Evolutionary

We hovered our rear ends above the sand and waited until the tide went out, passing the time by making miniature teepees out of reeds and seaweed that our nana would toss in the garbage the moment they entered the house. Our ultimate mission was mussels, black-and-blue-shelled, oval little things that hugged the rocks, half-buried in sand. My brother and I spent cumulative hours ripping them from their oases — never taking more life than necessary for the work of bored, unsupervised creek children. We used the end of the private beach’s spillway, made of solid, jagged concrete, to line them up one at a time and bash them open with a rock. We’d use the meat to catch blue claw crabs off the edge of the dock to later cook and enjoy, or we’d toss them back to the creek for the fish — or we’d just leave them to the birds. No matter how many mussels were cracked open, I understood everyone was the same inside. I never felt guilty about ending their little lives because I don’t think I was old enough to understand that I was killing something over and over. My life still went on.

We experimented with building large, extravagant sand castles that had little moats which led to the water’s edge, designed with fiddler crabs in mind. We’d use our index and middle finger to penetrate the sand and push the crabs from their burrows before displacing them into a world of luxury. I preferred to find the female crabs because they lacked the extra large male claw that — to a child — was extra large. Once in my life the tip of my thumb was caught in between the might of an angry fiddler crab and I screamed and cried to my nana until she made the pain go away. The fiddler crab lost his claw that day from my writhing, and from then on I dedicated summers to sand architecture. Once the tide was right, my moat would push foamy water around the castle to protect the fiddler crabs; Sometimes, a bait fish would make its way in as extra muscle. Ultimately, the crabs would reject the abundance and disappear back into their holes under the castle.

I was told at an early age that jellyfish lived forever unless they had no salt water to keep them gelatinous. It was very rewarding to split them into thirds and toss them back into the creek. I felt like God. Moon jellies only, though — the ones who liked to hover close to the surface of the creek. If the moon wasn’t out we could sit in our kayaks on the inky-black water and watch them glow like fairies or ghosts of dead relatives. My sympathy ended for stinger jellies when I swam through a school of them and had red, burning stripes all over my body that seemed to never go away. They did, eventually, just in time for my growth spurt and for more red, uncomfortable lines all over my body that never went away. 

My legs grew longer, as did the rest of me, and I lost my penchant for smashing open mussels and propagating jelly fish. I spent more time on top of the creek than under its deep, empty, black-green veil. I traded salty skin for tanning oil, and gave up on crab castles. Broiling under the sun like a lobster in my nana’s stove, I spread my arms wide and beautiful like the wet creek loon sunning himself. My life went on and the creek stayed static, with probably a few extra shellfish. When it became too hot to bear, I ran through the sprinklers on my nana’s lawn; One time, I did it fully clothed in a light pink shirt. I looked down at myself and then to my mother. 

“I think I need to buy a bra,” I said. 

“Sure. Nan will come.” 

My nana wanted to buy me my first bra, and growing up as a creek child I was accustomed to bathing suits and towels, or choosing between the two. There was no store to acquire a bra, so we made the great excursion to WalMart, thirty-five minutes away. A whole to-do over my new body. I was becoming a woman, apparently. That meant new tops, new bathing suits, and new ways to show myself to the world. The male fiddler crab donned a large claw, but what did the female fiddler crab have? Certainly not cleavage. Maybe I should expose myself like a wet loon. 

“Your first bra should be modest,” Nana said. “Here.” 

She handed me a white training bra, and I took it obediently although the rows and rows of exciting, sexual, provocative ones sat dangled in front of me like bait on a hook. There wasn’t any fighting a woman of God like her. I said “thank you” and took the spoils home, where I’d forgotten to wear the bra two to three days a week for about six months, until I sat in gym class in a white tee and nothing underneath knowing my nipples were there. Woman nipples. Around pre-teen boys. I never forgot again. 

O’Brother O’Mine

May 20, 1940

Wednesday

Dear Kid,

After receiving your swell letter I sort of feel ashamed of myself for not writing sooner. I know you will understand when I say it’s not because I didn’t want to write but because I don’t have enough time to write, so I’ll just let it got here. O.K. Now you will have to excuse the pencil because I can’t get any ink at the present, and then you’ll have to excuse the penmanship because I’m sitting on the deck and writing on my knee. There’s a dam lot of apologies doing on, isn’t there? I know they’re not necessary kid, but if I feel like apologizing, let me. Dot all. 

I just wrote a letter to Mom about my rifle practice today and instead of repeating it to you kid, do me a favor and read her letter when you go over to the house. I won’t have enough time to repeat it now. The first thing I want to tell you is that I graduate May 26th and that will be a day I’ll never forget. I’ve been here for more than a month already. This Sunday I go on liberty again and I’m going to have a good time in Milwaukee because the company started to break up today. All men going to cooks school left tonight on about an hour’s notice. I made signalman school but I don’t know where it is or when I go. That is whether I get a leave or not before I go. My buddy, and he’s a damn good guy, made gunners mate school and that’s the reason for a good time Sunday. I like it here and I feel swell. I must admit I’m a little homesick. Nobody could have a better reason than Butch, Ha, or myself. 

