote down in my journal that most of our time spent together in December was asleep in bed. So, I welcomed his visit. When he showed up he looked like he had two black eyes and like he hadn’t slept. I asked him to tell me what was wrong, but he just held me. 

“I haven’t been honest with you, Kait.” 

Weird, how I almost knew it was coming. Strange how I have a habit of stuffing down bad vibes because I find difficulty trusting myself, even though I knew I should have walked away from him the first time he “lost his phone,” or, “didn’t really use Facebook that much,” or even, “I don’t know why my mom didn’t accept your friend request; maybe she doesn’t remember your last name.” Funny, those rose-colored glasses that make all red flags look like flags. Hindsight being 20/20, I should have broken up with him when he returned one of my Tupperware containers before washing it out. Disrespectful.   

I sat next to him on my bed and found myself unable to cry. As someone who can practically cry on command, I couldn’t understand where this physical response was coming from. His whole explanation felt rehearsed. I realized it when he blindly handed me a tissue.

“I’m not crying.” I handed it back and he looked at me with giant, wet eyes and blew his nose with it. I saw a tinge of disbelief on his face; he knew I was a crier.

Maybe, at the time, my mind simply couldn’t process enough of what was going on in order to make appropriate reactions. Maybe it was shock; maybe I could see through his bullshit and even my subconscious knew he was undeserving of the same tears I shed for my grandfather only three weeks earlier. I truly believe for a while that night that I was just cried-out from all the heartache I endured in January. All the vulnerability – all the trust – I allowed someone to see me in a light that very few people witness, and he accepted it and moved onto others with the same goal of emotional conquest in mind. I felt betrayed, let down, defeated, and foolish. He lied about Pop. In that moment, his deceit held the upper-hand on my self-assurance. And that’s when I cried.

I hate not understanding things, on a whole. People, though, absolutely blow my mind and I am in a constant internal struggle about understanding and trusting them. Back to my extreme frustration in math class; to what motivated my mother to drink herself to death. Not knowing how or why a thing operates always dwelled on me. It took years to accept that I’m just destined to write and not worry about calculus; I still have not fully accepted why people do the things they do. 

Loyalty though; honesty, commitment – should be clean cut. That I understand. If I tell someone they can trust me with something, it’s because they can. If I don’t think I can be trusted, I don’t accept the responsibility. It comes down to morality. With my ex, it made me question my own judgment and how bad I thought I was with trusting who I thought was the right person. Eventually I took my head out of my hands and wiped my face. 

“How am I supposed to trust someone again?” The question was rhetorical. I stared off into space as I said it. He stupidly answered.

“Don’t worry. You’re an amazing person and someday you’ll find -”

“Shut the fuck up.”

His clammy, guilty hand retracted from where he placed it on my knee and he recoiled into himself. Something deep inside me snapped in that moment and I swear to God it’s what a Pokemon must feel like when it’s evolving. I turned into a motherfucking Charizard. I inhaled a room full of hot, gross lies and self-doubt and sadness, and exhaled and absolute hellfire bitch-rage of done with this. He started to sob. I felt the veins in my neck pulse as I screamed and shook the walls and maybe a light bulb blew out I don’t really remember. He kept crying and turning his head away from me. I didn’t care.
“I can’t look at you. I can’t look at what I did to you,” he said through sobs. That made me angrier. This escalated inside of me to something that surpassed just my relationship with him. It was a dissemination of my self-doubt. It was a double barrel, sawed-off shotgun point blank at my past.

“Look me in my fucking face.” I was met with the eyes of a terrified boy. I suddenly felt disgusted. He was scared. He had no idea what he caused but he still caused a whole pile of shit. I didn’t feel bad for him. I pitied him – someone who was almost 30 years old and clearly never had experience in one of the greatest gifts on this earth – a genuine human relationship.  

“Who the fuck are you?”

The evening disintegrated. There was so much crying and him begging me to not leave his life – me foolishly considering taking him back because I still couldn’t entirely believe that he did all the things he did. After he left my house that night he told me he really loved me. I went back upstairs and sat on my bed, alone, with the stench of regret and the death of our relationship hanging in the air. The girl he cheated with reached out to me. He left her a two-minute voicemail on his way back from my house, begging her for a second chance too. I got my house key back three days later; he wouldn’t respond to me for fear or shame – I don’t really know. More tears, more anger – but most of all, confusion, and I was rid of the situation. I never deleted his number. I couldn’t. No one could hate him more than he hated himself, and it felt good to know he knew I was still there, existing in the world. His actions were unforgivable. Then again, even Mark Twain asked, “But who prays for Satan?”  

