My mother has been gone less than two years. She would have been 69 today. Death is so final for the living. And yet, it’s been one of my greatest teachers. I am far from an atheist and have no loyalties to any particular dogma. What I have learned through death is how important it is to give one’s authentic self to another. All the years my mother was here, I internalized her. I ate her up like one of those white wafers at communion. She is really inside me. She had a love affair with her own wisdom and it was one of her greatest joys to share that love of her ideas with me. All of her pain that she so honestly shared with me even when it made her look so scary. All the millions of miles we walked together along our memory lanes, trying to merge our stories. It’s all here inside of me. And yet, I understand it all better now that she’s not here in the flesh. When she’d say, “I’m not trying to criticize you, you don’t need to be defensive. I’m merely sharing my perspective.” I get it now. She was trying to get inside me with her perspective. And only after she passed over do I realize that she did her job- she has been internalized. I hear her crystal clear every day. I am so grateful I let her in. And even more grateful that she made the effort to get in. She wasn’t here in the physical sense when she was on earth, but she was always with me in spirit through the phone, that strange preparatory communication device for the soul. Maybe that’s why I still hear her so strongly – I had so much practice listening to her spirit while she was here. And while I’m not sure what happened to her spirit the day she passed, I have to say I don’t think it’s a figment that it’s still here. I hear her speaking to me from the other side, with wisdom that warms my heart and mystifies me. The other side of what, I’m not sure. From the time I was in her apartment and her voice directed me to which closet and drawer I could find what I was looking for, to now, when I hear her voice sharing what she’s learned after dying. “Your job here on earth is not to prove yourself worthy,” she says. “But to share the love affair you have with your spirit. Every time something moves you and warms your heart, that is your spirit wanting to burst out. Don’t hoard your spirit. Don’t protect it either. Let it out. Someone might need it one day.”
Cutting a grapefruit on Christmas morning. hearing my mother’s voice reminiscing about her Grandma Kay- “She used to broil a grapefruit for me every night, sprinkle it with sugar serve it with a little steak and one hot Jiffy roll. It was just the yummiest thing ever.”
She loved her Grandma Kay enough to make up for not loving her own mother who ate her grapefruit cold with one of those special grapefruit spoons serrated on one side with a napkin in her lap reminiscing about why she never liked her own mother who failed to broil her a single grapefruit. I always nodded with commiseration instead of asking how she failed to notice, during her moments of resentment, that she herself had neglected to broil a single grapefruit for her own daughter, serving instead inedible things, meals you had to be grateful to be alive in order to enjoy.
I remember years ago my grandmother brought me to her mother’s grave. I held her arthritic elbow as she reached down to place a couple rocks on her mother’s headstone, reminding me again how she wasn’t a fan. And I nodded with commiseration, never imagining for a moment I would soon be visiting that same headstone to bury some of my own mother’s ashes next to her beloved Grandma Kay.
And now three generations of women are gone. And I am left, the continuation of all they left behind eating my own grapefruit, neither broiled nor with fancy spoon. Just a paring knife. And a sore throat made worse by its bitterness in this moment alone in my kitchen thinking about Christmas wondering about resurrection hearing my mother’s voice once again- “Honey, even if heaven is just in your imagination, is it really the end of the world? If you think about it, aren’t most of your relationships on earth merely figments of your imagination anyhow?”
“Should that give me comfort??”
“(Laughing.) Honey, eat your grapefruit.”
So I eat my grapefruit. One of several that arrived at my doorstep in a box. Sent to me by an archbishop of all people. One of the most kind people I have ever met. Perhaps this is what lives on- Gifts of kindness that pass through the hands of human beings, generation after generation. Even through the bitterness of this grapefruit, I can taste its sweetness.
I’ve never known elegance in the face of loss. This might be one of the reasons I’ve documented so much of my life in journals. I’m just too afraid of losing even a moment, in spite of how many times I’ve been rudely reminded that hard drives can’t really back-up a life. I have been known to search frantically for days for the details of a vague memory, either on my computer or in my stacks of fireproof safes filled with jottings on napkins and coffee-stained receipts. The times I’ve been lucky to find the moment, I’ve savored it again and again through tears of joy. And the times I’ve had no luck, the feeling of loss was unbearable. It could take days to get over. That something so special was gone for good made me feverishly want to pull out my hair. And knowing I was behaving pathologically did nothing but make me more resolute, for if my mind was gone, at least I should be able to locate its memories. And then I lost my mother.
And as I sat in shambles on my mudroom floor, sobbing into the phone, I realized there was not a damn thing I could do about it. She was gone. And there was no place to go looking for her. I’d never again get to see her the way I did.
I walked through my days consumed by a continuous slideshow - the way she crossed her legs while watching TV, the cloud-shaped birthmarks on her arms, her elegant fingers holding a cigarette out the car window, her smile that could light up even the dimmest of souls, the way she’d speedwalk to St. Vincent de Paul’s to find the treasures before anyone else... Where did it all go?
The only thing that soothed me was to remember every detail of my mother. And that was pretty easy, considering I had over 20,000 Microsoft Word documents all about her.
In some strange way, I had actually backed-up our relationship.
And so I started to travel back in time, reading through hours of conversations and scenes. It was heart-wrenchingly sad and at times laugh-out-loud hysterical, but what I hadn’t expected now that my mother was gone, was the experience of revisiting all those old stories from my brand new point of view – the one where my main character was now past tense, absolved from all wrongdoings.
The reason I started documenting my life in the first place was to cope with the horrible feeling that I didn’t quite exist. My mother spent her entire life fractalling through one glorious handcrafted drama after another. And though I appreciated that her life was extraordinarily interesting and also excruciatingly painful, what I tended to notice most about her, was that she could never be counted on when I needed her most.
And yet there was this other narrative peeking through the undertones of my resentment - my mother’s story. And it’s funny to think I had been the one transcribing her words all these years, because it was as if I were reading them for the first time. All the vulnerable things she said to me when her life had fallen into shambles yet again, all the guilt she felt for not being there for me, how she loved me more than anything in the world - begging me to believe she was there for me and adored me and was so proud of me… I guess my own hurt hadn’t ever let her words truly sink in.
The truth was - she might not have been doing everything I wanted her to, but she had been there. She existed. She was my mother.
Now, when I revisit our old stories, I feel more like an archaeologist than a wounded child. I dig up clues for who she was instead of who she wasn’t. And I find a woman who I idolize - the wittiest, most brilliantly complicated person I ever met. And I cry to her from my heart- I’m so sorry, Mommy. I wish more than anything that I knew then what I know now. You loved me. And I loved you. So, so much. We were everything to each other. And I hear her voice reassuring me, We both knew, honey. Deep inside, we both knew.
I’m not as afraid of losing things like I used to be. I realize sometimes loss is the only opportunity we have to rearrange our perspectives so that we’re able to tell new kinds of stories about our lives. Maybe some part of myself always knew that I would need to realize this truth. That what’s really precious is never lost. That we’re here to leave our brightest parts. Not on any bestseller list, but in each other’s hearts.
Her crucifixion was a private event, just beneath her favorite sweater and moisturizer,
walking around the world so tightly nailed to her old ideas
about what’s required to be worthy.
Lamenting how callous is life,
with its tragedies far and wide,
while secretly mourning at her own grave,
watering her own flowers with just the tiniest drips of attention she had left for such things.
Beneath the acne and the ocular,
and the slow and steady extinguish,
she considered again
trading her doubt for an allegiance to eternity,
just in case she finds out at last
someone has been waiting to welcome her.
By JESSICA KANE, written in 1996
Eddie said he had something for me. Good, I thought. Hopefully not whole grain bread or millet which is what he usually pulls out of his alarmingly bright red knapsack.
Moments later, he shuffled back into his windowless soundproof teeny tiny room with no carbohydrates, thank god, but with some strange looking ‘culotte suit’. I guess that’s what you’d call it. A cotton ‘jumper’ with short-like appendages. It was white with navy blue polka dots. Something I never intended to receive, ever.
Ed has given me some very strange clothing, though, now that I am forced to think about it. One day he came over and presented to me an off-white long sleeveless prairie-type dress. Another day he arrived and pulled out a purple, rather homely knee length version of a cheerleading skirt. I usually laugh after the silent pauses. See, I mostly wear my pajamas or tight whore-type clothes. Ed never cares, though, if I like them or not. But when I tried on this latest costume, which was, I learned, purchased at a flea market in Berlin in order to make monetary change, I fell in love with it. Granted, it hugs my crotch, almost causing premature ejaculation, but with my thigh high black leather boots, it makes a most original and stunning combination.
I straddled Ed while he sat on some sort of chair in his dark room and felt aroused in my new costume. His room always makes me feel contented. Even when all other things are going wrong. Like now, for instance. But in that little room, nothing can go wrong... Unless you’re trying to sleep on a piece of four-inch foam when it’s freezing... but that only happened once.
I’ve had two near out of body experiences in that room. One occurred on the first night I ever slept there. And the other time was more recent, while he was downstairs having a rehearsal with some of the people in his band. Both times I felt myself leaving my body, and both times I was so frightened I made myself focus on some door knob or the chair in order to come back to the land of bridges and burgers in one piece.
You know, I hate it when I’m in the middle of an activity like writing and I go to push in my chair and something like a basket on the floor is blocking my way. I get hot at these moments. And violent. Sometimes I kick the basket, even though it really hasn’t done anything wrong. I get mean sometimes. Eddie doesn’t. He’s always really calm. He judges a lot. People and stuff. He’ll be the first to admit it. He’s right most of the time though, as far as judgments go. But me, well, I know better than to judge whole-heartedly. I only do it on spurts... Like kicking stuff out of my way, calling Peter my roommate a fatter and more stupid version of one of those old tiny dog toys on wheels, or placing ant poison out when the sight of a zillion ants running around the foot of my bed makes my entire life feel ruined. At moments like these, I feel no remorse. At these moments, everything deserves what they get. And if the ants decide in a revolutionary modus operandi to climb into my bed and all get in my mouth to suffocate me, well I wouldn’t blame them.
Little ants. Little teeny tiny ants. Speeding around my floor. I watch them sometimes. Once, I sliced an overly large crumb in threes so one of the little guys could shove it down the crack leading to his home. He politely waited until I finished and carried on. I wonder if he thought I was god or something. I don’t know if I really did it to help him though. I think I was just looking for entertainment to mask my pickled boredom. But every time I decide to have a rampage with the little ants, I have bad luck the next day. Of course, the man on the bus told me that I don’t have bad luck, that people make their own luck. And I agree with him, I guess. Maybe I just like the feeling of things seemingly bad happening, cause it makes me feel detached. Like when I cut my finger with the knife just before, or when my story got rejected from Playboy Magazine, or… when I got my car towed for the second time in two weeks. But the bus driver was in a verbal mood. I guess it was my penance for riding for free. And he mentioned that in a subtle way, meaning he said it in the most painfully blatant way possible. “You’re riding the bus for free, aren’t you?” “I guess I am,” I said. And I guess that’s luck. I rode em free all damn day. Only got denied by one mean white lady. “You may not get on this bus,” she said. Didn’t even look at me. I was glad, though, not to have made eye contact. She was angry. I didn’t mind. She must have been justified. All anger is to somebody. But I had to ride the bus so much, because I needed to get my damn car back. That they towed. Again.
In the last three months, I have served more hours at the Parking Violations Bureau and the Department of Motor Vehicles than I have spent making money. But this time, I decided to switch it up a bit and head over to the Brooklyn Navy Yard first. Get that initial headache over with right off the bat. But after I got off the bus, said good-bye to the nice black man who let me on free, headed closer and closer to that big ugly blue sign which so many people have looked at with bad feelings, addressed the security guard, and was directed over to window one, I was told I needed a picture ID. “But I called and spoke with a woman on the phone who told me that I didn’t need to have my drivers license.” (I lost my drivers license. (And my coat and my hat.)) So the man took my birth certificate, credit cards, checkbook, etc, all those things to make sure that some other asshole wasn’t trying to pay the 250$ to retrieve an impounded car with stale Hawaiian rolls in the trunk and spilled fruit punch on the passenger seat with pennies stuck to it, and went into the rear of the office.
Soon, a lady with a bright red, like Ed’s bag except patent leather, and it was a hat and not a bag, entered my peripherals. She was like a truck and in no mood for pedestrians. Big, richly black, with fierce pinkk make-up. “I was the lady you spoke with and I said you didn’t need your drivers license, that you could use another form of picture ID.”