Love,

Artie 

As Loretta waded her way through Arthur’s misspellings and scratchy pencil handwriting, she smiled. She remembered fondly the letter she wrote him earlier and was relieved that it was received well and that Arthur was simply too busy to respond. Even though it never worked between them, and she was now Harold’s girl, Loretta always loved the other twin. How could she not? He was her beau in every way – except his handwriting… and maybe personality, as she thought on it more. Arthur, always the funny man, could have been seen as younger than his twin by years, even younger than Loretta, with his personality. She always admired that about him, but she admired Harold’s seriousness more. She gently folded the letter and placed it in the old envelope box that she kept in a drawer in her bedroom for days where she felt like revisiting memories. Loretta threw on a pair of shoes, found a hat, and stepped out for the short, warm walk to Harold’s mother’s house to read about Artie’s day at rifle practice; Mrs. Schwerdt was probably very proud of her youngest. 

Harold wasn’t away training for the Army just yet. He was working in the city as a sales clerk. He thought it was responsible to try and take a couple of classes of night school and work during the day in order to set up funds for him and Loretta. Although she was only 18, Harold was 20 – and a man by his own eyes – and that meant he needed to have a plan for a future with the woman he knew he was going to spend his life with. The war certainly wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down; the United States seemed closer and closer to declaring war themselves, and even though Harold always wanted to be an Army man, he didn’t want to have to fight anyone. “Not very Christian,” his mother said one day. But he would, to protect his home. 

Loretta made it to Harold’s home and sat with Jeanne – Arthur’s love – and Eleanor, of course. They read over again his experiences in rifle practice. Loretta beamed when she saw the way Jeanne’s eyes lit up when she spoke of Artie – for all his jokes, he certainly took love seriously, just like his brother. They were going to be together for a long time, Loretta thought to herself. And she thought to the dreams of a small cottage like she and Harold talked about – filled with loved ones and warm summers, fires and cookouts. She couldn’t wait for the rest of her life to begin. 

I’d even marry you on a Tuesday, you know.” 

Budding Love

The tall, narrow homes and straight brick buildings of Jamaica, Queens stood in neatened order like soldiers at attention. Each structure was uniform on the outside, save for little window boxes, a chain link fence, or the occasional vegetable garden. Inside the homes of Jamaica were varied with families bustling about, doing what daily tasks could be done in the Depression. Children ran barefoot, played hide and seek, or searched for an open space to play stickball. The Reilly family was one brood with five children – there were six, but the youngest passed away when he was very small. The Reilly children were known for having a mother on the police force – something not common. They were also known for swiping potatoes from the kitchen when their mother was at work and roasting them in back alleys and eating them plain. 

Only a few houses down from the Reilly’s, in an identical structure, was the Schwerdt family. The mother and father, both German immigrants who left before the first World War, raised a family of ten children, the youngest two being identical twins. The twin boys had bright red hair and bright blue eyes and their own mother was unable to tell them apart. Their father, John, was a brewer – and at one point a milkman – but in the economic downturn of the United States, his skills as a brewer were in great demand from the general working class. His wife, a homemaker, spent her days making and repairing clothes and raising ten children. 

This tangle of youths, generally unsupervised – especially in the summer months – made the most of their time by adventuring outside and exploring what there was to do for free in the Great Depression. They ran around in dirtied clothes, equal parts oblivious and affected by the poverty that haunted most families in the 1930s, not just the children of immigrants. 

One of the German twins, Harold, made his way to the playground at the end of the block. Oftentimes it was crowded with other children, but on this particular evening there seemed to be only a smattering of playmates. The sun sank behind the brick horizon that New York made as he reached a swing set occupied by one other.

“Hello,” the young girl said as he sat down on a swing, leaving one between them. “I like your hair.”

Harold felt himself blush. She was very pretty, maybe fourteen years old to his sixteen. 

“Thank you. I’m Harold. What’s your name?”

“Loretta,” she replied. The children sat in a comfortable silence, peppered by the squeak of swing chains, the scuff of dust below their feet, and the occasional honk of traffic. They learned their homes were very close, and Loretta believed she saw Harold a week earlier, down by an ice cream shop.

“Oh, that was probably Arthur, my identical twin. Y’know our own mother can’t tell us apart?” 

Loretta laughed. “Wow, identical twins. You must do everything together.” 

“Well, most things. He’s more of a prankster. My mother says I’m too serious for my age.” 

In the distance, towards the low glow of the setting sun, “Dinner!” was called. Loretta stirred a moment before hopping off her swing. 

“That’s my mother. It was nice meeting you.” 