Magenta

I have a garden that’s in front of my condo and unfortunately the soil is a sand/soil mixture but mostly sand and not many of my flowers flourish in these conditions. Sand/soil mixtures are great for succulents or cacti but I prefer a nice menagerie of color in the summer. My main reason for maintaining a garden in the warmer months is because my condo sits on a busy street and everyone on my row has a garden – manicured, clipped, mulched. The first year I lived at my home, my neighbor asked me probably a dozen times if and when I was planning on putting a garden in.

“Everyone here does a nice garden.”

Well keep your eyes open, lady. As a houseplant mom, I prefer to keep the inside of my dwelling sprawled with greenery but I can get dirty no problem. I used to manage a greenhouse in Massachusetts. I know how to not kill things.

This year I completely disregarded a color scheme and slapped every possible flower that I thought would live in my front garden. Of the mess I made, my African daisies bloomed. They’re an amazing shade of bright magenta and they basically just scream at me when I walk past them to get into my house. I love it. They stand out so much and they’re loud and vibrant and they bring me joy. What I learned about magenta, though, is that it isn’t actually a color.

Magenta is defined as “an extra-spectral color, meaning that it is not found in the visible spectrum of light. Rather, it is physiologically and psychologically perceived as the mixture of red and violet/blue light, with the absence of green.” I find that absolutely fascinating. It’s amazing that our brains are so thrown off by the absence of something as common and known as the color green, that it creates an amazing hue using whatever it has left to work with. It also makes me wonder, since magenta is our own brain’s perception – how different magenta will look to other people who see it. Do people walk past my house and see the African daisy as loud and bold and beautiful as I do? Or is it perception, like happiness or sadness?

People can be lacking so many things, like money, or a new car, or a boyfriend, or a parent – but what magenta are they creating? What, with every other color available – with every other thing they have (or blessing, however you want to see it) – are they creating? If magenta was a life, how bright would it be? I get down sometimes and I always embrace a good cry, but I also have one of the brightest fucking African daisies on the block. How does everyone else see their own garden?

Break the Wall

I’ve become so accustomed to rejection over the years that now when I see an email reply from a literary agency, I brush it off and dismiss it for lack of getting my hopes up in regards to my writing career. I have been submitting (and getting rejected) to agents for the better part of seven years with my memoirs and essays when all I have been focused on other than making a living is becoming a published author. I want a book deal, I want a book out, I want something published. Since 2012, I’ve been published in magazines and e-books from literary contests and other outlets, but nothing substantial like seeing my name on a shelf at a Barnes and Noble and hearing that someone read about my life story – my life – and felt moved by it in some positive way.

Fast forward to this week. Then rewind to January when my grandfather passed away. He was the oldest surviving prisoner of war in New York and served in Germany in World War 2. He was the most bad-ass, sweetest, understanding human I’ve ever come into contact with and his death has been something I’ve had difficulty coping with since the beginning of this year. Not to mention a particularly nasty break-up in February that derailed me from a proper grief, I’ve felt as if I was shot out of a sling shot this year and lost my footing for a bit.

After Pop died, I revisited a box of old letters exchanged between him and my grandmother during the war – most of them from 1943. There are also miscellaneous letters from my grandfather’s twin brother who died tragically in Japan in November of 1942. That always kills me to know that Pop had to live 75 years without his literal other half; When Arthur died, people said he was lucky for being blown up instead of captured and placed into Japanese prison camps. Pop was already a POW at the time of his brother’s death, and wasn’t informed of it until after he returned from the war in the Fall of 1945 to try and keep his stress levels to a minimum.

Anyway, I digress. With the death, the break-up, an earlier death of my dog of 15 years, and work stress I had what I’d like to call a creative snap where I sat down and pumped out 15,000 words in less than three days based off the letters and stories from Pop. It was a necessary catharsis; it was therapeutic, and in many ways helped more than the therapist I began speaking to in February. I continued on with this story – with his story – and after a couple of months, a trip to Savannah for war research at the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum, some exchanges with the descendants of the 388th Airborne in England, and a lot of tears (and a lot of editing), I produced a book just shy of 300 pages that encapsulated my grandfather’s experiences in life, love, and loss during the war.

