by Angeliska on August 8, 2016
Today marks thirty years since the day my mother died. Nearly half a lifetime, it seems – and so much of my life that I’ve had to live without her. I have spent most of those years hiding. Body hunched and curled over to shield the shameful wound of my unbearable, unspeakable grief. It lives at the core of me, every day. Everything I lost when I lost my mom. The door where I came in, that source of unconditional love and support, all her magic and wisdom and essential Maggie-ness, which I can only experience through the stories and memories of the people who knew and loved her, and through the precious objects she left me. Her absence has shaped my existence in countless ways. I tried to be tough and stoic for so long, even as a very small (and very scared) child. I didn’t cry, I didn’t grieve, I didn’t let on that there was anything wrong – even though everything was. When I was forced to admit to someone who didn’t already know that my mom had died, they would say, “Oh, I’m sorry!” and look very uncomfortable, and I would say “It’s okay.” But it’s not. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now. It will never, never, ever be okay that my mother died and left me to have to figure out how to survive without her. I’m tired of pretending, tired of lessening the horror of my loss to make other people more comfortable. It is a raw place in me like the scar left when a tree loses a big branch, an essential piece of itself, necessary to uphold the structure. Children need their parents. For survival, for healthy growth and development, and really for everything. Those who have lost one or both to death or abandonment may walk with their chins up and their upper lips stiff, but they suffer every single day without the love and support of those people who should have been there to raise them. And they hide – from a society that has forgotten our rituals for grieving and honoring the dead, and from themselves, because reckoning with the enormity of that loss can be truly terrifying. This is the work that I have been doing. Learning to stop hiding from myself, and from the world. Step by step, year after year, I make slow progress. I have learned to cry, in front of other people especially, which is so hard. I have learned to let myself be vulnerable, to ask for help, and to seek it myself. I work on processing the deep traumas the trainwreck of my childhood inflicted on me, with therapists and healers who understand how to treat trauma in the body, in the nervous system, where it lives. And I write. I write to know myself, to remember my memories, and to feel things I had for so long been afraid to feel. I wrote this piece, or began the process of writing it, two years ago in a writing workshop with my hero, Lynda Barry. I could barely get through reading it aloud to the class because I was sobbing so hard. I still can’t make it through without crying, and that’s okay. I share it here for anyone who is willing to bear witness. I have learned that grief must be witnessed and shared to be fully processed, so I thank you in advance for reading, and for your willingness to be a part of this process for me.
I am seven years old, chasing madcap after my cousin Luke, who is ten. We are tearing through my grandparent’s tiny country cottage out in the Hill Country, where my family has lived for generations: a ghost town near Llano called Lone Grove. I don’t remember why I’m running after him like a crazy wild thing, but I’m determined to catch up, to escape the close confines of the little house with its heavy smell of burnt bacon, dust, and old people. Maybe we’re racing out to the ditch to go race dirt-bikes, me on the back clutching my cousin’s skinny ribcage tight. Though perched precariously, I want to imagine myself both as tough and romantic: like Nicole Kidman glaring cooly over Tom Cruise’s shoulder in the the Top Gun poster that hangs on my cousin’s closet door at home. It’s much less glamourous when we limp back down to the house later, our kneecaps skinned fresh into what will later become one big scab. For now though, we are exuberant – full of sweet tea with six spoons of sugar mixed in, desperate for some kind of life and action in this place where all the adults whisper in low worried voices and tell us to keep it down. I rush out onto the porch, Luke’s hair in a long rat tail just out reach of my grasp – the screen door banging behind me with a shotgun crack. I don’t know how many times we kids have all been hollered at not to do that very thing, but this time it’s him, who whirls on me with hazel eyes flashing. “Don’t you let that damn door slam when your mom’s in there having seizures! Don’t you have any respect?”