“Maybe you can find me by the ice cream shop one day, and I’ll buy you a cone,” Harold said. He stood to tip his head to Loretta, and from the opposite direction of the block he heard, “Abendessen!” 

Loretta wrinkled her eyebrows. Harold shrugged a little and chuckled, a little embarrassed.  

“German. It means dinner.

“Oh,you speak German?”

“No, not really,” he admitted. “Our parents prefer us to speak English. But when my siblings and I are out and we hear someone hollering German, we know it’s our mother.”

“That is very clever,” Loretta laughed, “and ice cream sounds lovely.”

The two agreed to meet again at the playground towards the end of that week and before he left Harold took Loretta’s hand in his to shake.

“It was a pleasure meeting you, Loretta Reilly.”

“Likewise, Harold Schwerdt.” She pronounced his name Schwartz but he didn’t dare correct her. Harold believed, at sixteen, that he found love at first sight.

July 13, 1938

Dearest Harold,

I received your letter and was glad to hear from you. I was surprised you wrote so soon. Well, since your first topic was about the weather, I’ll be a copycat. At eight o’clock, Monday morning I was awakened by a large crash of thunder. What a storm it sent everyone out of their beds. It rained off and on all day, so I stayed in. Tuesday, I got up at ten thirty and it was so warm, I sat around and listened to the radio all day. Tuesday night Evelyn, Lil, and I went to see Albie. He has a heavy cold. Today, I got up at ten thirty and helped around the house, then to the playground. I stayed there about an hour then came home. Tonight, I went to a meeting, then to Nachlin’s. Later, Harry took several of us including Lil, Betty, Gert, Ed W., Eppie, and myself to the night baseball game on Hillside Ave. I go in at 11:30 and boy! Did I get a balling-out.

Now, I must ask you how is everyone, if they look as well as they did Sunday. They are swell. Oh! Pardon me. How are you? As far as missing you, I do (not). Hoping to see you soon I’ll close. 

Affectionately yours,

Your Honey (I hope)

Loretta (chubby in your eyes)

P.S. “The Old Gag.” Excuse pencil and paper writing –

Also, give regards to the family. 

(the perfume is my sister’s) xxx

Trunk space

I’ve lived with anxiety and depression for the majority of my adult life. Rather than say, “I’ve struggled” with either, I’ll take away any controlling factor and simply state, “I have lived.” They are like annoying roommates who mostly keep to themselves and then one of them clogs the toilet and doesn’t say anything, so it just overflows until I find it and then I’m stuck with the mess. I use the analogy of the toilet because a clogged toilet both makes me anxious and also a little sad. Feel free to insert whatever analogy works for you.

When my anxiety creeps up, I want to impulse eat. I want to yell. I want to run away. When I feel depressed, I want to hug my dog and live in my bed under the covers until dark and never come out. Luckily for my dog, I have extreme issues with guilt and an overwhelmingly responsibility to take care of others so it never lasts long and he inspires me to go outside, or for a trail walk, or to play fetch.

Tonight was a little different, though. I just really wanted to take a nap. I really wanted to drift off for a couple of hours and wake up a little less drowned in my own thoughts. This didn’t happen, though. The universe – and nature – decided a flash flood would be scheduled for 7 PM and I was woken with what sounded like a tornado running down my street. My dog and I both shot up and I heard my phone going off to the emergency alert system. I looked out the window and saw my neighbor Joan’s car parked with the trunk wide open.

Joan is elderly. She’s sweet, the right amount of nosy that any old woman should be, and my dog is her number one fan. She always forgets to close her trunk. Her husband had major surgery recently and she’s been inundated with helping him. There have been nurses and family members in and out of the condo next to mine in order to make sure Joan’s husband has the proper care. It makes me think of my grandpa and how rough the medical care was on the family and him for the last few months of his life. Her husband has improved, though, which makes me happy to hear.

So back to Joan’s damn trunk. I don’t even think about it, just say, “Dammit, Joan!” I throw on some pants and a tee and run outside like a mad woman and slam the trunk before the rain gets too bad. I don’t tell her. I don’t make a scene; just prevent a soggy trunk and run back into the house. When I closed the door it hit me – no matter how stuck I feel, regardless of how fucked up things may seem, I (or you) always have a purpose. There is always a purpose to do even the smallest thing for an unwitting person. I (you) always have a place in this world, even if it’s just closing some old lady’s trunk in a flash flood.

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.

Hair, There…

I stopped brushing my hair completely in 2013 after years of systematically running through it with a wide brush and then styling it into a fluffy mess and ultimately praying for the best. Since I ended this, my hair has become incredibly healthy; it grows out fast, it’s shiny, and by simply and gently finger-combing my hair in the shower with conditioner, I have almost zero tangles. I find it funny that although I was constantly combing through and separating my curls, I was coming out the other end with dread locks and rat’s nests and dull, crazy hair. This is what I was used to, though, for my entire life. My mother, with her straight, blonde hair, would rake my head every morning until I was old enough to rake my head on my own. She would pull and tease and get a round brush stuck in it one time (where we learned together and after a haircut that round brushes were no longer to be used). I would cry and moan and fidget hoping she would just get sick of my knots and give up, until I became the one to accept that this hair abuse was just how it had to be. No matter how it hurt, no matter how many tangles, I had to brush it out. Every single day.