“But I didn’t hear you say anything about a picture ID.”
“No picture ID, no car.”
“But I don’t want my car, I just want the summons so that I can go to court and get this whole mess cleared up.”
“No Picture ID, No summons. Sorry.”
I couldn’t believe how badly I wanted to stroll the muddy shit caked walkways of The Brooklyn Navy Yard. I could see in my mind in slo-mo all those cute boys gathered for the weekly auction bartering over all those rusted unclaimed beauties sitting there glistening in over-ripe excitement. “Ma’am, you cannot get your summons.”
At that moment, I ceased being calm. My inner princess was exposed, the guards off duty. I let each foot hit the ground in whatever way they chose. Palsy, rage, it didn’t matter. Inhibitions were replaced by such gloom that I now don’t know how I even managed to make it out the door. And when I finally did reach the outdoors, I leaned against a blue walkway banister and shed tears for approximately 1 minute and 37 seconds. I almost felt at one with my body. And for a moment my phlegm-ridden cough ceased. But I soon regained my faculties and my hack and let my mind once again take control of my body while I rested, and was inwardly greeted by my most favorite state of nothingness.
Two tows in two weeks. Am I stupid? Trying to beat a Guinness Record? Showing off to my peers? Committing a kind of belabored suicide? To ponder further seemed senseless, so I walkked to Jay Street and contemplated instead my last 100 dollars in the bank, the rent that I have not yet paid, the bills that I threw in the garbage during a fit of unharnessed laughter, and how I was counting, for my survival, on having that short story published in Playboy Magazine.
Now I am angry again. Because the K key on my computer is broken, making it either unresponsive to my touch or more often, going haywire at my pointer finger’s mere presence. But I don’t slam it. I breath deep and let the happy stuff rise to my head. I now feel like no matter what happens, nothing can really affect me. Could that be possible? Well, I sure have a lot of opportunities to test the theory. Like when I get to spend eight hours a day dealing with bureaucracy. As a matter of fact, since I always adapt so well to everything, this is the first time I’ve realized that’s what I’ve been up against.
So I walked to the Jay Street/Tech College stop and the buses were on their 6 minute pause and I asked the first driver if I could ride for free. But he said no. Said he was concerned his superior was spying on him. So I said fine. Oh yeah, I guess that makes two rejections. But that one didn’t really count because I went right next door, or rather marched right next door to bus number two and didn’t even ask for a free ride. I just started talking about misfortune and hit the jackpot. That started him jawing. He’s the one who told me each person makes their own luck. And I agreed. I guess I did. So, we got to Jerolemon, my most favorite place for foot and ground to meet, said good-bye, and headed towards that pillared wonderland where misery alone has probably weakened the foundation, the PVB, and I got on the over-crowded elevator to floor 9.
So much of the time I’m not part of the world. I’m thinking about why I’m scared to leave my body and if there is somehow a connection between that and the fact that I am always making my life complicated simply to avoid total freedom. I seem to like spending endless time getting myself out of mischief and talking misery with the folks. So the elevator opened and I walkked the familiar hallway and realized it wasn’t familiar, that I had gotten off on the wrong floor. I decided to take the stairs but when I realized I couldn’t enter the next floor via the stairwell, I ran down and pressed the ‘up’ button, fiercely. A man lookked at me the way people look at angry people. With curiosity. Then the elevator came and I got off on the right floor.
Wait a minute. The phone is ringing.... Sorry. It was Eddie. The reason I interject this information is because, believe it or not, it’s relevant. See, last night, after Eddie and I had sex and I put my underwear back on (or actually, a different dirty pair that I grabbed from the floor, under one of Eddie’s boots) along with my new polka dotted culotte-suit and black leather vest (I still was wearing my thigh high boots) and after he said, “I’ve never seen anything like it” (I just almost kicked my basket again) I put on Eddie’s jacket and we left for my place. And as we came up my block, I had this sudden urge to check for my car. And I started walking faster and faster as I got closer to where I’d parked. And soon the whole block was visible and yet I was still searching for the beginnings of my little black bumper to enter the frame. But it was now in vain. “Eddie, I cannot believe this.” Eddie was silent. Or maybe he said, “They towed it again?” and I probably held my head and said, “But I just had my car towed two weeks ago!”
Two weeks ago it was easy. I just made up a brilliant story, got a dismissal and picked up my car with not a dime in my pocket... But again? Alright, I thought. I can handle this. I still have that comfy place inside of me.
So we entered my apartment building, which was illuminated by the flashing of red and white lights from the fire truck and ambulance that I forgot to mention were right outside. A couple girls had been sitting on the stoop but I guess they would have been there regardless cause when I asked them what was going on they said, “What?” like they hadn’t noticed. And I took out my key and opened the door in record time. (I always have races with the mundane.) And we were greeted by a wafting hot sweaty sweet and sour stench. Like dough. And I got angry. What’s more, Peter was on the phone, probably pretending to be a funny guy, and I wanted to call the tow yard. I picked up another phone and told the tubbelard to get off. I was fierce and it gave me warm fuzzies. Peter took his extra sweaty sour time and I’m sure was able to stick in a couple of real winners, but finally got off. And I called the tow yard.
They told me my car had been towed three days ago. Which I had already speculated, though not on an action-oriented level of consciousness. I just had had that feeling that something was missing. But it was just as well. If I had known yesterday, or the day before, or the day before that, it surely would have ruined important plans. And I talked about this with Edward who wanted some toast. Not during my talk of course. He had mentioned the toast beforehand. Way beforehand.
So Ed had to leave that night, last night, to work the late shift at the hospital in Jersey. He does that three times a week. And he wondered if it was cold out and I said it was. And I then convinced him to wear his jacket, the one I’d been wearing. And maybe you see my stupidity at having insisted Ed wear the jacket... BECAUSE MY DAMN KKEYS WERE IN THE POCKET!!!! And even though I locked them in my car not a month ago, parked illegally no less, and had several helpful gentlemen from Bangladesh jimmy the passenger door so fiercely that it now doesn’t even open except from the inside, I haven’t yet gotten a duplicate made.
But, later that evening, last evening, at 2 am, I received a call from Ed. “I have your keys.” “Oh Christ.” No problem though. I can handle it. Because it doesn’t matter. Some people use stuff like, “Laugh in the face of adversity.” Not me. I think about airplanes and bowel movements. So we discussed whether or not he should take the train in from Philly tomorrow to return them. We never reached a conclusion.
In the DMV, there were many people. Many people who looked unhealthy and unhappy under the work-horse florescent lighting. The guard didn’t know the answers to any of my questions. And I was getting angry. But then I was OK again. It fluttered, like a pecker passing a nudie movie theater from inside a paddy wagon. Intense but temporary. And I waited in the info line, got my number which estimated 77 minutes of free time before the 5 minutes of fee time, and I thought, what to do, what to do.... Instantly, I had a most severely brilliant idea. In a nutshell, I trucked it on over to the Arches and got myself a Vegetarian Big Mac, Coke, and large fry. While I forced it down, feeling connected to many fat lumpy skinned individuals, an adorable male child played peek-a-boo with me. I was ravaging too relentlessly to play for long but I think he felt happy instead of feeling ignored.
So I got my temporary driver’s license and wailed with debatable joy over to the bus where I got another free ride back to the Navy Yard. In the rear of the office, Señora Truck shuffled papers. I waved, Bonjour! and had no problem exchanging the proper certificates. Then I hopped in a dirty old pick-up, maneuvered by a charming lad. I said, “Nice truck, man.” And he said, “Yesterday, they blocked me in an I couldn’t take no body no where.” “Stupid fucking assholes.” And we finally arrived to the sight of my confused vehicle where I retrieved my summons, thanked everyone for for everything. Thank you, thankk you. Thank you. And I left.
Back at the DMV, my friends recognized me at once. “You again?” “You ought to get a job here, Darlin’!” And I laughed whole heartedly and walked to get my number and waited for the voice to bark it back out. In no time flat, my number was called and consciousness took a minute or two for action to resume. “You know what to do, Baby,” my friends cheered me on. The lady at the tow desk took one lookk at my ticket and guttered, “You’ll never get it dismissed or even discussed until you get a copy of it from microfiche which will take at least 30 days.” I knew better than to trust such negativity. The problem was minuscule. It was just that the ticket had been wet causing it to be completely illegible. But I knew the rules in that place more than she did. And with confidence I walked into room 4 where one woman judge reigned.
She had beautiful eyes, deep breathing control, and organization skills extraordinaire. A beautiful black woman with straight darkk hair and a nice striped suit. Looked almost Egyptian. I didn’t even look at the clock sitting there listening to her, that’s how mesmorizing she was. “This ticket is dismissed.” “You are guilty.” Ahhh, it was beautiful. My turn arrived shortly, but of course as soon as she began speaking to me, as soon as that mouth opened, ready to amaze me with another veritable vocal symphony, this other judge, this loud nasal creature, entered and sat down not three feet away. It sounded like he may have been swearing someone in, but we both paused to look his way, making sure some pissed off animal from the zoo hadn’t somehow escaped and gotten lost behind the other judge’s desk.
My case wound up being legitimate, thankks to my quick and even wit. I told her that the Tow Zone Sign had been defaced, making it completely illegible. She raised her gavel and smacked it down on formica and announced: Adjourned! And told me to come back with some more evidence. So, I ran down and out of the building, to Duane Reed to purchase Polaroid film and then hopped on the 2 for a dollar. Earlier, I had gotten 20 bucks from an ATM at the DMV. That’s how I paid for McDonald’s. Which I only mention so you wouldn’t think I had ridden free all day with money in me pants. So, I rode the 2 for a buck cause I spent the rest on film and ran home. It was raining hard, yet I took photos in the rain, fighting away an unruly umbrella that I wound up stamping on. A police car tried to drive by but I stopped it, thinking they could accompany me to PVB as my representatives. I told them my case but I forgot why they said no. I thought maybe it would have been Will Rodriguez, the cop who pulled me over the other week for a blown headlight but gave me his number as a citation substitute and said I owed him pizza. Never did call him.
Anyhow, as I finished taking my photos which, due to rain, could have been seen as either a street or a close up of eczema, I decided to resort to Plan B and write a statement about damn bureaucracy and the god damn government and how they ruin lives and have the neighbors sign it. It was written strategically in its unintimidating brilliance. But by this time it was heading towards 3 PM and Parking Palace closed at 4.30. So I grabbed some folks, told em this and that, and the signatures went a’ flying. Even had one of the Downs Syndrome guys who live in my building sign it. That took about 5 or 6 minutes alone, but was worth it. I even had the fat guy next door who pretends like he doesn’t have a dog, but really does, sign it. (His massive head and gut were hanging out his window and I couldn’t pass it up, like a Ferris wheel at the amusement park.) His poor dog. I haven’t been giving it biscuits lately... tomorrow I will.
At 3:30 I was back on the 2. For free this time. I just jumped the turnstile. Entered the building, caught the vator, held it for a lady and her strollered pal, and we were off. Right into Room Four I went and there sat Madame Judge. Calm and movin’ like a snake doin’ the butterfly. I waited my turn, but when the big hand meandered towards the 5, I began to panic. Luckily, the Madame took me next, explaining to the others my earlier adjournment and that she had to leave as soon as possible. I got up to the desk and my heart was beating hard, but I opened my mouth and out unfurled this long sateen ribbon of the most sincere truth I have uttered to another individual in a long long time. She looked at me kind of baffled at which point I handed her my petition and photographs. Well, she looked at them for a good short while and then she started laughing and said: “Now, this is a first.” And she started shaking her head, smiling, and I had no idea what was gonna happen next but she pulled out that stamp, the one with my favorite words: Dismissed. And smacked it down on my summons. Hallelujah!
I walked out of that room holding my accomplishment high but my friends in the lobby were not as excited as they had been, when I was more of a stranger. They still said, “Whoo hoo, go and get your car, baby.” But I knew it was forced. Which made it seem less than an accomplishment. But I tried not to think their thoughts. Maybe they were just tired. It was late in the day. And at least I didn’t have to pay. At least I got 2 dismissals in 2 weeks. At least I beat the damn system.