Like I said earlier, I’m so adjusted to rejection that I sometimes find myself blindly submitting my work to agent after agent after agent in an attempt to see what sticks like spaghetti on the cabinet that is the saturated literary market. Just this past week I received three (or four?) rejections with reasons ranging from, “Thank you for your query, but I can’t market you,” to, “Thank you for your query, but I’m actually not taking on any projects right now,” to, “Thank you for your query. Your writing is really good but I can’t take on the project.” The last one was kind of a punch to the gut honestly. That one lingered a little, mostly because I so desperately wanted someone to take a chance on my own story for so long and I wholeheartedly believe that my grandfather’s story takes precedence over everything in my immediate world. Especially with the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Pop and his letters belong to a group of forgotten heroes; good men who went through unspeakable horrors and came back home and still got shit done. I was present for his nightmares – I was there for his recounts of terror. His story deserves to be told and now that he isn’t here anymore, I want nothing more than to be a voice to the voiceless.

Yesterday afternoon started with me waking up from an overnight shift to another rejection letter that was emailed to me earlier that morning. “…it’s a subjective market, keep sending out your work.” I respect that. I get it. The literary market it a spiderweb of just finding the right match. Never in the 100 or so agents who rejected me over the years did I take one personally. I just kept thinking to myself that I had to keep writing. Then, a few hours later in the midst of loading my dishwasher I received another email that started like the rest. “Thank you for your query…” My hopes deflated until I see, “The project sounds very interesting, and we’d be pleased to have a look at 50 pages. Please feel free to send it along at your convenience as either a PDF or Word document. We look forward to hearing from you.”

OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD.

I read the same lines over about 46 times. Cue ugly crying. Cue calling my dad in an incoherent, Ron Burgundy in a glass case of emotion sob. Cue my dog not knowing how to deal so he just kept sitting on my foot every time I moved. Cue crying in my kitchen like a Desperate Housewife minus the glass of Pinot. Not even to put all my eggs in one basket because NOTHING is set in stone, but just the mere opportunity to share my work with an agency (who I am yet to name because nothing is set in stone) made my insides melt. After seven years – seven years of no’s, of “thank you, but,” someone is maybe taking a chance on me. All I’ve been doing for seven years is try. And if this opportunity takes off, if I’m able to share the story about my grandfather that he deserves – if I can give justice to men like him – I could seriously die happy.

If you are Grieving

I wanted to write something about grief, because I am grieving now. Because it’s hard. Because I’ve been through this too many times in the past ten years.

• everyone grieves in their own way so try not to take a change in their behavior personally. Also, try to be conscious of what is *your* grief and your own expression.

• you will be achy, cranky, oddly calm, have an anxious mind, and feel like your brain is a rocky ocean because all the dust is settling from a whirlwind of change. Don’t fight it, just batten down.

• don’t be afraid to take an extra nap. Don’t fear being a little impulsive. If you feel impulsive, try a productive impulse like hanging a picture, cleaning something, planting a house plant, cooking, buying a $5 book (or two, or three like I did), cleaning out your closet for donation… things that won’t cause any self damage.

• if you feel the need to damage, go to the gym. Or eat a bag of chips, just remember they’re grief chips so the calories don’t count, but also that they – like your feelings – are temporary and should not be a permanent daily helping of grief chips. May I recommend Doritos?

• don’t be afraid to tell someone you don’t have the emotional/mental energy to help them with something that may seem overwhelming to you because you’re grieving. We all have a set amount of energy and grief takes a lot of it out of us.

• it will get easier. It may always be there like a crack or a stain or rust but hey – people call that vintage and you’re popular with hipsters and gastropubs.

• you’re loved and not alone. Some people don’t know how to console a grieving person. It doesn’t mean they don’t care.