I began to apply this process to my life: Hair being the situations, the brush being overthinking, conditioner being rationalization, and my fingers representing normal thought. Each coil on my head is something I cannot control. It is something that happens to me, that has always happened to me, and that will continue to happen to me.  For years, I would obsessively pick apart each curl, each occurrence. I would separate, strand by strand, trying to pull everything away to see if I could see it better. What I was left with, each time, was a mess. This mess would fly around, unmanageable and insane-looking and I would hide the mad scientist under a hat or pull it all into a bun behind me so I didn’t have to look at it anymore. And although each day, I would have the same outcome, I would still wake up the next morning and comb through the same dead hair, knowing it would be futile, all for that brief moment in my day when everything looked momentarily managed.

Every time something happened in my life that I couldn’t control, I would dig it apart trying to understand why I couldn’t control it, rather than learning how to control myself. Instead of nurturing the situation, letting it run its course, and allowing it to exist, I would cause myself a lifetime of grief trying to alter what occurred naturally. I don’t know exactly where it clicked in my head that this was a bad idea – being insane and constantly picking apart my life – but part of me thinks I was simply sick and tired of the constant stress and disappointment of things I couldn’t control. After almost 23 years of disappointment with the outside forces and I just gave up. I gave up on trying to understand what was around me before understanding me. 

Unfortunately, it only took me long enough to realize that I wasn’t the only one in the world with wild, curly hair. I wasn’t the only one in the world with problems. I also wasn’t the only one who constantly tried to pull apart things I couldn’t control. It didn’t make me a bad person or wrong for learning to obsess over things, but it was beneficial to learn how to live in harmony with these things – to let it exist with minimal interference and, when necessary, to cut dead ends for growth.

The First Summer I Remember

My childhood was spent in a cape house on Goose Creek in Southold. I lived under the barnacle-covered dock, in the trees, on the sandbars, and in a boat cabin. I was a sailor, a pirate, and an explorer. My imagination was my reality, where time did not exist – it was home. The neighborhood children would roam the quiet side streets, barefoot and wild, picking stones from their toes and walking across each other’s yards. Sometimes we would converge for nighttime games, other nights were spent in solitude in a confessional with nature. Our bodies smelled of salt and fire as our memories struggled to hold on in between the cracks of our skin. We showered outside under the oak trees and dried in the sun, laid out in our bathing suits, only to return to the creek hours later.

One day, I left my creek, my home, salt clinging to my neck as I closed the gate doors one last time. Chipped white paint and rusted hinges, caressed year after year by salted air, clung to the sleeve of my shirt saying, “Don’t go yet.” I shut the flood lights and stared over the dock and saw myself on the water’s edge. I saw my mother, her spirit left behind to guard the kingdom. I wanted to mourn, but instead felt myself smile. I felt warm. Decades under that same summer sky, endless memories, yet in that moment, I recalled my first.

I was two years old, with knotted gypsy hair and doe eyes that were guarded by long eyelashes and the nape of my mother’s neck. My skin was coated in salt and oils from the Mother creek and my mother’s hands. The first smell I ever remembered was coconut. My brother played as I sat in the grass of an infinite lawn. Cool green blades dusted me off while the sun left marks on my face. My eyes grew heavy. I crawled to my mother who lay in a chair, palms to the sun. Her legs were thin and long and rough, and smelled of coconuts. I wedged myself between her legs and rested my head on the belly that once held me, and sleep took me.

**************

We were salty children. We were raised at the shore, feet soaked in brine; our mother taught us to trust the minnows that cleaned our toes while we squirmed and giggled. We built empires of sand and dried reeds that housed defiant crabs. We were the crabs. The water’s edge was our kingdom.

The creek was the cure-all. If we were cut, bruised, or sad, Nana would send us “into the drink” to marinade and heal. “It’s good for you,” she’d happily insist, although she never joined us. We would disappear under the dark water and come back up like bufflehead ducks while she watched from land. Loons would perch on dock pilings around us, contrasted black against the summer sun, water-soaked wings outstretched in patience. I saw Nana once dip into the creek, old and regal, as she appeared to wash the years off her soul, only to come back old and regal – and pure. She became sick, and the creek called, but she never did go back in. We missed her on the summer days to follow, when the sun faded and the humidity broke as if God himself took the cover off us. We sat on the shore, examined our scarred feet that lay infinitely beyond us, leathery from the sun; the sand seemed to grow over our bodies and made our skin our own homes.