But… I couldn’t get my car because Eddie had my damn keys! Fine with me, I said. So I went to the bank, got my second to last 20, and rewarded my success with a little Chinese food. Which I didn’t like. But I ate it anyhow. Felt sick and liked that feeling. Left the place. Paid for the train. Rode the train. Got off the train. Came inside, got a drinkk, thought about my novel that’s three years behind schedule. Watched the news about some terrorist bombing, thought about what it would be like to struggle for my survival and got really hot cause my room’s right above the boiler room, decided to make some toast, cut three pieces and my finger, left two in the toaster, ate one, talked to my father about all the wonderful things I plan to do, and then I was going to do nothing, but remembered that the only way things happen is if I make them happen. Then I thought maybe happenings are overrated. But then I thought thinkking might be over rated. And now? Wow. It’s much later than it used to be. But I’ve decided to start a shuttle service, escorting people who have had their cars towed back and forth to DMV, PVB, and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Give ‘em the red carpet treatment... for a reasonable fee, of course.
My Mother: When you get to Cleveland, I want my ashes on the left side of Grandma Kay.
Me: Ok. I could bring a little shovel.
My Mother: Bring a bulb planter.
Me: Oh, good idea.
My Mother: Then, go to Harvey’s back room and get a slab of ribs for me.
Me: I can’t eat that kind of thing.
My Mother: Well then go to that wonderful Chinese place on Coventry…
Me: I’m not sure it’s still there…
My Mother: Oh, they had the best crab rangoon.
Me: Jeeze, you really do miss the food here.
My Mother: Speaking of food, you should cook something special tomorrow.
Me: Like what?
My Mother: Oh come on, Jessica. Be creative.
Me: Nothing I make is edible these days. I’m thinking of signing up for one of those meal plans where they send you food.
My Mother: You can do better than that. I’ve always told you- get out your legal pad, write out a menu, and stick to it.
Me: That never works for me.
My Mother: If you say so. I used to love roasting a pork butt. It was so yummy and I’d have it the whole week.
Me: I’m not going to buy a pork butt.
My Mother: I know you’re not.
Me: And even if I did, it would never work here. Chris would eat the whole thing and the house would go up in flames from all the methane.
My Mother: Oh Jessica. You make me laugh. This is too much fun. See what happens when you’re not on that stupid fucking computer?
Me: I know… I miss you so much.
My Mother: You don’t know the half of it.
Me: Have you visited other people?
My Mother: I visit my sister sometimes but she never hears me. She’s too busy with that swifter thing.
Me: What about your mother? Have you seen her in the after world?
My Mother: No, I have not.
Me: I wonder what happened to her? I can see her face in my mind, that look of pride she had.
My Mother: Indignance.
Me: Do you think she ever found peace?
My Mother: I think the wind probably blew her away and left in her place a pillar of salt, from all the tears she never released.
Me: Life is so sad.
My Mother: It is sad, honey… I wish so much that things could have been different... I wish so very much that I had been in a position to write a different script.
Me: Me, too… Will I ever get to see you again? I mean, really see you?
My Mother: I don’t know, Jess. I’m not sure what will happen… I’m still doing a lot of work over here.
Me: Are you still my mother?
My Mother: (laughing) Oh, Jess. You sound just like the little bird from that Dr. Seuss story. (laugh) Of course I am your mother. But you should know- the connection we have is beyond that –we have a precious connection, Jess. A connection that reached beneath our secrets to what was real. We left nothing unsaid. We’ve seen each other at our best and our worst. Only connections that real can last.
My Mother: Live your life while you have it, Jess. Because it’s true what they say - it’ll be over before you know it. Trust me. Stop planning your swan dive, honey. Your only job is to leave your truth and beauty wherever you go, even if it’s just across your fucking house. Wherever you are matters. I hope you believe me. It is neither a sign of humility or good character to doubt yourself – it is a sign of internal cowardice – of secretly fearing being humiliated by all those other selves in nothing but the same exact predicament as you. You don’t have time to cancel out the best parts of yourself. You don’t have time for interactions where nothing of substance passes through. You don’t have time to pollute your moments with mindless pleasantries and mildly amusing sarcasm. Your job is to give your attention to what truly matters to you, and you are the only one who gets to say what that is. Do you hear me?
Me: Yes. Thank you.
My Mother: You are welcome. Now close your fucking computer and go take a shower.
When I was little, my mother’s car broke down and we were stranded on the side of the road – at some point a group of Hell’s Angels pulled over. I was scared but my mother told me not to worry. When they got off their bikes, my mother clasped her hands in prayer and said, “Thank god you’re here! I prayed for good people and here you are!” I remember their smiling faces and the questions they asked me about school while one of them worked under the hood of our car.My mother believed if you give people an opportunity to be good at heart, they will almost always follow through. And though there was probably an element of privilege to her philosophy, the circumstances of my mother’s life kind of gridlocked her in a way, so that she had no choice but to practice it. For three years, she managed this motel where most people lived long term and had parole officers. My mother lived on the property and wound up spending most of her days listening to the stories of wounded souls. Many of these people weren’t the sorts she would have chosen to spend her time with, but over time, they inadvertently taught her that her judgments were just that – judgments. The way people behaved had very little to do with their behind-the-scenes. And my mother began to realize the behind-the-scenes of all people were pretty much the same. Underneath the hate and anger and very poor judgment, was the truth of their pain- someone broke or damaged or betrayed their heart and they didn’t know what to do about it. My mother soothed their wounds simply by listening and let them know she cared by helping them find jobs and social services. She believed that once a person realized someone cared about them, a little slime would melt off their heart.
I remember once visiting my mother at the motel, sitting there in her little garden area where she’d smoke her ciggies, and one of her residents ran over to share his triumph of the day. He’d bought a new jacket and said, “I jewed ‘em down. It’s a cunt hair too small but it looks perty good, huh?” My mother winked at me and gave the guy her special look, the one where she cocked her head with a closed-lip smile- told him how thrilled she was to hear his good news - and then proceeded to explain the importance of editing his language so as not alienate the entire civilized human population. My mother didn’t feel she needed to share that she’d been born Jewish and how dare he carelessly malign an entire population of people while also defiling her genitalia in the same breath. My mother believed one of the worst things you could do to a person’s face was to shame them. That shaming people had the potential to ignite more anger rather than eliminate it. She believed from her experience that people like this were not purposely hateful, they just hadn’t had the opportunity to go out into the vast world and be expanded by it- instead they’d only been exposed and re-exposed to the same sorts of dysfunctional people who broke their hearts in the first place. My mother realized once someone revealed their behind-the-scenes, she could get through to them, introduce ideas of kindness and understanding, and over time maybe even recommend a book or movie that might broaden their perspective.
My mother used to tell me that hate begins the moment a person feels ignored, violated, threatened, or dismissed, and that most people aren’t even being violated or threatened – just a dismissive comment can send some people into a homicidal rage. And because so many people don’t have the tools to understand that it’s not other people’s job to make us feel worthwhile, the hierarchy of hate that begins in one’s own mind can easily branch out to one’s parents and one’s spouse and one’s children and one’s neighbors and one’s country until pretty much they’re shouting at the whole world. And unfortunately every now and then, some hate-filled person comes along whose need to avenge himself is so unprecedented he will recruit other enraged people and organize their hate to make themselves feel not only better than, but the best. I wonder what my mother would say about these white supremacists goose-stepping into the White House, believing that god sees them as better than so many others. I think she would remind me that their behind-the-scenes is probably still the same as everyone else’s. And to be wary of hating these hateful people, even when they give us such good reasons to. I bet she would tell me to stay away from them, and if I happen to run into one of their followers, to meet them behind-the-scenes by offering kindness and understanding. My mother was really so great at this. She had such a tough but unassuming way about her. If a white supremacist had stayed in her motel and vocalized his ideology, she would have probably laughed her compassionate cackle and said something like, “Come on. Get with the program. You are not a child of the sun. You are a child of your dysfunctional parents. Now, open your heart and go do something constructive with your brain that doesn’t land your ass back in jail.”
In some ways, the circumstances of my own life have also gridlocked me into understanding the behind-the-scenes of people. I live in a rural area now. I have friends that I would never have met if I hadn’t moved here. On the morning my mother passed, this one friend of mine drove her twins to her mother-in-law’s, and then brought her other daughter over to my house to keep Brautigan company so I could be whoever I needed to be in my hours of utter anguish. She is one of the most kind people I have ever met. And guess what– she’s a hunter and loves Jesus and voted for Trump. We’d never discussed politics before, because we’re both more conceptual than political, but we discussed other difficult topics and I always found her one of the most open people when I shared ideas she hadn’t thought of before, and I hope she thinks the same of me. So instead of dismissing this person, I look forward to having more behind-the-scenes conversations with her and with other people who grew in different cultures than mine. And I hope we can all emerge with bigger hearts for ourselves and each other and for all people everywhere.
My mother had a lot of wisdom but she also had a lot of problems. Even though she was present to the behind-the-scenes of others, she never trusted anyone enough to reveal the deepest parts of her own. And the ways she tried to keep her secrets at bay killed her in the end. And I understand that same fear of sharing, because I have it too. I hate the parts of myself that cause me so much pain. The ways I take everything personally and feel at times like my thoughts are a tourniquet over my existence. And I don’t have all the answers for myself about how to be free. About how to express my own hurt and anger in a constructive enough way so that it doesn’t hurt anyone in my vicinity. About how to protest injustices on the front lines and also be responsible for the injustices I create in my own little world. About how to stand up to hate and still be available to connect with the behind-the-scenes of anyone who happens to enter my vicinity. I guess I’ll keep practicing. Keep noticing my thoughts and my intentions. And pray for forgiveness, peace, and sanity.
My Mother: Jess, listen to me. These people you're upset about… These people painting their faces with black paint… These people talking about sending Jews to the ovens… These people who say that women should have the baby after they've been raped, and those same people who applaud sending troops to bomb the shit out of some place in the name of freedom without understanding who the fuck they're bombing - millions of unborn children... Please. Listen to me, honey… Angry people have no fucking idea what they're talking about. They have no fucking idea what they're doing. They never have. They never will. It's only in peace that people have the capacity to understand a glimmer of what's real because in peace is the only time they're able to see beyond their own pain… Ok? Do you see what I mean, Jess? Do peaceful people go around shouting that god wants them dead? Do they, honey? Of course not. People who say this sort of shit are in so much fucking internal pain that releasing it on others is the only way they know how to get rid of it. And if you choose to internalize someone else's pain, honey, and you catch their virus of anger, you will be incapable of understanding this truth of what's really going on, and you will also be incapable of finding any peace for yourself. You will only be capable of distracting yourself from this truth - by either finding someone who'll agree with you, or turning on your stupid fucking computer and zoning out, or shoving a pizza or a pill down your throat. Honey, here's the truth- there is no heaven on earth. So stop trying to find heaven on earth. What you need to do instead is figure out a way to survive on earth while also preparing for eternity. And believe me, honey, you don’t want a lot of anger when you die, because it's a real bitch to unravel. And guess who's over here helping you? You, and your team of angels and demons. So get to know them well while you're there, sweetie. The angels are always speaking to you. And your demons are not fanged-toothed - they are only trying to help you survive in the ways they think you need to, because they're so afraid of being forgotten forever. Demons are just egos, honey. They're like PR people on crack, ok? They're nothing to be afraid of, unless you let them run your whole life. Here's what's real: You're born with one homeopathic drop of god... and the rest is whatever wisdom or insanity you've inherited from your parents or lack of, from television, from the other disconnected disenfranchised people of earth, and from the time you spend alone listening to your angels and demons. Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but I will tell you what I know about dying. What I know about dying, honey, is that other people don’t come with you. And when you don’t have to be better or worse than anyone anymore, what do you think you're left with? Not the color of your skin. Not your best haircut. Not your holy book or your stupid fucking internet... You're left with the thought, “Holy fucking shit - all those people were not who I thought they were. They were me, and I was them. They may have had more or less layers of bullshit, but they had the same homeopathic drop of god that I did. And shame on me for not smiling at every single one of them and asking how they were doing in their moment and a half on earth." And you'll have to unravel all the reasons why you weren't willing to be courageous enough to be your pure loving self for others without expecting anything in return, including your dignity. All these ridiculous ideas about living a certain way and going to some hell or some heaven? Please. All the formalities of every religion are left with your pants and shoes. When your heart is eternal, all you do is weep for all the time you wasted believing your fears and judgments were real. Honey, if you choose peace and understanding, everyone is equal, no matter what sorts of mistakes they make. That's hard to understand. I know. And I'm talking about even the most angry people. Because who they are underneath all that sludge, is you. Ok? Now some people are shiny by nature. For whatever reason, they have less pain. And they’re able to be the messengers of angels. And you will recognize them because they will love you and want to help you love yourself, because they see that you are a carrier of that drop of god. And I'm not talking about some human god who speaks, ok? God is way bigger than that. God is not a human thing, it's a fucking life thing. So you are not going to meet god. You contain god. You will meet your angels - the most untarnished beings I could ever have imagined. And they will help you unravel every experience you ever had - with clarity, love, humor, and forgiveness- until all your pain and confusion are distilled into eternal peace, empathy and understanding. Angels are with you, honey, whether you believe it or not. Angels are with everyone. And when you realize this, I want you to take a good long look at all the people around you. I want you to give them an extra second of your presence, even if you are so very sure you know who they are... Because in that extra second of your presence, maybe they will surprise you and let you see their drop of god.