It was You all along

It’s kind of messing me up, as I sit here at 4AM, to re-read the last email I ever received from my mother in which she describes me as being the way I am from the influence of my two deceased grandmothers.
“You’re kind to others, but you don’t take shit.”
I always saw that email and thought it endearing, because she used curse words and praised me. It has since been a point of reference I go to when I’m feeling low, or want reassurance that I made her proud when she was alive, so I can continue to strive to make her proud of me even in death. Call it melancholy, call it cynical, but I noticed something missing from the email last night: her.
My mom was the person I always tried to be, not my grandmothers. While I loved my grandmothers dearly, they were not the image I saw. My mother had a razor tongue and a wicked sense of humor. She was stylish and stood tall. She was an entrepreneur and a philanthropist. Most importantly, she didn’t judge others, but saw no hesitation in pointing out someone’s bullshit. I realized last night, though, that she didn’t credit herself for how I turned out as a young adult, when she was all I was trying to embody as I was growing up. At her funeral, so many passersby commented on my smile, and how it looked just like hers – but dear God let me have her sense of humor. Let me have her businesswoman prowess. Grant me her sarcastic tongue. Let me hear a roaring laugh from my friends and see her sitting in the crowd smiling at me, throwing her head back with everyone else.

Addiction – alcoholism in this case – made her lose her confidence to the point that her know-it-all “You’re not the parent” mentality eventually turned into, “Don’t judge me” as she looked down at the floor, vodka in her hand and the hot August sun showing truth against the living room walls. My mother showed me what not to be through her addictions. She showed me that I couldn’t allow the future of my existence to be controlled by any outside forces, and to only give control to myself. She showed me that even the toughest people can be small and weak. Ultimately, she showed me all the facets of a human. For all of that I hope to be her. For all of that, I credit her wholly for who I am – negative, positive, complete.

Reminders.

I vividly remember standing beside my mother in the kitchen, May of 2011, watching her cry for the first time in three years. Hopeless, helpless, I studied her eye, and saw someone I was unfamiliar with.

She sucked in a couple of quick breaths to stop the tears, exhaled, and looked firmly at the kitchen table. She shrugged, “I’m better off just killing myself.”

In weeks leading up to that comment, her sleep habits became erratic. Days were spent in bed, with drawn blinds and the stale smell of alcohol and depression hanging limp in the darkness. A once-reputable and successful real estate broker, she no longer had the drive to work for others – no less herself – and remained indoors, clad in a bathrobe painted with coffee stains and cigarette smoke. From time to time, she dragged a brush through her wiry hair – once regularly dyed, now predominantly gray. It wasn’t her appearance that I no longer recognized, however – it was the desperation and loss in her voice. In her, I saw an avalanche – every problem compounding and escalating into a rapid-moving descent, wiping out anything and everything in its path. I feared it was only a matter of time before this chaotic downslide reached me.

“If you’re serious about that, I’ll call out of the rest of my shift.” I desperately tried to maintain eye contact with her while she looked down at a smoldering ashtray. “I’m serious. We can go somewhere together and no one has to know.”

A long pause followed, where she resolved to pick up her cigarette and take a long drag. Her eyelids lowered and her stare became indifferent. She exhaled a solemn, smoky breath and looked at me coolly, “I’m not going to kill myself.”

For years, I replayed that afternoon in my head, and carried blame for not tossing her into a car and dragging her off to rehab.

By mid-September, I saw my mother become even less recognizable. She was unable to hide from her addiction behind denial and proclamations as she lay dying in the hospital bed before me. I left college after my first week of senior year to visit her in Intensive Care, making trips back for class, with the intention of coming home on weekends. On my first visit to the hospital, her eyes met mine. They were yellowed like egg yolks, and appeared bulging from the gauntness of her face; the doctors informed us that, although very bloated, she weighed about 80 pounds. It shocked me how drastic her appearance had been altered from the kitchen in May, and from the kitchen in August when I said my goodbyes and promised to be home for her birthday in October.

She resisted any form of greeting as I choked back tears in front of her.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I really didn’t expect anything more. She was sick, and dying, and while her body gradually shut down, her aggressive tough-love attitude shined through with biting confrontation from the moment I walked through the door.

For days, I watched my mother lose her lucidity. Her head would bobble and she was wheeled in and out of the ICU for tests and to have the lymphatic fluid drained from her body. When we sat in the hospital room together, she would begin to speak normally, and the sentences would fade as her eyes fixated on a point on the wall, and I would lose her for a few moments as she drifted into silence. From time to time, she would grab my hand and say something like, “I’m proud of you,” or, “You have to be strong.” I would cry and tell her “thank you” or, “I will be,” but part of me didn’t know whether or not to believe what she was saying was sincere or not. Part of me was mad at her for not listening, for not looking at me and thinking I was reason enough to continue living. My arms were extended for years to her and she shrugged me off, stubbornly objecting to my advances and telling me, “You’re not the parent.”