At night we rested on the dock and watched the moon jellies glide underneath the water’s surface like Hades’ souls, aimless and uncontrolled. The delicate blue lights of the jellyfish mirrored the stars that hung above us, closer than usual over our creek. They illuminated our eyes, and we lay still on the dock as to not wake up Time. He sat behind the treeline for us, and he always came back around with a torch and baked the salt into our shoulders, left his mark on our faces and put knots in our hair.

 

Analogies to Wise Boobs

I have a painting on my wall in my bedroom. It’s from the seventies, heavy, and shellacked onto a carved piece of wood. The picture itself is faded. I remember seeing it for the first time hidden away in the shed attached to the garage. What did I see, aged no older than ten? Boobs.

I saw a woman entwined in a moment of what I only imagine at the time was sweaty, passionate lovemaking. He is holding her, his back is turned (and his bum is nice!). Her long, flowy brown hair hanging in time. Her mouth, slightly opened, expressing extreme pleasure at whatever it is he is performing on her body. And all I saw were boobs.

Now that I have this painting in my room, I get to stare at it. However, I no longer stare at the boobs. I, instead, spend my time studying it, figuring out the “why” of the painting. As a child, not once did I notice the scaffolding surrounding the base of this man and woman. Not once did I take note of the dark, hooded figures pulling bricks from their legs, haulding them off down and away from these lovers. The couple is being taken apart, brick by brick, yet they stay wrapped up in each other. Then it hit me: their passion – their love – is what keeps them standing.

Today marked four years since my college graduation, where I was struck upside the head with various arduous, emotionally draining, and questionable life choices that have, and still continue, to shape the person I am evolving into. Four years ago, at 21 years old, I remember my favorite question to ask my ceiling on sleepless nights, “Why is this happening to me?” My trivial upsets were directed towards my weight, my mom’s recent death, failed relationships and why I always seemed to be hurt by bad people or – better yet – why I always allowed people to hurt me. Nothing ever seemed to have a positive turn. Nothing could bring me joy, because at the end of the day, my perspective was on one thing…the “boobs,” if you will. I possessed a very juvenile (and still sometimes catch myself) outlook on my life and my circumstances and nothing would ever change, simply because that’s how it was.

Then, one day, while thinking of my mom, thinking of how much I knew she loved me, and thinking of her passing, it came to me that I already lived the worst day of my life. Being told she would never wake up again, above everything else in my current world, was the worst day of my life. It was such, because I knew she did it to herself with her addiction, I knew she was sad, I knew she gradually saw no joy in the world around her, and the light eventually faded from her existence. I realized, then, that my mother, no matter how amazing she was to me, taught me several silent lessons on what I don’t want to be.

I noticed later on that, in relationships that failed me, lessons were placed in front of me to make me take in the affirmations of my own strength, who I am as a person, and how I don’t want to be treated. I took a step back from the two people, heartbreak, “Why is this happening to me?” cycle of thinking and instead told myself, “That is not how I deserved to be treated, and I won’t let it happen again.” The negatives that afflicted my life over the years have all been lessons, no matter how painful. And honestly, I think it’s more important to have hard lessons, because we as humans tend to remember pain more than joy. So when I look at my painting, look at my life, I remind myself that what I take away and put into a positive light will make me grow stronger, no matter what darkness tries to dismantle me at my base.

Sixteen.

Sixteen days were all it took for me to be forcibly thrown into the world of adulthood. Every time I look at myself in the mirror I see a little, scared child, when I’m now expected to be a twenty-one year old adult with a handle on things. I’ve taken a year off from applying to graduate school, I’ve decided. I just finished registration for my last semester of undergrad. My life is successful, and yet it feels meaningless now that my mom isn’t here anymore.

The two most cliché phrases you can ever say to a grieving person are, “Are you OK?” and, “She’s always with you in your heart.” No shit. I appreciated all of the condolences, and the openly caring people, who said these things; because there really isn’t anything someone can say in a situation like mine. I shook so many hands, and reacquainted myself with multiple unfamiliar faces that loved my mother like a sister and cried the same salted tears that fell down every last cheek, but they had no idea how those tears felt to me. Those burning, pained, tears of remorse and longing that retreated from my eyes because if they didn’t my head would explode. In a way I feel like my mom just abandoned me in the brightest moment of my life, but I know I cannot allow myself to think so selfishly. The most beautiful, shining light that guided me through almost every step of my existence was blown out in the short course of two weeks. My days were spent in a hospital, not as a patient, but as a person patiently waiting for a woman in a coma to finally take her last breath.

When my dad called me and told me my mom had been admitted to the medical center thirty minutes from my house I immediately collapsed to the floor. I was at school in Massachusetts, entering my first week of classes in my senior year. Everything that I had felt was normal and on the right track, and everything that I thought would never happen to me was skewed and twisted like a train flipping off its own tracks. Never in my entire life had I thought this woman would be so careless with her body and her own health. I asked my dad why. He told me they were continuing to find bottles of vodka hidden between the two houses; my mom was sleeping for fourteen hours a day, eating next to nothing, and her stomach was distended. She had quit drinking cold turkey roughly ten days before they took her in because her skin started to jaundice. She was violent, screaming, and avoiding everyone by driving back and forth to go sleep in my bed, or her own. Who was this woman? This was not my mother. This was not the woman who raised me to be the individual I have become.