I was in a tiny chapel. In a room with Mary and a little two-inch Jesus on a cross, and a fire hydrant on the floor. And I wondered which object was most sacred. They all put out fires in their various capacities. And I said to Jesus, You look silly up there on that cross. And I said to Mary, I like you and all, but you look silly too. And then I looked at the fire hydrant, who looked the least silly of all. And I thought about how it might be more sensible to carry around one of those than a Mary or a Jesus. And I guess people sometimes do, but they don’t call it religion, even though it protects what is most sacred as far as objects are concerned – themselves. Is this a promotion for fire hydrants? I can’t remember.
It’s been 8 months today since my mother left the planet. I don’t think I’ve ever been weighted down by starkness the way I have since. Not that anyone could see it on the outside, but a private starkness that keeps me company constantly. The interesting thing about this starkness is that I can see its point. It’s quite valid. It reminds me so much of this dream I had a long time ago that always stuck with me. In it, I was on an airplane that was going down and everyone was freaking out, naturally. And the guy seated next to me kept grabbing me in the rib cage. It hurt really really badly and so I said to him, “Can you please stop! You’re hurting me!” And he said, “What the fuck difference does it make if you’re hurting??!! We’re going to be dead in a minute!!!” That guy is the starkness I’m talking about. And it’s nearly impossible to convince him of all the other valid reasons to soak up any little bit of time left here. Last night, when we lost power, I sat with myself in the darkness, without the distraction of bulbs and glaring screens, and I thought about my ancestors – what their experiences might have been like long ago without electricity, if they felt more connected to something beyond their own fates, if they understood how to handle the longing to live with the need to stay safe in a more elegant way than I do. I am not used to thinking of myself as part of some evolving spirit – of seeing myself as a holder of beauty and truth that I have a responsibility to share because it doesn’t really belong to me. But I realize how grateful I am to have in my heart all the truths and beauty my mother took the time to share with me, and I hope to do the same and pass it along, instead of letting that heavy starkness diminish it for its own good reasons.
Little children are not self-centered at all. They are present-centered. Whatever’s happening right now is what they’re centered in. If they’re angry right now they’ll be angry. Hungry right now, they’ll be hungry. Need your attention right now, they will get it. They’re ok with however they are. And maybe this is what the old folks meant in the bible – be as little children. They have no self-judging-self yet. They’re able to experience first hand what’s happening without filtering it through judgment, without filtering it through the fear of being such and such or not being such and such, or the fear of someone else being such and such or not being such and such. Little children are free in this way. They don’t sit around and talk about what moments are like for them, or what moments were like for them, or what moments are hopefully going to be like for them. They are experiencing what is happening right now. And because of this, most grown ups cannot stand being around little children for too long. Most grown ups need to call someone on the phone and say, I need a vacation or a drink or a fucking loaf of bread. The little children never do this. They make things happen. They build something up or knock it down, they kick or they hug. But they don’t talk about what’s not happening right now. Not until a grown up drags them back to a time that already happened or drags them to look forward to some future that hasn’t happened. But the grown ups can’t help it. The grown ups need to distract the children from the present moment because the grown ups need a way to get the fuck out of the playroom. The grown ups can’t stand to be with the little children for too long because they can’t bear for their ideas of themselves to get lost in the moment. It makes them feel so uncomfortable, like they’re actually dying a little too fast or living a little too long- whatever it is, it’s excruciating. And sometimes they look at their little children and look forward to the time when their little children will be able to leave their present moments and join them in reflection. And it will happen. In time, the little children will leave their present moments. They’ll really have no choice. They’ll get sent off to the larger world and they’ll have to leave their moments just to figure out how to understand themselves around all these other people. But hopefully they’ll still have a place to go home to that gives them peace. Maybe where their parents are, or to some beautiful new place they’ll create, or maybe back to the moment they’ll somehow remember they’re still apart of, the one that’s always been right there, that’s still right there, where there’s nothing to worry about and nowhere to go and no one better to be.
I never knew how horrible it was to lose someone. To live every day knowing you will never see them again. I bet it’s the underlying meaning of waiting for the messiah. If only she were to come back, I would appreciate her and honor her and worship the ground she walked on. Now all I have are my memories. Not only the ones where she was inconvenient, difficult, but the ones that make me realize that people are probably not meant to be convenient in our lives. I see now I was lucky in some ways to have someone who crossed boundaries instead of most of my other relationships, so convenient and distant, there’s no possibility of really knowing each other, except knowing what needs of each other’s we haven’t met. With my mother gone, I understand more of the truth of our relationship. How rare it was that we could discuss who we were and weren’t for each other. I never realized how special that was. The endless phone calls, all the times I was alone or scared and I’d dial her number and she’d talk with me for hours till I fell asleep, rehashing the past till it made new sense, till it made us laugh so hard my ears would hurt. Any time someone hurt my feelings, she was right there to put everything in perspective. All the sing-alongs we had together since I was a child, even up to this year. Now, I see all these moments for what they were, they were gems. And life will never be the same, never be the long list of plans I thought it was. Now I see life for what it is, just moments, mostly moments that pass by too fast to notice they were magic.
I had this thought, while I was trying to funnel my mother’s ashes into the tiny opening of this urn necklace I got. Well, first, let me tell you that this was no easy feat. Not the ritual I'd hoped for. Besides the unbelievable weirdness that these ashes once formed the foundation of my beloved mother, it was not at all easy to get them into this urn! Instead of silently blessing the spirit of my mother, chunks of bone were getting stuck in the funnel, then the funnel clearing-stick thing cracked in half and I wound up having to use a spoon and getting ashes all over the damn place. I heard my mother laughing, saying, “Poor thing,” while I was repeating the mantra, “Fuck, fuck, fuck! Why didn’t they make a bigger funnel for fuck’s sake???”“I’m sorry I had bones, Jessica,” I heard my mother say. “I’m not blaming you for having bones, Mommy, I just wish they would fit in the opening!” Then the cork cracked and the superglue superglued the ashes to the cork so that shiny ashes will forever be stuck at the opening. And I said, “I fucking hate you! No, not you mommy dear, but this fucking cork!” “Take a deep breath, Jessica,” she said, still kind of laughing. "And calm the fuck down.” So, I finished the job, with various aspects of my mother keeping my company, and that’s when I realized that I have been speaking to multiple aspects of my mother at once. And it got me thinking about who people are. Not necessarily whole, but a container of multiple aspects coming and going, not necessarily with a through-line to make a whole tapestry, or with a President Aspect who governs the rest, but aspects that are disconnected, confused, a wonderful angel to some and a vindictive fucker to others. So then I was thinking, maybe the purpose of all this transformational work that so many people these days are endeavoring, myself included, is not merely to weave all our varied reactions with the thread of understanding for ourselves, but to do our best to gain wholeness for the sake of the people we'll leave behind when we cross that ol’ threshold, so that when my darlings on the other side try to speak with me, they will get closer to one voice rather than multiple ones that may or may not have any idea that the others exist.
On March 28th, 2016, at around 5:08am, my mother left this earth. It was unexpected. Sudden. She was only 67. I was her only child. We spoke at least once a day for my entire life. Well, besides the times she was missing or having one of her episodes. Since she’s been gone, people who knew my mother have said things like, “What a sad life.” Or, “How awful that she had to live with voices in her head.” Or, “Shew, mental illness is so tough.” But my mother never referred to her entire life as sad or horrible. And she never, not once, referred to herself as mentally ill. And I can understand why.
If someone told me I had mental illness, or implied that I did, I would personally feel very threatened. I would feel like they were questioning the solidity of my relationship to my very self. People generally hold the reality they share with themselves sacred and my mother absolutely did. If I imagined someone telling me that I needed help with me, I would feel like I would need to question everything I know. And I would never be myself with them. I would always try to behave in a way that made me honorable and admirable in their eyes, or I would have to banish them from my life altogether so that I wouldn't have their constant reminder that I wasn't whole or perfect. Or worse, I would feel like I needed them for clarity and help 24 hours a day, and most people are too busy for that, which would leave me not only vulnerable, but alone with nothing but a damaged sense of self.
That's why I don't like the word mental illness nor do I like when I hear people say they feel sorry for those who they believe have it. Instead I like to think of insanity on a spectrum. (I don't believe in sanity. I've personally never met anyone who I feel is a role model for such a state 100% of the time. I've known a lot of comfortable people, and though comfort can look quite sane, I doubt it really is.) And if I suspected someone was tortured in their brain, I would ask questions and let the person answer with dignity which part of their brain was threatening the rest and try to offer healthier alternative perspectives, especially ones that involved the largest aperture of the soul's journey.
Brain dramas are not representatives of a person's true self. And the true self never deserves to be diminished by only being seen as mentally ill. I believe when the soul is born we come here to learn something, something to force us to abandon loyalties to old worn-out traditions and customs and instead embrace the understanding of the spirit through something learned in the experiential realm.
My mother was not a poor thing. In fact, she was quite certain the world was far more mentally deficient than she was, and I think she had a good point. My mother was a bullshit whisperer and could look at someone, see both their potential and what was in its way, and say so in a manner that made people love her.
But yes, she had a brain that kept trying to convince her of horrible things. She always knew it wasn't her. And she had all the right words to remind other people that the negative voices they'd internalized weren't them. But my mother's brain was wired differently. It made her special in the most uniquely wonderful ways and the most uniquely tragic ways. I know she tried to make friends with her voices. But the more effective way became to turn to substances to drown them out.
My mother hated people who were drunk. She never wanted me to know she drank. I of course knew she did. She was in and out of the hospital for years and years for binging and almost dying. But she refused to admit it and she’d blame it on anything else she could think of, because to her, drinking was the most horrible contemptible thing to do. Elegant perfect women did not drink. She was more willing to discuss what the voices in her brain were saying than to discuss that she'd drank alcohol.
We all have voices that aren't ours that we've internalized and want freedom from, but some people's internalized voices are horribly loud. I pray, Dear Mother, that you know I never looked down on you for drinking. I just wish I could have thought of the perfect way to figure out how to help you. You were countless times my angel on earth. My hero on earth. Far more than many of the so-called sane people who felt badly for you. I pray you are here with me. I pray that you are at peace.
The other week, I heard my mother’s voice, with assistance from a dear friend who has a gift for speaking with people on the other side. He told me my mother desperately wanted me to know what she’d learned since passing - that all the rules she’d lived by, all the rules that justified her being disconnected, were wrong. That what she was really doing by adhering to all those rules was trying to have control, and that control is what we want when we’re afraid, and that these kinds of rules are nothing but superstitions.
This gave me such a paradigm shift. I had thought superstitions were stuff like knocking on wood and saying poo poo poo (something I have been addicted to and which drove my mother crazy). And that’s a tiny bit of it, but this other superstition is bigger. It’s needing to behave a certain way to keep others from finding out that we aren’t entirely who we seem to be, or keeping others away who don't comply with the way we imagine ourselves to be. And these rules aren’t simply to protect ourselves from being criticized or judged for the company we keep. It’s bigger. It’s the fear of being ostracized, abandoned, and maybe even left for the wolves. Human beings have been doing this to each other for eons. Burning each other's houses down for not believing in what we believe. Perhaps most of us don’t go to this extreme anymore, but don’t we still abandon and disown each other when we feel that our reality and the things we hold safe and familiar are being threatened?