I hurried home one Thursday when my father called to tell me they had to administer an oxygen mask and a feeding tube in her nose. Taking the ferry to Long Island was like wading through sludge, as I rushed to beat the deadline for visiting hours. I arrived at the hospital around 8PM to see her in the dark, wires and tubes all over, her arms covered in bruises and her hair matted around her face like a sickening halo. My family was scattered to their respective corners, all crying or cried-out. I approached her and she grabbed my hand.

“Your hair looks nice.” Labored breaths pushed compliments from her and I couldn’t muster enough to say anything back. She babbled incoherent requests to go home and to have her dog in the hospital, and a nurse finally entered the room and told us it would be best if we left. I kissed her forehead.

“Please stay with me tonight… just in case.”

The last words my mother heard from me were, “I’m sorry. I can’t.” I turned and left the hospital, breaking down in my car, unable to accept that this was actually happening. My head continued to turn over how she could do this to herself, how I wasn’t enough, and how I hadn’t known she was so sad for so long.

Sometime in the night, she slipped into a coma, and was given 12 hours to live. Through her own stubbornness, my mother lasted four days. The morning she died, as I lay next to her in the hospital bed, I was woken up by a phone call from my childhood best friend. She asked how I was, and then about my mother. As I rolled over in the bed next to her to confirm her status, she took her last two breaths.

“I have to call you back.”

I half-anticipated angels, a bright light – something. The room, however, was silent except for my own breathing and the hiss of her oxygen mask; the bright light was substituted by a blinding row of fluorescent bulbs. I stared down over her stillness, completely devoid of thought. How, I thought, how was it capable of getting this bad? I began to replay the past week, month, six months, years in my head. All of those moments, and the last thing I said to her was “I can’t.” I couldn’t stay with her, I couldn’t save her, and I couldn’t take that back.

I was haunted by a lingering guilt for months to follow. The helplessness that a child would experience now found its way back into the forefront of my adult mind. I was matured by trauma, and crippled by a feeling of weakness. School no longer seemed to matter, yet I continued on day after day, determined to get my degree if for no other reason than a fear of my mother haunting me. I was driven by the routine and familiarity of faces I could count on passing me by in the halls. There was no longer a taste for life, not when I didn’t have my mother to reassure me that I was doing the right thing.

We never had that “final talk.” She wasn’t lucid enough to reflect on her last moments and the futility of it all; there was no remembrance back to the younger years, or where I should take my next steps in life. It felt like it wasn’t enough. She was stolen at her own hand, and I had to learn how to deal with it. I tried to cope with therapists, exercise, writing, and that hole remained. None of the guidance, recommendations, sweat or tears would make my mother’s voice appear before me. There would never be a final talk, and I was unable to accept that she left without me knowing she was proud of me, or that I did all I could to save her. All she knew was that I couldn’t stay, and I knew she couldn’t stay either.

Eventually, I got to a point where I realized I had to learn to be proud of myself, and gave up on searching for her acceptance. I would have to learn to live for a self that I wasn’t entirely sure I knew. It seemed almost impossible to go about my days without my mother’s voice, without the conversations about my life, without her reassurance – without my guide. I went about my school year, hole in my heart, fishing through student emails about graduation, online classes, and assignments due. Then, in the middle of it all, I saw a familiar address – my mother’s.

I opened the email, and read through a mundane description of family business. She told me about my father and work, my grandpa, my brother, and my dog. It comforted me to read it in her voice as I scrolled down towards the end. It was there, in the last lines, where I received the answer I had spent the past year searching for.

“I’m very proud of you. You’re like your grandmothers. You are eager and exceptionally bright… but most importantly, you are sensitive to others but don’t take sh…”

There was the outspoken, hard-loving reassurance I craved for so long. It was eternal in emails, and letters I found later in my storage unit, old voicemails, and cards. She was always proud of me. And those last moments of her life, although the freshest, hardest memories, held no candle to 20 years I lived with my mother’s love.

Journey

When the path is split

and I turn to go

my journey on my own,

I still think of you

along your road,

finding your way to home.

 

When darkness falls,

and lanterns light,

and trees begin to whisper,

I hope you turn

towards Nature’s words,

and become a better listener.

 

When dawn creeps

up over pine and brush

and sleepless feet continue,

I hope your journey wasn’t rushed.

I hope in the end, to meet you.