One minute I’m a big brassy broad typing words into the abyss because who cares and the next minute I’m losing focus as a doctor asks me to sit down, so we can talk. One minute I’m banging out stupid slapstick social commentary trying to entertain myself long enough to lose weight, get my health on track, and morph into the successful, smiling, salad-eating meme of a woman I know I can be. And the next minute I’m crying in a parking garage and everything has changed.
tl;dr -> My mom died.
This entry was a struggle for many reasons. Mostly because my mom was such a sweet, private person. Why should she be subjected to my harsh sense of humor and selfish point of view? I’d like to make it clear that this entry is about me and not her. She deserves a delicate nuanced biography poured over by the world’s greatest writers. This is not that.
The WABE write-up with Lois Reitzes has just been published. It’s the day after Thanksgiving. Mom makes it known that she is an avid reader of my blog even if she doesn’t get it, which she also makes sure to tell me – all the time.
“Jennifer,” she says, “you’re a good writer so don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t have the slightest clue what you’re talking about.”
When I was younger an admission like this would have buried itself under my skin and lived forever. I would have read so much into a simple comment like that. It would have made me sick. I would have gotten another tattoo.
But I’m older now and my skin is thicker. Now the comment hits me, bounces off, and flies away. I laugh and reply:
“Me neither, mom. I have no idea what I’m talking about.”
I love my mom. I love everything about her. Sure, we haven’t always gotten along but when I hear stories about other moms I always find myself thinking – oh, well my mom would never do that! She would never shame me for short skirts or make me go to church. She would never encourage me to seek out romantic relationships as a way to feel whole. She never asks me about my boyfriends or prescribes any value to male attention. When I was young she would shove me into a frilly pink dress, curl my hair with a burning iron, march me outside and say- “go explore”.
I was always good enough for her – so could I please stop getting tattoos?
Before the radio interview airs, I message the producer of the show and thank him for having me on. I gush that I’m just thrilled to have something good to tell mom. Finally, some physical proof that although we both have no clue what I’m doing we can see that, in fact, I’m doing something.
The next day when the article comes out the first person to text me is mom. A banner pops across my phone:
“What is NPR?”
I laugh to myself, omg. I call her and explain what the article is about. She asks me if it’s good and I tell her it’s good. I assume she’s being difficult again to be funny. I have no idea that her heart is only pumping at 35 percent and all the medication she has been taking is starting to build up in her system.
A few weeks pass and it’s the day before my birthday. I read a story about mom out loud in front of a hundred strangers. I ask not to be recorded because she would kill me if she knew I was talking about her. The story is about the other night when dad entered the living room carrying mom and said, “we’re going to the hospital.”
It was the second time I’d ever seen my mother in the hospital which was strange only because she had survived breast cancer twice. I knew she was constantly going to doctors but I never saw it. Mom was an expert at hiding what she didn’t want you to see.
The first time I saw my mom in the hospital was when I was thirteen and had to get a cyst removed from my neck. She knew hospitals well and she refused to leave me alone. She sat straight up on a tiny cot in the corner of the room until it was time to leave. She wouldn’t let anything come near me. She would have stood directly next to the doctor, staring into his sweating face as he cut into my skin if they let her. She was strangely protective of me in moments like this.
On the surface, what I’m reading out loud to all of these strangers is an anecdote about the second time I saw mom in the hospital. It’s about the numerous plastic bottles of urine lying around. Her awkward attempt to set me up on a date with her doctor and my obsession with the tiny man who buffed the hospital floors. It was about waiting for hours in the hallways of the ER just to be seen. It’s about pretending to be strong for mom.
During the performance, I take a cheap Dollar Tree crown out of my pocket and place it on my head. I confess to everyone that tomorrow is my birthday and I’ll be 30. I realize the performance is about myself. About my inability to cope with the possibility that I could ever lose her.
As I read the story out loud, I have no idea that dad is on the way to the hospital with mom. That she will remain there until the day she dies. I have no idea that she will never come home again.
It’s my birthday and I’m 30. I go to work.
Dad tells me that mom has been in the hospital for two days and it’s not good. He says he didn’t want to ruin my birthday.
It’s almost Christmas now. Mom and I watch “Jingle All the Way” on a tiny TV that hangs from a hole in the ceiling pretending to be excited about her sugar-free, sodium-free food. Boiled chicken breast again, oh boy. My brother sneaks a Wendy’s milkshake into the room and her eyes light up. Dad rolls in a piece of luggage filled with Christmas decorations and lines them against the cement walls. We have to remind her that she’s in the hospital and that it’s Christmas. She wants to go home and asks about it constantly. “Soon,” we tell her.
It’s the day after New Years and things have gotten worse. Mom cannot speak anymore and I don’t know what to say anymore, so I talk incessantly. I tell her I ate Wendy’s and it was gross. I squeeze her hand as she looks at me. I ask her if she’s scared. My brother tells me not to ask her that. I snap back that she’s a person and she’s my mother and I can say whatever I want to her. Secretly, I wonder if he’s right.
What happens next is what I always thought would be the worst moment. The moment that levels us. I thought this would be what destroyed me, but I was wrong. The worst part was not knowing. Anxiety takes you out back and pushes you down into the dirt. Dread ties you up, covers your eyes with a damp handkerchief, and leaves you alone in the dark. All you can hear is the sound of a young woman on the H&G network squealing about how cute her new tiny home is.
Then it happens. Dread rips the handkerchief from your eyes and they adjust to the light.
The nurse walks away from me. It’s over. And it was nothing like TV.
Did she gently float upwards as if caught in a tide? Did she look down at us and say it was okay? Did she reach out and realize her hands and feet were translucent? Did she smile when her mind and spirit became one plane? Did we turn into a billion pulsating dots that twinkled sound? Did the secrets of the universe undress themselves? Was it warm, breathtaking, and logical? Was it like TV?
Crying alone in the car on the drive home from the hospital is a regular past time for me now but this is the last time I’ll have to do it. I wonder if there was a Spotify playlist for this. What song could I listen to now?
In the car I tie an imaginary rope around my waist and lower myself down into every bad thought. I wonder if she was scared. I lower myself father. I replay everything we said to each other. Fast forwarding and rewinding. Pausing on every mistake, which are completely illuminated now in retrospect. I lower myself father. I can see the last thing we said to each other before we knew it was too late. I lower myself farther. I remember every night that I went home and left her in the hospital alone. I imagine her laying in the dark, unable to sleep, calling out to a stranger for help. Waiting for me to come back. There’s no give left. I grab the rope and pull myself out.
After she died, my skin grew thin again and everything became shards of glass that cut and paste grotesque clumps of scars but you can’t see them from all my tattoos. Suddenly, I’m at mom’s funeral standing in front of everyone who knew her. It’s not a show but I can’t stop myself from performing.
I look exactly like my mother.
I never realized it until now. I open the door to greet my mom’s friends who bring food. Wow, they say. Taking a step back. You look just like her.
My first memory is of her. I remember laying on my back squirming and crying. I was surrounded by insurmountable walls. Colorful plastic pieces spun slowly around my face, encircling me like vultures, mocking my frailty. Is this it? Is this how it all ends? Suddenly, she appears. Mom. A giant smiling face appearing over me. Hands reaching down. She lifts me out of a devastating nightmare, also known as my bedtime.
Back when I was a sweet tiny blonde. Long before tattoos or Limp Bizket, I would sneak into her room while she was at work and meticulously rummage through her things. What kind of shoes did she wear? What did her makeup look like? What do her coats smell like? What did her makeup look like on the walls? I wanted to know everything. I wanted to know the kind of a person my mother was. I wanted to know what kind of person I would be. I looked through pictures and realized she had had a whole life before me. I hoped there would never be a life without her.
Mom was thirty when she had me. I’m thirty now too. Today I found an old picture that dad had taken of her before they ever thought about getting married. She’s back lit. The edges of her hair are glowing from the sun and you can just barely make out her face. Wow, I said. Stepping backwards with the picture in my hand. I look just like her.
I’ve always been intimidated by my mother’s strength. I remember being little and when I did something defiantly, she would point to her stomach where a barbaric scar lived. Slashed across her belly from one side to the other before doctors had the foresight to strategically hide cesareans.
“This,” she would announce, smiling…”was you. You were stubborn just like your father and didn’t want to come out. So the doctor’s opened me up and pulled you out by your feet.”
My eyes would widen with guilt and I would stare at the scar convinced she was a gladiator or a Power Ranger.
The first time mom had breast cancer she told us she would lose her hair but she was strong needed us to be strong too. My brother and I were too young to understand her request so we just shook our heads yes.
In school I tried so hard to be strong that it made me sick. I would leave class, walk to the main office, straight past the receptionist- past the officer- past the principal- to the nurse’s desk who, after a while, must have had mom’s work number on speed dial. Without words she would hand me the receiver and I would stretch the cord as far as it would go to corner of the room holding my breath as I waited to hear mom’s voice-
“Hello?” she would say.
“Hi, mom.” I said back.
“What’s wrong, Jennifer? Are you ok?”
“I’m ok. How are you?”
“Everything is fine. Go back to class.”
I would hand the phone back to the nurse, take my hall pass, and walk back to class. I did this every day.
After the second breast cancer diagnosis, she asked me to shave my head in solidarity. My mom shaved hers. My dad shaved his, but I chickened out.
Once she was in remission, I would watch mom, the warrior princess, pull people aside, people she cared about and show them her scars. Look what they did. Isn’t that amazing? They would quietly nod their heads speechless. Another casualty at the hands of mom’s strength.
Here’s a list of things my mom did with her strength: she got the money back from the elderly teller at Bank of America who stole my first paycheck, she taught me to never trust anyone on the road, she screamed at my first boyfriend over the phone after he called me a name because she was secretly listening in on another line, she refused to ride roller coasters, she high-fived every runner at the Peachtree Road Race. She raised my wacky and weird little family. She said things like sit up straight, hold our shoulders back, stop sucking your thumb, pay attention, close your legs, act like a lady, stop staring, don’t say that, don’t pluck your eyebrows, calm down, take your makeup off at night, and for god’s sake moisturize that perfect skin I gave you.
Anyone who knew my mom knew that she was sweet, kind, loving, generous, funny, mischievous. She was weird and obsessed with birds. She was artistic and creative but particular. She was hard working, yet refined. She was classy. She was definitely bossy. She was quiet. She was loud. She would laugh with her whole heart. Sometimes she was sad and unreachable. She was dark, but always light while carrying the burden of her strength.
When we got into arguments, she would say things like: why don’t you get a real job? You’re gaining weight again. Where is all your money going?
And I would say things like: you’re not listening. You don’t care. I’m trying.
It took me so long to hear what she was really saying. Which was:
You are my daughter. You look exactly like me. All I ever wanted was to hold you up higher than myself to make it so you never had to struggle. Not like I did.
And what I was really saying. Which was:
Mom, if I never struggle, then how will I have your strength?
I’m not a strong person, but I know one looks like and I look exactly like her.