I think of my mother, who did have voices that were horrible, and how her own family diminished her with their oppressive diagnoses instead of cherishing the part of her that was beautiful, and letting her know they’d get to the bottom of that other side together.
Every time my mother would take the bus to wherever I was, I would get a call from my grandmother who would say, “Get rid of her. She’s sick, and there’s nothing you or anyone else without a prescription pad can do.” This is the person who raised my unique mother. No wonder my mother ‘emancipated’ herself and refused to have anything to do with her mother. My grandmother never spoke of her own shortcomings that were so visible to everyone else but her - and yet she had no qualms about taking it upon herself to dismiss another’s journey as invalid, unfortunate, and even pathological, which in turn did nothing but fill the person with fear and doubt, keeping them from being who they might otherwise have become.
I’m so proud of my warrior mother for gaining so much clarity in the face of generations of dysfunction. And the scariest kind of dysfunction—where the inflicted walk around believing without doubt that they are the most right and reasonable in their perspective, and even have a community that agrees with them that this is so.
I’m not saying it was easy growing up with my mother. It was very difficult. My mother knew how to interrupt a person’s life like no other. She didn’t just come into town when her life hit bottom and watch TV or sulk and mope. She exploded on the scene until professionals from the justice system and medical system had to intervene. There were scores of times she needed me, when she’d been kicked out of town for one reason or another and became homeless. And scores of times she would pop out of near-death experiences kind of like Freddie Krueger, and become once again someone full of life and love, humor and wisdom, and I’d have that confusing shift where I’d think, "Ok, she’s here. I have a mother now."
I remember this one time, when I lived in Brooklyn and my roommates didn’t want her to move in with us, and I came up with the grand idea to send her to the yoga ashram I sometimes visited in Upstate New York. I thought it would be perfect. I thought she could become a Buddhist nun, teach yoga, have long flowing hair and wear it in a braid. When I told my mother the plan I could hear her over the payphone, dragging deep on her True Blue, “What yoga ashram?” “The one I go to!” “Doesn’t ring a bell.” “It’s Upstate, just a couple hours from here!” “Well, it doesn’t sound like the Shangri-La.” “You'll love it! You'll learn how to do yoga! You'll meditate! You’ll feel soooo much better!” There was another puff. A long one.
The swami knew me pretty well from all the classes of his I took and he agreed, after I told him a much less weird version of my mother’s situation, to let her move in temporarily as a volunteer. For the following two days, I heard nothing from my mother. And I was really, really hoping this was good news. But on the third day, I received this message: “Hello.. Jessica??? Ah... Swami Padma here... Ah... Please call me at once. At the ashram. Thank you.” It didn’t sound good. Didn’t sound at all like he was calling to rave about how my mother had miraculously cured Swami Baba's gout with her homemade fermented burdock tincture.
I hung up the phone and dialed the ashram as fast as I could, pulling long strings of my own flesh away from my fingers with my own teeth, preparing for the inevitable. “Yes, Jessica...” “Hi Swami! I got your call!” “Yes, yes. Uh... this is not working. At all. Your mother refuses to do yoga. I don’t know what to say. If you are going to be at a yoga ashram, you must do yoga.” “But isn't she helping with the housework?” “Yes. I suppose...” “She's an excellent cleaner, isn't she?” “She cleans fine. But she won’t do yoga.” “Well, how about keeping her on as the janitor!” “We have plenty people who clean. And the smoking... She smells like a chimney.” “She does?” “People are complaining of second hand smoke coming from her clothes.” “Are you sure?” “And she wont take off her shoes...” “I see.” “And the liquor - we can’t have liquor in the ashram. Her roommate is upset, very upset.” “Oh god... Well, can we...” “And she called for a food delivery… Hamburger.” “She had a hamburger delivered to the ashram??” “She tried.” “Oh my god. Well, I'll talk to her. I don’t think she knew. Oh, oh please, Swami... Please can you give her another chance?” “No.”
When I hung up with the Swami, my supervisor tapped my shoulder, “Line two is for you, honey.” I picked up the phone holding my breath praying it wasn’t who I knew it was. “Darling?! It's me! I'm at the bus station!” “You are??” “Yes, I only have a minute. Your people wouldn’t accept my collect call, but I wanted you to know that I'm taking the next bus to Port Authority. I should be arriving at 2:30. Please meet me there as soon as you can! I just need a place to stay for a couple days! I'm sure your roommates will understand. And if they don't, fuck 'em! Love you honey! See you soon!”
After I picked her up from Port Authority, we went to a chinese restaurant where she downloaded the tales of her ashram adventure. “Oh, Jessica... They were just rude as can be!” “How so?” “Well, for starters, no one showed me to my room. No one helped me with my bags...” “Well, they don’t have a concierge, Mother. It’s a yoga ashram.” “Well, they were extremely unwelcoming.” “Maybe because you wouldn't take off your shoes.” “Why should I take off my shoes?” “Because shoes are dirty. And you're not supposed to bring alcohol into a place like that, either . “Why not.” “Because it’s a yoga ashram, Mother. You’re supposed to be intoxicated by god.” “Well, honey, I needed something a little stronger than god. I was on a goddamn Greyhound bus for 24 hours, I needed to unwind.” “Well, the Swami said it upset your roommate.” “She could have used a drink.” “And there's no smoking in an ashram, Mother...” “I had my head out the window.” “Well, your roommate didn’t like it.” “It was the only thing I could do to drown out her B.O.!” It became increasingly evident that my mother was not the yogini I had hoped she might be. “They wanted me to break my back cleaning the shit off their toilets, and then touch my toes. No thanks. A never met a bigger bunch of sadists.” I guess she had a point.
After the dramas were over, my mother always felt badly for being what she called a burden. I can remember once visiting her in the emergency room after I’d called 911, and she looked up at me from her stupor and laughed, “You have the mother from hell, don’t you, little girl.” I laughed too. We had this shared understanding, almost like we were backstage behind the curtain of life, where we could speak truths together that had no place in most everyday ordinary conversations.
I was not the best mother to my mother when she needed me, but I never turned her away, well, not until I had my son Brautigan. After I gave birth to my son I realized that for the first time I needed to make some boundaries. I wanted to protect Brautigan from the dysfunction I grew up with and also create the space for me to be the mother I wanted to be for my son. As a result, my mother found herself even more alone than she had been. Slowly, she stopped asking for my help, even though she needed help. Not from me anymore, but from someone who could have really helped. And it's hard in our society to get the right kind of help. Help has become a business more than a family affair. And too many people need help, including the people who are in the business of helping. I know this all too well from my experience dealing with hospitals all around the country for years and years. In my experience, they were all the same - overworked professionals doing the best they could with limited resources and patients who didn’t even think they needed help to begin with.
When I flew to Florida to visit my mother's apartment after she passed, I was horrified. It was a still life of her life. Everything just as she left it. All the items arranged in frantic attempts to survive. It was brutal to see. So real. No hiding the struggle that took place. A brilliant soul tortured by a nuisance of a brain. Hiding in stubborn isolation.
There will forever be a lump in my throat and in my heart at what I saw that day. At what I learned that day. There's never ever a good reason to stay in isolation, to avoid asking for help because the fear of being judged or diminished by others seems too terrible, too tedious, too embarrassing. Pain shouldn't have to be neglected or protected or self-medicated. Even if the whole world is too busy to be bothered, there will be someone with the time to care, with real words to say, with a real way to help. I pray to be open to notice if someone is looking for someone to care. I wish there was something more I could have done for my mother. But the truth is, I got burned out. I was too busy keeping my own pain a secret. And I had someone else to take care of. Ten little toes.
My mother loved so much of her life. She'd make gourmet food with her meager budget and call to tell me her latest concoction, that it was the best thing she ever tasted. She used to make fun of my speaking in superlatives, but once she got to that part of her life where she had nothing left but soul, she relished in superlatives herself. "Oh Jessica," she'd say. "I had a cracker party with tuna salad with my special mayo and grapes and it was too DIE for." I'd love hearing about all her eating extravaganzas. She never seemed sad that she couldn't afford something she didn't have. "I wouldn't trade who I am for the world," she'd say. She really was always grateful for everything. Much more so than I have ever been. She was always talking about how she found just exactly what she was looking for at St. Vincent De Paul's, as if it were divine intervention. Or telling me all the times she looked down on one of her walks and found a five-dollar bill or a diamond earing. "I hope you always look down whenever you're out," she'd say. "You can't imagine the treasures people step right over." She knew someone was always looking out for her. She never once doubted her guardian angels, even when the pain of her life was unimaginable.
That my mother suffered did not diminish who she really was. She was a fractured person, but each part was fascinating to me. And I know now that she was trying to put it all together, but just couldn’t in this lifetime. One of her journals had a title on the top. It said: A Collage of Confusion. It seemed like she had wanted to fill the page with ways to understand her different parts, but the rest of the page is blank.
I realize that it's kind of perfect that she passed the day after Easter. My mother has been released from her burdens. She is free. And yes, I have heard her voice several times a day. She tells me to be strong. That she will be here, right with me, always.
I found this conversation with my mother from Mother's Day, 2015:
My mother: I thought of an idea that you need to write about.
My mother: What if… on your birth certificate… it not only stated the day you were born but also the day you will die.
Me: Mother, that’s a terrible idea!
My mother: Why? Don’t you think people would live their lives differently knowing how many days they had left?
Me: I don’t think so. Personally, I’m feeling completely anxious just hearing about your idea.
My mother: Oh Jessica. Is there any thing that doesn’t give you anxiety?
Me: No. Not really.
My mother: Well, you know what should also be written on your birth certificate?
My mother: That you will be anxious every single day of your life. That you will never know what it’s like to wake up in the morning with a sense of well-being and peace. And because you have longevity in your genes, you will be living a longer than usual life with this horrible anxiety encompassing your every single day.
Me: Now, that I could handle.
My mother: Figures. Well, my darling, I need to start heading over to St. Vincent’s DePaul’s before it gets too beastly hot. So go and enjoy your Mother’s Day. Because you are the world’s most wonderful mother, as well as the world’s most wonderful daughter.
Me: Aw, thank you, Mother.
My mother: Don’t thank me, Jessica. You know how very unfond I am of your thank yous.
Me: Well, Happy Mother’s Day to you too, Mother. I wish we could be together.
My mother: There’s nothing I would want more.
I’m waiting for my mother’s nurse to pick up. The hospital recording has been on a loop for 20 minutes. Our hospital is committed to integrity, to the destitute, the sick. Our physicians and nurses have trained at some of the most prestigious colleges in the county. Our patients’ health and comfort is our #1 priority. The woman on the recording sounds so clear and passionate. I can picture her in the recording studio. Maybe she had to audition for the part. Maybe she got paid a lot of money to say these things. Finally a nurse picks up. She sounds exhausted. Would never have gotten the part.
“Has anyone been in to see my mother? She’s hysterical and can’t breathe.”
“Your mother is getting a new nurse.”
“But the nurse I spoke with earlier said she was on her way with meds!”
“Someone will be there within the hour.”
“She’s got to suffer for an hour?”
“Someone will be there as soon as they can.”
“That’s not what your hospital recording says!”
The nurse takes a deep breath. “Oh god,” she mutters. Then I hear the phone land on a hard surface.
I know from experience what happens when the recording ends. When the recording ends, individuals take over. Recordings are usually neat and tidy. Real individuals are not. There may still be a commitment to life, to kindness, but unscripted commitments are harder to decipher. I think because behind the slogans and edited promises, everyone has to deal with their own relationship between the way we are told things are going to be and the way things are.
My mother for example has a slogan that goes something like: I am a strong as shit individual with impeccable judgment. And she often is. But behind the scenes, in the moments of reality when whatever pain sets in and there’s no one around to slogan to, she cannot handle her anxiety and has a tendency to drink herself nearly to death and wind up in the hospital on life support.
Me, for example, when I’m writing this, I’m pretty grounded in my ideas for about 10 minutes at a time. But in between those moments, when the vastness of everything collides with the tininess of who I think I am, when my insane restlessness causes unbearable pain, I clench, and then go to places like amazon.com to look for things to better organize my pantry.
I think of the nurse, obviously in no mood to hear about slogans. Perhaps she hasn’t slept in days and has been taking care of so many sick and destitute people that she has not been able to take care of herself. Maybe I caught her at one of those moments when she didn't have enough energy to pretend to be a spokesperson for anything. Who knows what people have to deal with behind their job descriptions.