I don’t know exactly what a seizure is, but it sounds bad, the way we hear the grown-ups talking. I think of the word seized, seize the day, and I think it must mean: grabbed, taken, stolen. The cancer is taking my mom away, shaking her body like a rag doll in the mouth of a wild dog until there’s no life left in her. I stand on the front porch, shaking, staring blind at the magic rock embedded in the side of the door frame. It’s hot, hot in late July and a few minutes ago I was dripping with sweat but now I’m cold, cold. This stone cottage was built for my great-grandmother to live in, back in the thirties. Someone took the time to make sure that the very best little rocks were set right where you could see them, going in and out – the smooth edge of the speckled polished granite I always touched for luck, and my favorite: a piece of smoky quartz with a tiny phantom rainbow hovering at its core. How did those colors get in there, I’d always wondered? They seemed suspended somehow, like the blue glow on the tip of a match-head or a patch of iridescent oil skating over a puddle. My finger strokes at it, trying to make it move, but it doesn’t budge. I can’t go in or out now. The red number of my cousin’s soccer shirt is receding down the driveway, hazed and wavy in the heat. His shoulders are hunched up high like his body hurts, and I want to run after him but I’m stuck here. I want to say sorry but I don’t know who to, and I have the sense that if I try, it will knock something loose in me and Luke and all the grown-ups that will never be able to be put back together. No one is allowed to cry here, or we will all drown. It hasn’t rained in weeks and weeks.
I can’t apologize, and if I go back inside, I might get yelled at more, or worse – just recede into the murk of concerned murmuring like another shadow, get lost in the sickroom hush. There’s nothing to do in there but make myself very small, hunch up in the corners of the dim living room with a old National Geographic from before I was born. On the other side of the front door hangs one of my mother’s watercolor paintings: this one of a roadrunner with a dead lizard hanging half out of his mouth, pausing mid-dash. One the other side of that wall hangs a picture of a horse torn from one of my coloring books. With my black crayon I made the horse regal, a Black Beauty stallion with a starry white blaze, and emerald green eyes. A gift to my mother, to try and cheer her – to show her that I care. I do. I don’t know how else to say so except staying quiet and out of the way, coloring pictures, maybe being an artist, like her. The horse stares down its long nose at the wan figure in the hospital bed – but her eyes are very rarely open to see it. I had worked hard on making sure it was colored in as perfectly as possible, no straying from the lines, no messiness. I knew, as an artist, it would matter to her that I could do a good job, take care with making it just right. After someone tall tacked my picture up in her room, I worried about it. I had learned recently that black was the color of death. What if my black horse seemed like some kind of bad omen, or served as a dark reminder of what was coming? It felt like it was coming fast, the way Texas thunderstorms come up on you suddenly. One minute the sun is shining too bright – and then the air changes. The heady odor of tin is sharp and metallic in your nose – making you look up to see those bruised-looking storm-clouds pulsing on the horizon. Everything speeds up, like a freight-train rushing towards us down the track. My cousin Luke was obsessed with locomotives when he was younger, and he had these model sets where you could move the position of the tracks to your pleasure. The train could go over the bridge and into town, or it could careen off the edge of the kitchen table if you directed it that way – nothing was inevitable. This is not like that, some part of me knows. I don’t know how to shift the path, swerve the course of this juggernaut that screams towards my mother’s body tied to tracks, wrapped in white bedsheets. I am too little. A few days before, I was pushing her, grown so thin and frail in her wheelchair over the gouged out tire tracks on the dirt road. We go halfway down, to where the crepe myrtles are blazing vibrant fuchsia, so pink it sears the eye. I try to make encouragingly poetic and mature comments about the beauty of the blooms, but she is too tired to respond with more than a breathy whisper. I don’t know it yet, but this is the last time she will leave her bed and see the world beyond the robin’s egg blue room where her life is folding in on itself. This is the last time chance I will ever have, to talk with her, about anything before it all collapses. I want so much to say the right thing: find the perfect, magic words that will make her smile, paint the orange freckles back on her face where they’ve faded grey. Change the direction of the train tracks. Banish the black horse from high up on the wall. Unslam that damn door.
And, if you’d like to read more about this journey, here you go: