38 on August the 8th

by Angeliska on August 8, 2017

Thirty-one years ago today, my mother died at the age of thirty-eight – the same age I am now. I didn’t actually put that together until a few months ago, and when I realized it, I feel a numb shock flooding my belly, as if I’d swallowed a glass of cold lead. The age she was when she died had been a cipher for me, an invisible number – something I think I didn’t want to know, or remember, or ever think about. I’ve noticed that there’s certain pieces of traumatic information that my brain protects me from, sometimes. Essential details that forever remain hazy – because to acknowledge them makes them concrete, irrevocable. Too real. It’s ridiculous, but my ovary is a good example. My mind refuses to retain the information about on which side of my body the damaged ovary was taken. That surgery was terrifying for me, reminding me so much of my mother’s surgeries on that part of her body – all unsuccessful at removing the disease that eventually killed her.

I don’t have too many memories of my mother, which makes me feel really sad. If our memories really start developing around the age of 5, that means I really only got two years with her – and she was really sick for most of that time. Quite a few of the memories I have are of us in the tiny bathroom in the small-town house where I grew up. Perhaps because it was time when I got to be alone with her, in this intimate space. I loved being that close to her. I remember asking her lots of questions, always, in the bathroom. I remember her sitting on the toilet, sitting in the bath tub, standing at the sink in her underwear. I was fascinated with her body, and wanted to understand everything about it. I remember asking her how old she was, and her saying a number, and the number not making any sense to me. Maybe she was 37 then? The number was too big to comprehend. It was a cipher, a question mark, a blank space. I remember when my best friend turned 9, when I was 6. I was holding the heavy pale blue hard plastic receiver of the phone to my cheek, twirling the coiled springy phone cord around my hand, sproinging it like a slinky, and Star’s voice on the other end telling my proudly how old she had turned on her birthday. I remember just being stunned with awe – that anyone could be that big! I was a little proud that I had a friend who knew what it was like to be nine years old – like knowing someone that had been to Borneo, or walked on the moon. It was so foreign, such an accomplishment! I mean, nine is really almost ten! Double digits felt like a big, big deal. So thinking about my parent’s ages was like trying to contemplate a number like a googolplex (which is one, followed by writing zeroes until you get tired.)

I found this these other day, in a stack of photos my aunt sent to me. This smudged little snippet - a whole life reduced to a few inches of newsprint, where they couldn't even be bothered to spell our name right twice (it's Polacheck). Obituaries are so

I found this the other day, in a stack of photos my aunt sent to me. This smudged little snippet – a whole life reduced to a few inches of newsprint, where they couldn’t even be bothered to spell our name right twice (it’s Polacheck). Obituaries are so very final – and usually, they say so very little. This pitiful scrap tells you nothing about my mother – nothing about her accomplishments, her struggles, her hopes or her dreams. Nothing about what she loved or hated, no words to even attempt to express what kind of person she was, or what kind of hole she left in the world, in our lives, when she died. It’s so stark, seeing my own name in an obituary. Seeing that number, 38. The facts are cold and hard, printed out in the newspaper for all to see. That was her life, right there. Ended. Trim it out with little scissors and save it in an envelope. That’s it.

So, a few months ago, it hit me for real – that my mom died at the age I am now. Which wasn’t very old after all, it turns out. It’s all relative. I remember when I turned 31, and well-meaning, naive 20-somethings telling me (with a hint of awe in their voices), “Wow, you totally don’t look that old at all!” It’s so hard to contemplate when you’re young, growing old, or dying. Another question mark, blank space. Death? When all you know is life, life, life – climbing trees and dripping popsicles and dancing until you get a stitch in your side and being bored and craving toys and attention and affection. Childhood feels like a blur of sticky hands and flailing limbs and the agony of having to sit still when you want to leap up and whirl around the room screaming wild at the top of your lungs. And then there was death. I started thinking about it, knowing about it, younger than most kids.

A watercolor my mother did of John Keats, with whom she was obsessed. For her, it was always Keats & Hank Williams: two doomed poets who both died far too young, tragically - this caught her up in the romantic fixation on, as my father described it,
A watercolor my mother painted of her idol, John Keats

My dad and I have been talking about my mother’s infatuation with those poets, artists and musicians who died too young. For her, it was always John Keats and Hank Williams. My father told me this:

She learned pretty much all there was to know on their lives and work. She acquired the complete published works of both men. Meeting Hank’s friends and relatives and visiting his gravesite was very important to her. Producing unique and lasting work of genius in a short unhappy life of pain and suffering, this was her obsession. It’s very Romantic, the doomed genius artist, largely under appreciated until he is gone.” She put her heart and soul into artworks commemorating her passion for both Keats and Hank, a collage series called “The Mansion of Many Apartments” and her portrait of the lonely cowboy called “Star-Crossed Troubadour”. She outlived them both, but only by about ten years. Dead before her time, and as Keats put it, “…half in love with easeful Death…” The phrase “dying into life” from one of Keats’ poems comes up a lot with my mom. I both understood and totally resented her fascination with dying young, and those who did. She became part of that club, the tragic geniuses hanging out in the graveyard, never growing old, becoming immortal, always remembered because of the great works they left behind. Maybe it’s because of this that I sometimes feel I have a desperate mission to shine a light on the works of those bright stars who died too young, without ever receiving the proper recognition. I wish everyone could know how goddamned talented my mom was. She never became famous, or legendary in her day – except to the people that knew and loved her. I think that’s the real way we achieve immortality, eternal life – is through the preserved memories of those who choose to remember us, and what we did here. I long for that for myself, which is most likely why I save everything I ever made – hoping to leave something for the biographers. It’s definitely fanciful and vain to think that way, but I can’t help it. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I still save everything for posterity, thinking that someone might want to pore over it in my archives one day, the way I do over my mother’s scraps and bits I’ve managed to preserve over the years. I examine these for clues, like a forensic archaeologist dusting bones, hoping they might tell me something more about her life, about her days on this earth. What will my stack of daily planners, my grocery and to-do lists tell someone who loved me, who misses me, about my time here? Will it help them, to look at these things? Or will all of this stuff end up in the recycling bin, or pawed over at an estate sale like the sad grabby debacles I used to frequent?

So, with all of this, it’s probably no accident that I became a goth around the age of 13 or so. A constant awareness of our own death makes us think about life differently. Thinking constantly about death, my own especially, became a theme for years, and is something I still struggle with. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve imagined my own funeral, in great detail – or envisioned quite explicitly, all the terrible ways I might meet my demise. For a long time, I felt a little ashamed of this morbid preoccupation – until I learned that it’s very common, especially for children who have experience loss at an early age. We seek to understand what has happened through the filter of our own existence, which is usually all little kids can generally relate to, anyway. That habit is still with me, but it’s shifted. I can’t help but contemplate my own mortality, given what I know about what’s possible – that we have no guarantee, no divine promise that we’ll all live to a ripe old age. I believe every one of us has a number, and when our number is called – it’s time to go. My mom’s number was 38. I don’t know mine, but it wasn’t 16 or 22 or 30 – miraculously, despite all the crazy, reckless situations I was putting myself into. Maybe my mother had something to do with that, too – protecting me from harm. I know I have guardian angels abounding – because there’s no way I’d be here otherwise. The presence of death changes you, makes you live like a fugitive, constantly looking over your shoulder, feeling like you’re living on borrowed time. Marked by your own mortality, the ace of spades flung onto your chest. The number 38 has been a sword of Damocles hanging over me, the pendulum over the pit, ceaselessly swinging. When I went to Morocco last year, it was the dark voice hissing in my ear saying, “it’s now or never, my dear…” that made me take a deep breath and buy my plane ticket. What if I died, having never seen Africa? Could I be okay with that? The answer was no, I couldn’t. I went, I saw the Sahara (and so many other amazing things!), and I lived deeply in that experience. I’m headed to Oregon soon to witness my first total solar eclipse. The last one occurred the year I was born, 1979. The trip feels a bit stressful, fraught and complicated to plan – and there have been moments where I felt tempted to call it off and stay home to tend to my work and my dogs. I’ve been reminded that there will be another solar eclipse in 2024, with the path of totality falling right over where I live. But a lot can happen in 7 years. Will I be alive to see it? My mother’s death reminds me that I have no guarantee. I have to live each day as if it is my last – something I rarely succeed at (as a dither around my house, woolgathering and scrolling through silly stuff on the internet…) And so, to Oregon I go, praying for good weather and a powerful, potentially once in a lifetime experience.

I always feel more like myself after a bang trim. Since I don't trust myself to be exacting near my own face with scissors, I go see Iana at Hearts & Robots. She twirls my curls and re-saturates my color and makes me laugh and restores me to myself every

Virginia Woolf, who was thirteen when her mother died, wrote, “Youth and death shed a halo through which it is difficult to see a real face.” 
― Hope Edelman, Motherless Daughters

Recently, I was at the pet store where I buy my wolf pack’s fancy expensive dog food, and I caught my reflection in the tinted glass doors. For the first time, I was startled by the resemblance between my mother and myself. I rarely see it, thinking I look more like my dad most of the time. It’s in the little things, though – the way we carry ourselves, the way my mouth and chin are shaped like hers, in repose. That day, in my wrap skirt and tank top, wearing big round sunglasses like the ones she favored, my hair in a ponytail – I could see it, I could see her, standing there in front of me. In so many ways, I realize that I am living my mother’s dream life: a life that she would have loved to have had for herself – living alone in a beautiful home created to my own specifications, free to go anywhere I want, whenever I want, doing work that is fulfilling for me, and surrounded by loving friends, family and many adoring critters. By living my life to the fullest, I honor her, and the loss of all the years she should have had to enjoy here. Some days, it feels like a lot of pressure – to honor all of her legacies. She left paintings and collages unfinished, memoirs unwritten. Her fiddle and guitar gather dust, go unplayed. I have taken up her jewelry making, silver-smithing – and created pieces from all the unfinished cabochons she left behind. Recently I was told by my aunt and dad both, on separate occasions, that I have surpassed her in skill. That my jewelry now is far beyond what she was able to do. That’s an intense thing to hear, and I feel both pride and shame in thinking about it. I can’t attribute it to talent, really – only the accident of time, that I’ve had more than she did, to learn my craft. I remember the trepidation I felt when I first began, feeling so nervous at my first jewelry class – what if I’m no good at this? What if I don’t like it? How will I honor her then? Who will finish what she wasn’t able to? I lay awake at night often feeling wild with anxiety about my inability to squeeze all my passions into every week, about all the languages I have yet to master, all the songs I wish I could play. In these dark and sleepless moments, I fervently curse people who complain of boredom – wishing I could steal their wasted hours to put to good use. I remember my mother always telling me, “Only boring people get bored”, whenever I would complain as a kid. I took this wisdom to heart, and try my hardest to never allow myself to get boring.

I feel very alive and very terrified when I go to the gynecologist to get a pap smear, when I got my first mammogram, recently – trying to breathe as the cold plastic squashed my breast. Preventative measures. I spit in a tube, took a test to check my genetic markers for cancer. The day all my results came back negative, it felt like the sun coming out from behind a cloud – on a day you were told would be stormy. Maybe I won’t die like that, then. Perhaps I can avoid her fate, and I’ll have some other kind of death. I’d prefer it being devoured by a wild beast, truly – to laying alone in a cold hospital room while my own body betrays me, killing me slowly from the inside out. I would rather have the gnash of teeth pulverizing my bones than the slow drip of chemotherapy. If I ever do get cancer, it would be so hard to trust that I could live through it, survive it – though I know now many people do. Many people don’t. I am trying my hardest to keep living my best life – to stay here in body, a place I refused to completely inhabit for a long time. I am learning to stay connected to my breath. When my mother was alive, all my energy was focused on wanting to please her, wanting her gaze to turn my way – wanting her to be a captivated with me as I was (and am) with her. People tell me that she would be so proud of me, proud of the life I’ve created for myself. I think that that’s true. I like to think so, I hope so. I am finding myself at the intersection where her life ended, and mine is truly beginning. I am more awake now, more content, more present than I ever was able to be when I was younger – and I am determined and completely committed to squeezing every last drop of ambrosia out of the time I have here in this human body, in this remarkable incarnation. I can’t imagine having to say goodbye to my life right now – so young, with so much undone. This year, her death anniversary feels extra heavy, and I’ve been really struggling under the weight of so much grief, and long-held fear. I’m trying to stay present, and keep sitting with this awareness, and the knowing that (if all goes well), I will outlive her – and go far beyond this train-stop where she had to disembark, her journey sharply truncated. I feel like I want to celebrate being alive – like I want to be held and shaken and danced around with to wake me up into the reality that I didn’t fucking die like she did, when she did – to acknowledge somehow that I’ve passed over the dreaded mark. Maybe every year after this will be even stranger. She never even made it to 40, which just feels so very young to me now. For a long time, I had inherited my mother’s infatuation with the romantic idea of being a famous artist who died too early – but not anymore. I want to become an old ancient crone –crotchety, wise, and whiskered. My mother never got to grow old – and I will never get care for her or learn from the wisdom of her elder years. I feel robbed of so much. It’s been so hard to walk my road without her to guide me. I’m told she is, that she does – and I’m learning to trust in that. But it’s not the same, you know? I can’t imagine having to say goodbye to a seven year old daughter – which is maybe why she didn’t. It feels impossible, to accept that 38 years was all the life she got. How on earth does anyone accept that? If I died tomorrow, I’d know I lived a good life – that I worked hard, loved harder, saw the world, and experienced much bliss. But I’m not done here, and I won’t be – not for a long, long time… Rest In Peace, mama. I wish we’d had more time.

August the 8th is my mother's death day. She died when she was only 38 - the same age I am today. I can't imagine having to say goodbye to my life right now - so young, with so much undone. This year feels extra heavy. I'm sitting with this awareness, and
My mother, Maggie (Margaret Merrill Cook Polacheck – December 31st, 1947 – August 8th, 1986) This photo was taken when she was a teenager, only 16 or so, I believe.

If you’d like to read more about this journey, here you go:

888

WILD BLUE YONDER

NO ROOM IN MY HEART FOR THE BLUES

FAMILY VACATION – HANK WILLIAMS’ GRAVE

STAR-CROSSED TROUBADOURS

Foxes in the Rain

Triumvirate Lemniscate

Gustav + Mama – August 8th

2 comments

This was such a wonderful read, thank you so much for writing and sharing this!

by LP on August 9, 2017 at 2:59 am. #

always nice to see you write. i’m very thankful for your mother for without her i would have never met you.

by jen on August 9, 2017 at 2:49 pm. #

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