There’s the slogan, and then the fractaling inward to a more intimate reality, to those minutes in secrecy behind all closed doors, where there are are individuals dealing with themselves and other individuals.
My mother's neighbor has visited my mother every day in the hospital. He cares about my mother. And yet, he’s the one who gives her the vodka. He says he figures if she doesn’t get it from him, she’ll get it from someone else. He doesn’t think of himself as being a bad person, he’s just doing what he does based on the equipment and experiences he has. Just like the woman who called from the Special Olympics on the other line who got upset with me because I didn't have time to listen to her slogan. “Thanks a lot,” she told me. “Now I won’t meet my quota.” I laughed to myself thinking I must be attracting every fed up person in the country. And I couldn't wait to dismiss her as horrible, to throw her in that bin in my mind where ridiculously horrible people go. But if I dismissed everyone for being horrible, who would be left? Not even me. And I wouldn’t be able to call anyone to commiserate with, because they’d all be in my trash can.
I think my expectations for people were learned from television. I grew up on television. Life on television always had a beginning, middle and end, applause and credits. People on television were always who they said they were and if they weren’t everyone would band together and help get them back. I remember when the television shows would end, resenting the real people around me for not being recognizable from one day to the next. What I didn’t realize was that the people on television were dependent on a budget, on someone to write their lines, on rehearsals. I didn’t understand that in real life people were dealing with their own thoughts and doing their best to express them in some manner that didn’t get them made fun of, divorced, in jail, or all alone.
In reality, things are messy. In reality, the judgments we make of each other are judgments based on each other’s slogans and worldly circumstances. I think of this wealthy relative of mine who says things like, “I feel so badly for your mother. It’s so sad.” And then I think of my mother who says about this same person, “That poor sap. I am so grateful not to be her. She’s never had to survive any sort of malignancy. She’s just so, so blasé. So benign.”
Sometimes I don’t think we really know each other. At best, I think we know our experiences of each other. Or maybe, just our experiences of ourselves experiencing each other. Perhaps the only way to really and truly be neat and tidy is to admit that we're not. When we are honest about our shortcomings, maybe then we become real. And when we are real, maybe then we can be there for each other in ways that rarely disappoint.
Nurse: I just wanted to be sure you didn't fall.
My Mother: Well, when I say I can walk, I can walk... I guess nobody told you that I am a member of the Flying Wallendas.
My grandmother called at 7 A.M. asking if I could come over right away. She said her husband Herschel wasn’t doing well. That he was dying. Not as in one day soon, but as in today.
About 14 months ago, his body stopped producing white blood cells and they gave him a year to live. Last time I was in town, a few months ago, his face was covered in scabs. One of them was bleeding when I went to kiss him hello, but I didn’t think he was really dying. After all, he was still playing golf and driving even. But a few weeks ago, he lost control of his car and sideswiped a tree. Then, the other week he fell. No one knows why or how, but he knocked a really beautiful lamp into a million pieces and bled all over the living room floor.
My grandmother’s corgi was on his couch jumping and barking when I knocked on the door. I heard my grandmother yell, “Quiet Max!” and a minute later a woman with cornrows and an apron answered the door. My Aunt Karen told me there was a new weekend caretaker. (My grandmother fired the last four.) She introduced herself as Toni, and in her eyes I someone kind, thoughtful, and not in the mood for any bullshit. My grandmother was sitting in her chair, wearing what’s become her uniform—the long pink satin nightgown with poufy sleeves. Her hair was wild, like a storm cloud, and her eyes looked sad and worried. In her lap was her phonebook, the pages as disheveled as her hair, exploding out every which way.
“Hello, Darling,” she sang.
I bent down to give her a hug, and her arms lifted around me slowly, covered in brown spots, blood spots, and band aids. She kissed me a bit longer than usual. “I don’t know how much longer he’s gong to be around,” she told me, her voice deep, hoarse, and slightly panicked. “He can’t decide whether to go to the hospital or not.”
“What does his doctor think?”
“He was very rude to me the last time we spoke, so I’m not going to call him. I’m trying to get a hold of one of Herschel’s sons, to see if they’ll call. Oh, Jess, it’s a damn mess.”
Toni passed by with a bucket of cleaning supplies.
“I don’t like her,” my grandmother whispered loudly.
I headed to the kitchen to kiss Hershel hello. He was sitting at the table, hooked to oxygen, practically curled over a plate of toast, like his body was forming back into fetal. He looked so skinny, his face covered with scabs and silver stubble, yet he was wearing brand new baby blue flannel pajamas.
“Hi Herschel,” I said, walking closer.
With his hand, he shooed me away.
I walked back to the living room and sat on the couch, my face flushed with the shame that someone didn’t want me near them. My grandmother was on the phone with Herschel’s son. “Well, I think he should be admitted, Marty. He’s been very demanding. And I’m disabled. I can’t get him everything he needs… Ok, I’ll let him know...”
“That was Marty,” my grandmother told me. He said he’s going to call the doctor and have Herschel admitted.”
“That’s good,” I said.
“Toni!” my grandmother yelled.
A second later, Toni was standing in front of my grandmother’s chair. “Yes, Mrs. Allen.”
“Tell Dr. Allen that I spoke with Marty and that if he would like to go to the hospital, Marty will arrange it with Dr. Kasakov.”
Toni walked back to the kitchen.
“Honey,” my grandma says to me. “Do me a favor, would you?”
Her arthritic finger pointed to a large vase sitting on top of the TV. “Divide those flowers into two vases. Michael brought them yesterday, but they’re so cramped, you can’t even see what they are.”
“That will look pretty.”
“Ok!” I say louder.
“Make sure you take enough leaves off.”
I carried the flowers into the kitchen where Toni was washing some teacups. Her nails were long and red with little rhinestones at each end. I set the vase down on the counter and smiled. “My grandmother wants me to put these in two vases.”
Toni moved away from the sink.
“It’s ok. I can wait. I don’t think it’s an urgent matter.”
“Go ahead,” she said.
“Thank you for being here,” I said softly so Herschel couldn’t hear. “I know it’s got to be difficult...”
Toni smiled, and I felt relieved to connect with someone. I’ve always felt most comfortable around people who are being paid to clean up other people’s messes.
At the sink, I peeled the leaves off the stems. Then found some scotch tape and crisscrossed it over the top of the vase, which I learned how to do from interviewing a florist last year for the little newspaper I sometimes write for. I could hear Herschel around the corner in the little sitting area. He was moaning, “When am I gonna die already?” Toni was checking his oxygen. “When the lord is ready for you, Dr. Allen, he’ll let you know.”
I peeked around the corner and saw him at the kitchen table, still slumped over his toast, like he wasn’t sure if he wanted to eat it or not.
When the bouquets were finished, I had the bright idea to set one on Herschel’s table, thinking it might make him feel happier. I walked around the corner with the vase knowing better than to smile. But as I was setting it down, he shooed me away again. I felt my face flush. Jesus, I’m an idiot. Of course he wouldn’t want flowers. What dying individual wants to see anything blossom? Have the decency to wait for the funeral.
In the midst of a quick 180 headed back to the sink, I heard him mutter, “I love you.” I looked back at him. “I love you,” he said again, and then he shook his head, wincing, “But… no flowers.”
It might have been the first time he ever said I love you to me. And I felt relieved. My biggest nightmare, besides being gang raped, has always been being unwanted.
It was several moments later when I realize something horrible- I hadn’t told Herschel I loved him back. I should have said, “I love you too, Herschel,” but I had been too concerned with eliminating my presence from the room. I debated walking back to say it, since I knew I’d probably never see him again. But I decided not to. I figured he wasn’t thinking about me. He was probably busy enough thinking about not being Herschel anymore.
Even though he’d been a fixture in my life, I’d never exactly known Herschel. Our main conversation for the past 30 years has been, “Hold on, Jessica. I’ll go get grandma.”
The only thing I knew for certain about him was that he didn’t like to drink water. Only black coffee, tea, and an occasional tumbler of gin. And I think the most lively thing I’d ever seen him do, well besides begging for God to let him die, was the time he set some bananas on fire after dinner when I was a kid. I remember he drizzled some liquor on them and lit a match. Other than that, I know he loved golf and musical theater. I used to love when he’d sing with my grandmother during dinner, with a Bing Crosby voice, and then argue about who wrote which one. Maybe it was easier for him to experience emotions when they were accompanied by a big band, tap shoes, and a vibrato.
I was still standing at the sink throwing away leftover stems and leaves when he started moaning again. “What should I do, Toni,” he asked. “Should I go to the hospital?”
I’d never heard Herschel ask anyone what he should do about anything.
“I don’t know, Dr. Allen,” she said, sponging off the table. “That’s up to you.”
“Well, if I go to the hospital, I won’t be able to commit suicide.”
Toni smiled with commiseration and shook her head disapprovingly, “Oh, Dr. Allen.”
She took the toast off the table and started to walk away.
“Don’t leave, Toni.”
“I’m right here, Dr. Allen. I have to get lunch ready for Mrs. Allen.”
“Oh Christ,” he moaned. “I wish I would die already. Why can’t I die? Why can’t I just die?”
“It’s just not your time, Dr. Allen.”
It was so strange seeing these two sides of Herschel- the one that wanted to die, and the one that was scared to. He always seemed so sure of everything.
Then the phone rang.
“Oh, shut up!” he said to the phone.
Maybe that’s why he wasn’t dying. How can you die when you’re so angry?
Toni got some tuna fish from the refrigerator and some bugles from the cupboard. My grandmother always loved her bugles, those triangle-shaped chip things. Like a kid, she’d get so excited about side dishes and desert. Toni began arranging the gourmet cheese and crackers that someone had brought over in a basket, and took out some fruit salad. I left the one bouquet in the kitchen and carried the other into the living room. “I didn’t know you were a florist,” my grandmother smiled.
It seemed I was always surprising my grandmother. When I became a columnist for the local newspaper, she said, “My granddaughter, the columnist???” I hated the thought that I’d disappointed her. She’d had such promise for me when I was young. “You are so good on the piano you could be a pianist!” “You write such good stories, you could be a novelist!” “You sing so beautifully, you could be on Broadway!” But with each year that passed, I feared I hadn’t quite achieved the hopes she had for me. “What do you mean, you published that yourself? Will anybody read it? What about having a baby? Is it too late?” But I was glad to see her smile. She had such a lovely smile. Even at 87, she hardly had a wrinkle. Maybe it was the Oil of Olay, that little pink bottle sitting on her bathroom sink all my life.
My grandmother was trying to figure out the best place to put this new bouquet.
“How ‘bout on the table by the stairs.”
I carried it over to the stairs and placed it down.
“Not on the wood though, honey. Put some newspaper down first.”
In front of her chair was a paper grocery bag filled with newspapers. Mostly Plain Dealers and a few Sunday New York Times. She slowly leaned over, reaching for the edge of the bag. Her eyes squinted in pain and she whispered, “Owww. Dammit… Don’t ever get old, Jessica.”
I smiled and placed the flowers on the table. I could hear Herschel moaning again, but my grandmother couldn’t. She was too busy watching Max who was staring at us through the big window out back.
“Jess, honey,” my grandmother said. “Let Max in, will you?”
The back door was right next to where Herschel was. Herschel and his oxygen tank. My Aunt Karen told me the main reason Herschel sat in the kitchen was because my grandmother didn’t like the sound it made. “But she hardly hears anything,” I’d said. My aunt shook her head, as if my grandmother was an evil horrible woman. But the truth is, I can feel that same evil horrible blood flowing though my own veins. I can actually understand why I wouldn’t want my husband to be clicking and clacking on oxygen right next to me, even if I could hardly hear it. The idea that he needed it to live would pale slightly beneath my having to endure its irritating noise carving through my own sense of peace. I’m fairly certain I would also have to send him out of the room, to avoid bleeding from the inside out. But the difference is, I would know better than to behave like this when people were over. I’d be very nice and friendly while people were over and only after they were gone, would I send him out of the room. That way, no one would ever call me evil, and even if my husband told everyone what I’d done, no one would believe him.
I walked past Herschel and his oxygen once again and opened the back door for Max, who shuffled in and sniffed the carpet around Herschel’s feet looking for scraps. Herschel nudged him out of his way. Max was panting. “Oh would you shut up,” Herschel muttered. “God damn dog.”