I was so sick to my stomach I couldn’t attend classes that day. I booked a ferry and packed, and spent the afternoon hiding in my room, blinds drawn, crying. I felt so powerless to know that I could do nothing to help her now, nor could I have done anything to help her before. That was the odd thing about my mom – she did everything for everyone else, yet took nothing in return. My mom paid for three years of my college tuition in full behind my dad’s back without him knowing. She hosted dinner parties, holidays, family reunions, and get-togethers. She taught me how to spell my first name with a song, how to sail, how to drive, how to cook, and how to give myself the credit I truly deserved. She instructed me to never settle for less, to always push myself, and believed in me. My mom accepted me for everything I was and loved me for everything I wasn’t. She was my hero.

 

I arrived the following morning in New York in a complete and utter tear-filled haze. As I passed the house I grew up in, still inhabited by my brother and his girlfriend, I noticed that it looked as if the essence and life and memories had been sucked out of it. The yard was barren and the gardens overgrown, the flowers were wilting and her irises were brown and dried up. It looked like no one had lived there for years. I felt as though even my memories meant nothing now.

When I finally got to my dad and saw the incredible mess he was, I tried to hold it together for the two of us. However, this obviously failed miserably. My grandpa (Mom’s dad), was suspiciously chipper for such a horrible occasion, considering his daughter was in ICU at the time, but his smile made me feel a little better as I was greeted by my aunt and uncle and dog. My dad tried to explain to me that she looked bad, described her eyes as the color of egg yolks, and said her speech is slow but coherent. I felt like I was visiting a stranger.

The car ride was incredibly silent for the first twenty minutes until I mustered up, “I’m scared.” I had no other way of describing my feelings. Sadness was there, so was love, and it was all overpowered by a crippling fear. The real life horror movie I was stepping into yielded no promises and no plot, and had no hints as to who would make it out alive. I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking, and next thing I knew we were in the hospital parking lot. Everyone piled out as if we were going to dinner together – all dressed nice, and happy-looking under the shining sun. I grabbed my grandpa’s arm and went to the ICU floor. We rang the entry bell where I then switched gears and entered with my dad.

Her room was the corner room. The view was that of a 7-11 convenience store and the rotary below. When we got to the doorway, the lights were off and the furniture was pushed outside of it. Oh God, I thought. It looked like the scene after my grandma had died. I whipped around to face my dad and immediately started crying. The nurse told me they were only changing her and I could go in momentarily. I still couldn’t stop crying, though, as my dad threw tissues in my direction. I heard some machinery move behind me, so I turned around. There, yellowed and thin, was my mother. She extended her arm towards me like an angel, opened her mouth and said in a voice the opposite of her delicate motions, “What the hell are you doing here?”

I let out a forced laugh as I went into the room. She took my hand in between her frail fingers. Her voice was kind of drawn out and whispering, but it was certainly her accent. “I’m so sorry, honey. You shouldn’t have come down here. I’m fine.” Yeah, definitely mom.

“You honestly think I wouldn’t be down here? Real nice.”

My mom rolled her eyes at me and told me to sit down. My dad then proceeded to go about this routine checking of her edema swelling, which had gone down, and told her of all the things the doctor said to make sure she understood. She quasi-blew him off and proceeded to talk to me of things I can’t remember, due to the shock of what I was seeing before me. All I remember her saying is, “I feel like I’m seven months pregnant,” as she poked her distended belly, full of fluids her liver didn’t process.

 

The following few days were those of trial and error, trying to figure out how bad the damage to her liver was, and to find some out-patient rehabilitation clinics on Long Island that she would consider going to. I knew she wouldn’t ever go, though. I knew from the moment when I saw her in the hospital that she had been beyond the point of repair. When the doctor told us that she fought with the psychiatrist, that’s when I knew she couldn’t be cracked into realizing what she did to herself.

“Mrs. Oster, when did you start drinking to the point of giving yourself liver damage?”

She blankly looked into the man’s face, her thousand-yard stare going past him, and replied, “My liver started to hurt after my mother died.” Then everything hit me in the face. She never cried, because she drank it away.

I tried to talk to her about things other than the shit condition she was in, because I knew she would appreciate it. Instead, the only moment I got alone to talk with her, she did all of the talking, and it was about nothing I wanted to hear.

My aunt had just stepped out and I stayed at my mom’s bedside, holding her hand. “Kate, you’ve never done anything, anything in your life to…disappoint me. I’ve always been so proud of you.”

“I know, Ma. I love you.”

“I love you too sweetie. And…I’m sorry…I’ve disappointed you so much.”

I choked back sobs as tears still ran down my face. “Mom, you’ve never disappointed me. I’ve never judged you. I always will love you. You’ve given me everything I ever wanted even without my asking. I just want you to get better.” With that, my aunt walked in, and the conversation ended.

I left her that Sunday, looking better than she had all weekend, with the intention of not visiting for another two weeks. The doctors said she still had a 50/50 chance, but her health seemed stable. It wasn’t until that Wednesday night that my dad called me and told me they had to put her on a full-face oxygen mask to help her breathe, because the fluid they tried to drain from her replenished within a day and got into her lungs. She tested negative for pneumonia, but they wanted to keep an eye on her.

Thursday afternoon rolled around, and my dad called me again, telling me that my mom said she wanted to see me because she missed me. My red flag of concern went up on this one, considering the woman just told me a week prior that I shouldn’t have spent the money to come home because she was “fine.” After heavy internal and external debate, my friend convinced me to go home that Thursday, just as a surprise to my mom. I packed an overnight bag and booked my ferry and just like that, I was headed back to the island.

By the time I got off the ferry and to the hospital it was already eight at night, just thirty minutes before visiting hours ended. I ran up to the third floor and got into the ICU to see my family sitting in the dark; my brother and his girlfriend quietly side by side in chairs, eyes red and swollen, and my dad off in the corner by the window, hiding his sobs with a towel. There my mom was, heaving breaths, disorientated staring, and then we locked eyes. I went over to her and held her hand. She said, “Your hair looks nice,” And proceeded to go on, very slowly, about how she wanted the dog. There was some silence, since the oxygen was so loud, and her voice so muffled. She pulled me in close to her:

“Kate, can you…stay…with me tonight…? Just…in case…” Again, she sarcastically rolled her eyes, but I knew she was so scared, so scare. And I was so scared too. I told her I would, even though I knew visiting hours were almost over and I would have to go home. 8:20 came around, and my mom had been persistently calling out for her dog, delirious, oblivious to what was going on. She kept pressing us how badly she wanted to go home, and how badly she wanted the dog. We tried telling her we couldn’t bring him to ICU, and with that she said “Goodnight.” We all gave our kisses and goodbyes and left.

The following morning began with a phone call and my mother was in a coma. By the time we reached the hospital she had been given twelve hours to live with necrosis of her liver, and my family and I stood around in shock, unable to think, unable to do anything. Hearing something so final, so horrific as “I’d be surprised if she lived another twelve hours,” completely numbed my soul. It’s something out of a medical show, something people watch on the television. Hell, it’s something I’ve watched on the television. Yet never in a million years would I ever suspect to hear those words uttered to me as a precaution to prepare myself the best I could and wait for her final breath. I don’t really remember what happened between me hearing the prognosis and me finding myself in the hallway outside of the ICU. I paced back and forth, everyone was walking around like lost little bugs – making circles with their feet, sitting on the window ledge, looking across the street to the 7-11, and making more and more phone calls.

A priest was called in to give my mom her last rites. I remember thinking how pissed off she probably was, that we called in a priest to tell her she was forgiven. She was the type of lady who didn’t go to church, and she always told me whatever she did was between her and God and there was no need to present herself in a room of people to prove her relationship with the guy upstairs was sincere. We followed this man like death camp detainees, single file, shaking, worn out, and scared. He began to speak, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…” My mom began to shake her head back and forth with a wrinkled brow, like a person trapped in a shell. Her brain was screaming “No! Get this man out! I’m not ready.” My dad, brother, and brother’s girlfriend stood with me at the foot of the bed with our heads down and hopeless tears streaming. I wanted her to open her eyes and tell that priest to fuck off, and then say she was fine. I wanted her to yell at me, so I could say I was sorry one more time. I tried not to let out the sobs that I needed to get rid of, because I didn’t want to scare her.

After her last rites were given, we met with the social workers to arrange to have all of the machines taken off my mom. We went in for another visit with my grandpa, a ninety-one year old World War II veteran. He took off his hat and all was silent, save the scratching of the chair across the floor. He started stroking her hair as her brows wrinkled her yellow infected skin, “My baby. It’s all right my baby.” He let out these half-chuckle, half cries as he told her she was going to be fine. My dad leaned in and kept telling her, “It’s fine, babe. We’re all going home. We’re going to go home. And your Duffy dog will be there. Don’t worry.”

I remember so much pain, and a headache that lasted the five fucking days that stubborn, pig-headed woman lasted in a coma while I slept on the floor and in the bed next to her along with four to ten other family members at a time.

Make shift beds and mats were provided the first night; we used chairs and spare blankets and the hardwood floor to support ourselves. The hospice and palliative care people managed to snag a double room for her and even allowed our dog to visit her one last time. He crawled up alongside my mom and began to lick her face and cry as he nuzzled his nose under her chin. That was the last time she opened her eyes, and that was the last time she made a sound.

 

It’s pretty damn difficult to describe what someone feels when they’re waiting for their mom to take that permanent and final exhale. We all went through our own private motions, some of us crying in silent heaves with our backs turned to her, thinking she knew that she was the reason we were crying. My relatives brought comfort food and coffee the first night we were all there. Mom spent the night lunging her arms forward for my dad, as she moaned in his ear and I held her legs so she didn’t fall out of the bed. I sat there, crying on her leg, and I remembered the summer when I was four years old: We were in a chaise lounge in the backyard. I was resting at the foot of the chair, lying on her legs. It was so warm and sunny, and the grass was so green. I remembered the smell of coconut sun block, and the feel of her stubble on my face. I don’t know how long I slept for that day, but I just remembered it meant a lot to me. I spent the next couple of hours living that memory down at her feet, as her brain, writhed with sickness and ammonia poisoning, fought to stay there, and fought to try and see my dad one last time.

After a couple of hours she just stopped moving. I couldn’t move either, I couldn’t accept that her body had finally given up, and that she was officially brain-dead, technically deceased, “not too long now.” The storm that was the evening quieted down, people began to clear out, and eventually it was just my dad, brother, his girlfriend, cousin, aunt and uncle, and myself. We all sat around fairly motionless, never saying much. Dad lay in the bed next to her holding her hand, humming Amazing Grace, while hopeless tears trickled out of his empty eyes. We adopted the idea of simply passing out from exhaustion, only to sleep for an hour or so and be awoken with a jerk after realizing we were waking up into a nightmare. Nick and I were lying on the floor of the hospital room, simply not caring of sanitary things and wishing I were the one in the bed in a coma. I kept thinking that – if it could have just been me.

To this day I tell my mom I love her, and ask her for advice, and weep at night when my own shadow consumes me with flashbacks and nightmares of those last few days. Oddly enough, the last day she was alive was the first day I felt relief. We never turned away from her and we kept our promises. We told her we were going home on Friday, and we brought home to her. We even brought her 23-pound beloved shih tzu through the hospital to spend my mother’s last semi-conscious hours with her. And I kept my promise: I stayed by her side the whole time, “just in case.”

It was 9:45 in the morning. I was in the bed beside my mom, with my brother and his girlfriend sleeping quietly on the floor. My eyes were shut, and the hospital was so incredibly quiet for a Monday morning. My back was turned. Suddenly I felt a vibration under my body, and jolted up at my phone ringing. I noticed the empty room, and I looked at the clock. As I rolled over I looked at my mom’s face, looking back at me. Then without blinking, I watched her take a heaving breath in, and her bony shoulders pushing her gown, and then releasing. I counted to ten, and then twenty, and then thirty, and there was nothing. There was nothing but the hiss of the oxygen, and the sound of my own heart breaking. I stood in my pajamas, beside her, touching her still-warm hands, and crying silently like a child wanting to wake her mother up because of a nightmare, but afraid to do so. That was it. I had no more Mommy. I could never again rouse her with my own nightmare.

She is on my Mind Late Tonight

No matter how many times I tell myself that I am strong, I will always allow myself to be weakened for missing my mother. Four and a half years have gone by, my life has shifted so drastically, and she missed all of it. It bothers me to think that this September will be five years without her. And five years is a quarter of the life I lived with her in it. Five years of a roller coaster of a life, where I feel I have lived more than most people do in an entire lifetime. Some days I think to myself how tired I am – how broken I’ve been, and I just want to curl up into a ball and hide or get in my car with my dog and never look in my rear view mirrors. I just want to drive at night and not stop until I find the sunrise. I look at all the moves I’ve been through, the incredible amount of family drama, the stress with the law, police, jobs, graduating college, trying to find myself when I lost such a huge part of me. I realize now, in five short years, how little I understood of life and death and meaning, even after I watched her take her last breath.

I was raised by an addict. I am not one. Addict did not define her. She was my best friend, my confidant, my war buddy, my manicurist, my mother.

I will never be ashamed to say my mother was an addict, because it is not something to judge a person by. I slowly began to recognize her less and less as who she was as her disease progressed. It crushed me – but I never judged her. It consumed her. It ruled her life. It ripped into our beds and stole our bonds.

I will never ever try to put myself in her shoes. I will never say, “I understand,” or, “I know she was sad.” Sadness doesn’t begin to define it. I – I was sad. I was sad when she died. I was sad when I graduated college without her nine months later. She was strong. She was strong and she was scared. She tried so hard. She was so beautifully broken and put back together and broken again by her fears of judgment from others should she admit that she was in a space where she needed help.

For that, I do not judge. For that I do not try to assume I know what someone is going through. For that, I would rather understand a person’s silence then blame them for being so. I saw her silence. I saw her fear and I did not judge her. I loved my mother. I love my mother.