Herschel was out of white blood cells and also out of patience. In all the years I’d known him, I never heard him blurt out so much.
“Toni, I think I should go to the hospital. Something’s not right.”
“Should I tell Mrs. Allen?”
“Might as well.”
Toni turned the corner and saw me at the sink. I poured a glass of water so it didn’t look like I was eavesdropping. I gave her a smile so she knew I appreciated her, and then a look of commiseration because I knew she was going to have to talk with my grandmother who was not going to like a word of what she had to say.
I followed Toni into the living room.
Before we got there, my grandmother yelled, “Toni!”
“Yes, Mrs. Allen.”
My grandmother jumped, “Jesus, you scared me.”
“Dr. Allen says he is ready to go to the hospital.”
“Very well. I’ll call Marty… Did you make lunch yet?”
“Yes. Mrs. Allen. Do you still want it?”
“Well, I still have to eat, don’t I?”
My grandmother picked up the phone and looked through her mess of a phonebook for Marty’s number again. “Hi Marty, uh… Herschel says he’s ready to go to the hospital… Ok… Thank you.”
“Alright,” my grandmother winced, lifting herself with the help of her walker.
“Can I help you, grandma?”
“No, dear. I have to do it myself.”
Once she was standing, she ice-skated her walker into the kitchen and lowered herself down in her chair. “Ach! Dammit… Herschel, I spoke with Marty and he says the ambulance will be here within the hour.”
Herschel said nothing.
“Did you hear me, Herschel?”
My grandmother dished herself some tuna fish, moving so slowly.
“Are you sure you don’t want anything to eat, Dr. Allen?”
“No thank you, Toni.”
My grandmother crunched on a bugle. “You should eat something, Herschel. Who knows when they’ll feed you at the hospital.”
“I’m not hungry, Eunice.”
There was nothing that appealed to me at the table, but I knew better not to eat. My grandmother absolutely doesn’t understand people who sit at the table without eating.
“Help yourself, Jess.”
“Toni, uh, the coffee is cold.”
“I’ll warm it up for you, Mrs. Allen.”
“That would be nice…. And this melon is old. Isn’t there a new melon in the refrigerator?”
“I’ll check, Mrs. Allen.”
“When will the ambulance be here?” Herschel asked again.
“Marty said it’ll be here within the hour…”
“I’d like Toni to come with me to the hospital.”
Eunice put down her bugle. “She can’t come with you Herschel! What about me? Who’s going to take care of me? I’m disabled too, you know!”
“Oh yes... I forgot. I wasn’t thinking about you,” Herschel said.
“Yes, I know you weren’t.”
I think this might be the theme of all the women in my family - what about me.
I think it stems from not having our emotional needs met when we were children. It’s one of those generational viruses- while the mothers were wondering what about me, the children were falling through the cracks, making promises to themselves never to be forgotten again. Being heard becomes a compulsion. And for some of us, feeling invisible for just one second is unbearable. We must make ourselves heard, even if what we are about to say has nothing to do with who we really are.
“Toni would you mind getting my things together for the hospital?”
“Of course not, Dr. Allen.”
“He doesn’t need much, Toni. He’ll have everything he needs there.”
Herschel closed his eyes, surrendering. “I’ll need my wallet, Eunice.”
“What do you need your wallet for?”
“My insurance cards, my credit cards.”
“You don’t need the whole wallet, Herschel. You’ll need your insurance cards and you can have 20 dollars cash.”
“Eunice, why do you have to argue with everything I say?”
He was almost whining. It was too much to take. I crunched on a bugle. The noise was incredibly loud.
“Jess,” my grandmother said. “There’s a green bag from the natural history museum on that shelf over there. Would you go and get it?”
I was grateful to get away from the table. The shelf my grandmother was pointing to was loaded with tons of crap-- the only bag I could see was about the size of a small pocketbook, and so caked in dust, it hardly looked green.
“This?” I asked.
“It’s really dusty, Grandma.”
“Well, wet some paper towels and wipe it off.”
In the sink I watched the stream of dust turn black and whoosh down the drain, revealing the words Natural History.
“Here you go, grandma.”
“Very good. Now, if you go look on my dresser, you’ll find a little plastic wallet insert.”
In a moment, my grandmother and her arthritic fingers were shoving Herschel’s insurance cards inside. “Dammit… Darling, do me a favor and cut these cards so they’ll fit.”
“You want me to cut his insurance cards?”
“As long as they can read the numbers, what difference does it make? There should be a pair of scissors on my desk.”
I looked at Herschel who was staring at his toast, probably thinking of much bigger issues than the size of his insurance cards.
“There should also be some address labels there, Jess. Stick one on the bag, would you?”
Within 20 minutes, Herschel’s belongings were neatly packed into this nine-inch green plastic bag. All the things he’d need for his final departure from Planet Earth:
A little plastic wallet, his identification cards, and a pair of thick reading glasses.
“Do you want your Zoloft?” Eunice asked.
“Your sleeping pills?”
He shook his head no. “Is the sports section in my bag?”
It was the most lucid thing I’d heard him say. How funny, where people find peace.
“I’m sorry that you’re having a hard time,” my grandmother said.
“Don’t,” Herschel said, not wanting her to talk.
“Don’t worry, darling, you’ll back in a couple days.”
Herschel muttered, this time angrily, “No, I will never be back here again.”
My grandmother and Herschel said nothing after that. They just sat there in silence I couldn’t make sense of, and I felt flooded with anxiety. They’d been notorious bickerers from the moment they were married, from the moment they left their previous spouses to live happily ever after with each other and then realized they weren’t as happy as they’d hoped they’d be. And I thought of my own husband, the way we bicker. I always assumed as we got older, we’d cut that out, that our wisdom would just show up like crows feet and varicose veins. But I guess it doesn’t quite work this way. I guess childhood issues don’t go away until you take care of them. And I prayed this wouldn’t be me one day. And then I prayed for peace and love for my grandma and Herschel.
A second later, Herschel reached for a cracker. “Why am I eating this?” he muttered, and placed it down.
I thought of my Aunt Karen and my mother saying how horrible it all is, all this dying. But to me, what’s more horrible than death is the way people die. There must an art, or at least a more elegant way to prepare for death than this. Some wise person who comes over the house and makes everyone go around the room to say what they’re grateful for. Something to give everyone meaning and closure, so the spirit doesn’t need to be artificially loosened from attachments and regrets with Zoloft and sleeping pills and the sports section.
“Toni, before the ambulance gets here, I’d like to use the bathroom.”
“Ok Dr. Allen.”
Toni helped Herschel out of his walker, and guided him to the bathroom. “I have a sister who works at the hospital, Dr. Allen,” she said softly. “I’ll make sure she checks in on you.”
“Thank you, Toni.” Herschel said.
At the table, Eunice started to cry. “It's been so upsetting, Jess,” she said. “He’s been falling apart. He’s been crying all night, I just wanna die. He’s scared. And I don’t blame him. But it’s been awful. And very hard on me.”
“I can understand,” I said, which I could.
Eunice reached for her walker and hauled herself up from the kitchen table. I walked next to her as she shuffled back to the living room. “You know what Jess, could you put Herschel’s name on his cane?”
Eunice lowered herself back into her lounge chair and a moment later, Herschel shuffled out of the bathroom. Toni helped him to his chair, right next to Eunice’s, and he slumped in. Then the doorbell rang.
“It’s them, Herschel. It’s the ambulance.”
Max started with his barking, so I rushed him outside and then followed Toni to the door. Standing there were two fluffy blonde teenagers, a boy and a girl, in EMT uniforms. It looked like they were trick or treating, but instead of asking for candy, they maneuvered a large stretcher through the door and set it up in the middle of the living room.
Herschel stood up, with the help of Toni. He looked all crooked and weak, and was having trouble breathing without his oxygen, which was still in the kitchen attached to his walker.
“He needs oxygen,” Toni told them.
One of the kids ran out to the truck to fetch the bottle.
Eunice looked so upset. “Can I give you a kiss, Herschel?”
He said yes, but he didn’t seem thrilled about it. He also didn’t seem quite completely alive anymore. My grandmother struggled up from her chair and hobbled close enough to him so that their bodies were touching. He pat her back a couple times and she managed to reach her face close enough to kiss his. Then my grandmother returned to her chair and Toni helped Herschel down onto the stretcher, which was just a foot or so off the ground. Once he was lying down, one of the teenagers pressed a lever and the bed jumped up three feet in the air.
“Please, easy,” Herschel moaned.
“Is it supposed to be tilted?” my grandmother asked.
The boy leveled it out.
Max was watching all this through the window, jumping and barking, but his bark was muffled enough through the glass not to be a nuisance. Maybe he wanted to say goodbye. Over the years, Herschel seemed to grow fond of Max. I mean, before he grew un-fond of everything. Every time I had dinner there, the first thing Herschel did when he sat down was toss Max a treat. “Don’t you want to taste it first?” Eunice would say. “Max said he wanted to taste it first,” Herschel would say.
After Herschel was laid out on the stretcher, Toni set the little green bag onto his stomach. Herschel held onto it. Then the EMT's opened the door and I watched them wheel Herschel out. They ducked under the overgrown tree, and were headed along the walkway, until just before they reached the driveway, when Herschel’s head lifted up.
“Hold on,” he said.
The bed stopped.
“What’s going on,” my grandmother asked, seeing the action halted.
No one said anything.
I opened the screen door and stepped outside to see what was going on.
“Toni, what’s going on?” My grandmother’s voice was deep, concerned, and agitated.
Toni sighed and shook her head like she didn’t know and headed past me towards the gurney.
“Toni, can you bring me my other glasses? I want both pairs.”
“Ok, Dr. Allen.”
Toni ran back inside.
“What is it? What does he want?”
“He said he wants his other glasses, Mrs. Allen.”
My grandmother sucked her teeth. “Oh for God’s sake. He has a pair in his bag. What does he need two pair for?”
“I don’t know, Mrs. Allen. He said he wanted both pair.”
“Well, tell him he can pick one, or the other.”
Toni stared at my grandmother with an astounded expression, one I interpreted as meaning: “The man is dying. Give him his two fucking pairs of glasses.”
I was also staring at my grandmother in perhaps a similar way. He’s got macular degeneration, after all. He needs all the glasses he can get.
Toni was caught in the middle. I could see she didn’t know what to do. But a second later, she went to the kitchen table and grabbed Herschel’s other glasses. My grandmother glared at her as she passed by, and shook her head at me like everyone was nuts. “I don’t know why he would want those,” she said to me.
I gave her a look like, “Beats me.”
I stood by the front door as Toni went back outside with the glasses.
“Mrs. Allen said you don’t need two pairs of glasses,” she told Herschel. “That you could choose one or the other.”
Herschel’s eyes got wide. He now looked exacerbated on top of his dying. And he said, “I will take the two pair of glasses.”
“Ok, Dr. Allen,” Toni said.
Toni put the extra pair of glasses in the little green bag and came back inside.
“Dr. Allen said he wanted both pairs.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” my grandmother said.
Meanwhile, the gurney continued toward the ambulance again. For a couple feet or so, and then it stopped again.
My grandmother was really going nuts this time, craning her head to see out the big front window. “Oh for God’s sake. What now!”
I could tell she hated not being able to get up to intervene.
I held open the door again and Toni walked quickly back outside. Herschel was struggling to sit up. He managed to lean up on his elbow so he could reach into the little green bag. Then, he handed Toni the extra pair of glasses.
“Maybe I don’t need two pair after all. If I do, someone can bring them to me.”
Toni looked at Herschel and took the glasses. “Ok, Dr. Allen. Whatever you say.”
Back in the house, Eunice was satisfied. “I told him he only needed one pair.” And the lights began flashing on the ambulance, and it rolled down the street, and Hershel never came back again. And Eunice died three weeks later.
My Mother: And how was the wedding?
Me: Really beautiful.
My Mother: How nice.
Me: Yes, and it was rather interesting because my father's wife was there and also his first wife and also his third wife!
My Mother: Well, my goodness, I can't understand why in the world I wasn't invited... It's like breaking up a set!
My Mother: Where are you going? Me: I’m on my way to Lowes to get a new ceiling fan.
My mother: Oh no... What happened?
Me: Well, at two in the morning I decided to turn off the fan at which point the light went on full blast and it woke up Brautigan who was very upset, yelling for the sun to go down, and then the fan started smoking and I must have dropped five f-bombs waiting for Chris to take the damn bulb out which was so hot he had to use a cloth, a cloth that wound up being Bruatigan’s brand new white training undies.
My mother: Oh, no... Well you listen to me, Jessica. You need to call that company first thing Monday morning and tell them that their fan almost burned your house down.
Me: Well I would, but I can’t find the receipt, so I’m not sure what to tell them.
My mother: Oh Jessica. If there is something to worry about, I can count on you to scour the universe and find it. Here’s what you tell them... You tell them that you shoved the receipt up your husband’s ass. Jessica... You don’t need to explain yourself to anyone. Just tell them you want your money back. That the fan almost caught on fire. And that you have a toddler. That’s it. Why on earth do you think the entire world is your jury?
Me: That’s a good point. I suppose you’re right.
My mother: Of course I’m right. So stop worrying about every goddamn thing. Or else you’ll have me to worry about. And you wouldn’t want that, would you.
Me: No, Mother.
…And she realized she was old and alone. She wasn’t old really. And she was still beautiful if you took the time to notice but she was pretty sure most people didn’t have that kind of time. And there she was, walking down the street, holding tightly onto that tiny little three-year-old hand. How she envied his way of being alive. His other hand happily strumming along the slats of the wrought iron fence they were passing, giggling at leaves dancing in the wind. And yet she still couldn’t erase the image she’d seen of herself in the tinted car window they’d passed. So old so sad so damaged. What had happened to her? She gave herself the usual pep talk- there's only two ages, alive and dead. And she knew it was true. But still she wished for things to be different. How she envied her son, waving hello to slobbering dogs, stopping to celebrate a garbage truck a tow truck a dislodged chunk of concrete. Not needing to know there was anyone else doing anything better. And she felt ashamed for wishing things were different. It was such an old habit really. She’d been wishing for things to be different almost her entire life. Since the very first time she discovered all the other people who had so many more reasons to be happier than she did. And somewhere along the course of her life, she’d lost the ability to feel what felt good and mostly anguished instead about whatever she’d happened to be thinking about. No, not thinking. More like obsessing. Or strategizing. Well whatever it was, it rarely accomplished anything other than interrupting whatever pleasant feeling had already been there. Always reminding her of all the good reasons why she should be working harder to make things different. And there was her little boy, his little nose sniffing high into the air, announcing so earnestly how he could smell every single flower on the earth. And she was grateful for him, for reminding her to feel the spring breeze. And it did feel delicious. And she smiled. Even though in the background she wondered if anyone passing by still thought her smile was pretty. And then she no longer felt the breeze, only embarrassment and shame to still be wondering how she looked in profile to men half her age that she didn’t even care about anymore. Another old habit. To exist in the glances of others rather than through her own experiences of the world.
Her mother had told her that when she’d been her son’s age she used to say hello to everyone. Wanted to be friends with the whole world. Even she could remember being that way. Always wanting to connect with everyone, experience the beauty of life together. That was the original reason behind her beautiful smile. Not to lure the opposite sex into her bed. These people who'd been lured to her bed in the past had just been the only ones who’d noticed her smile or at least the only ones who had answered the call to connect to the best of their ability. But what she’d really wanted and still longed for was old-fashioned company. Nothing resembling the sad days of her own childhood but the kind of company she imagined from lifetimes ago when she'd laughed in meadows gathering things like nuts and berries with other women while their children happily played together nearby. Way back when, before someone introduced the idea of something better to do and ways to make life so much easier in the meantime; back before everyone had thought themselves to death.
And this is what she thought about while being dragged by the arm by her excited little boy down the stairs and into the library playroom. To sit amidst all these other moms and nannies who didn't formally know each other but who looked so very much the same checking their emails in between smiling at whatever victory their offspring had achieved, getting up only to resolve the occasional tug-o-war over some prized piece of wheeled plastic, or to rescue their little one from some snot-filled potential case of measles. She felt badly for being one of those germ phobic moms. Hated her under-the-radar messages that other people were contagious. Yet how fiercely she needed to protect him from these others- from their ways of oppressing innocent souls with their criticisms their judgments and their germs.
Her own mother had never let her play with others. Her own mother had never let her play outside for that matter. From the parking lot and into Saks was the extent of her outdoor experience. This was probably one reason she’d chose to live in the woods. In a rural area. Besides the fact that she’d found some miniscule amount of peace amidst the beauty of nature amidst the absence of people and her preoccupation with wondering whether they noticed or did not notice her existence, her potential. And she was able to appreciate her son’s love of the outdoors, digging till his nails were black, rolling down grassy hills smiling through dirt and leaves without pain, without fear of animals or bugs or their excrement. But still in the background she felt alone in the woods just as she had in the city. Just as she felt no matter where she was. Abandoned by everyone. Forever fantasizing about some grand elsewhere amongst people she felt connected to. Truly connected to. People she could sit with on a giant gingham tablecloth spread out on some community patch of grass delighting in each other’s aliveness. A dream she’d held onto for years. And yet could never get close enough to see with her own eyes. And now time was slipping away. She could feel it.
When had she gotten so old? She remembered so clearly wanting desperately to get older- longing for real homework, for her driver’s license, for college, to graduate from college. And then she’d finally entered the real world, armed with such a beautiful collection of meticulously carved out plans for her life. Plans she treasured and with secret confidence, secret assuredness, knew she’d turn into her future. But once she’d found herself surrounded by the world, she didn’t quite know how to let her secret out. And others didn’t quite have a clue it was even there. And she began to wonder and then doubt if she’d really had anything as glorious as she’d been so sure she’d had after all.
And then somewhere along the way, she realized time was passing. And quickly. She could literally feel it speeding up, the seasons spinning around and around as if down the drain of a flushing toilet. People all of a sudden began treating her differently; her grandmother who’d been so sure she was destined for Broadway was now asking how she was going to pay the bills. And then there was the time she’d mentioned to her mother how a friend had started stripping to make some extra cash so she’d still have time to do her own thing during the day, and her mother had gasped, She's too old for that! But they’d been the same age. It was the first time she’d been too old for anything. And it hurt to imagine it was true, that even something as ridiculous as taking off her clothes in public had become out of her league. And so she’d tried to slow things down, to find whatever brakes she could and screech them to a halt. But things still went faster. And there came a rush to live life. To hurry and make those secret dreams come true before it was too late.
And then she'd met her husband. Who didn’t really have any dreams as far as she could tell. But who could still feel the breeze, and didn’t need to make sure another knew he’d experienced it to make it valid or beautiful. And he’d driven her to the mountains Upstate and to the woods and they’d hiked barefoot over rocks and roots and she’d fallen in love with the wildness of her own feet traipsing along the earth and yet she’d still been obsessed, wondering if she was pretty enough charming enough. Thankfully she’d had the self-control not to ask and she laughed to herself years later when he’d told her how much he appreciated that she’d been able to quietly enjoy his favorite places with him. And then one day she'd overheard him telling a friend how he'd designed a ring. And she'd felt so sorry for him, for not noticing she’d been close enough to hear. For his inability to notice anything going on around him, really. To even see who she really was. Or that she’d been suffering. And because of this, she hated him. Not entirely. She’d eventually had a child with him after all. This little boy she adored more than anything, more than even all the glorious plans for her future. This little boy who was presently running so self-assuredly over to a crying little girl on the other side of the library to ask what was wrong, if she was ok, if someone took her ball. How she envied her son. For already being so aware, but with the autonomy not to make everything about himself. How she wished she could be more like him. More present. More content with what already was. More than anything, she wanted him to be proud to have a mother like her. Maybe it wasn’t too late to make her dreams come true after all.
But if it never panned out… then what? Maybe it wouldn’t be such a nightmare. She did love so much about her present life. She loved being a mother, loved that she and her son still slept together, cuddled and whispered jokes that only they could understand while her husband snored in another room. And she was grateful he was ok with this arrangement, grateful that he adored the relationship she had with their son and grateful he knew he was always included. But yet she was secretly starving. Not like the people her friend had been feeding in West Africa but starving in an American way. Stripped of her connections to the earth and to all the others who lived there until she couldn’t figure out where she belonged or who she needed to be to feel worthy of spending time with. The people she called family were all a tedious phone call away. And they never seemed in a hurry to visit, preferring to send checks or gifts instead. She couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t have wanted to be there with her. Why they so stubbornly refused to be the family she wanted and needed them to be. And yet she felt ungrateful to want more. But all she did was want more. And she hoped her son wasn't picking up any of it. Thankfully it didn’t look like he was, playing so beautifully at the train table with a boy around his age, saying excuse me instead of pushing him down as they vroomed around and around, singing together – choo choo! Perhaps his joy made him immune to all negativity. At least so far.
And in a chair nearby, sat this boy’s mother, smiling, asking how old her son was. Wow, almost the exact same age. It was so hard for her to make friends with other moms. And yet there they were, talking about diapers. How both their sons were still wearing them. She’d decided to be herself, she was too tired not to, and so she shared her horror of public restrooms and to her surprise this other mom not only laughed but pulled out of her lovely diaper bag a portable potty and then unlatched it so that it popped up into position right there. And they’d both laughed. Maybe they could be friends, she’d thought. Maybe they could get together for a weekly play date. And then she felt ashamed. To feel so desperate for companionship. Not only for her son but for herself. She was too old for these feelings. And besides, this woman used a straightening iron and lipstick. How could she be friends with someone like her? She hadn't used a blow dryer since before she'd gotten pregnant. And there she was again canceling out a possibility before trying. She did this constantly. Her best ideas took only a few more thoughts before she realized they would never work out. She was incapable of making friends. She’d become too strange, too damaged from too much time alone. But what about her son, her son who just put his pudgy little arm around this other little boy and said, You know, I used the big boy potty this morning, while this other little boy said, Wow, looking so very impressed. She had to laugh. And the other mother was also laughing. They’re so precious together, they both agreed. And then she did it. Suggested they get their boys together sometime. And she’d agreed. And they entered their numbers into their little phones they’d both still been holding onto and she felt a little lighter washing her son’s hands in the bathroom before heading back upstairs and back outside.
And her son ran down the long ramp that he ran down everyday because he loved to run. Loved it so much that he laughed out loud the whole way. And she wondered, what did she love? She wasn’t sure she even remembered. She'd long ago forgotten how to play. She had only a memory of shiny brown buckeyes, wanting to touch and gather them and bring them home, but having her arm pulled nearly out of its socket by her mother who always had something better to do. Had she turned into one of those women? One of those women whose todo list had gotten the best of her? Who became furious, almost murderous every time her husband left a mess? But who could blame her, really. She could hardly handle that her dreams had all but fallen apart; she was not about to let the one thing she did have, her home, turn into anything less than perfect. And she called out to her son, reminding him to stop before the street, and he stopped in his tracks, out of breath, Did you see me, Mama, did you see me running so fast? And she was glad that she had seen. Glad she could multi-task between the incessant narrating of her pain and her pure delight with this little boy. And she smiled and kneeled down to kiss his nose. I love to see you run, she told him. And he took off her glasses and stared so sweetly into her eyes with kissing noises that she returned. She was always happier when she couldn’t see too far. When she was physically unable to see the everything beautiful and happy out there that she was so sure she was lacking, the only frown in some giant dance of laughter. Maybe there was a reason she was born nearsighted. So she could focus instead on her son’s beautiful face, those bright blue sparkling smiling eyes that looked just like her own. And she realized she was happy. Yes, she was happy too. And suddenly her heart felt so full she didn’t know what to do with herself so she started to worry about losing him. The most terrible horrible thought she could imagine. Maybe that’s why she chose to think so much. Thinking was the cushion that protected her from the unbearable pleasure of the present moment. And she held her son. Told him how much she loved him, cherished him. And he said he loved her too. So much. And she thought about what her mother had accused her of the other day while they’d been on the phone, after she’d finished broadcasting yet another stream of worry. “You’re guilty of dissecticide,” her mother had yelled. “Off with your head!” And she smiled because she knew her mother was right, even if it was probably all her fault. And she took a deep breath and felt a space inside herself; the space she’d abandoned. And so she took another breath. And another. Until she was back beneath her flesh instead of out there, in some no man’s land looking at herself through all the imaginary critical eyes from her past. And she was grateful to remember that through her own eyes her life was beautiful. And she prayed not to forget again that she was worthy enough to be alive, to feel happy right where she already was. But of course she did forget. And then she remembered again. And then sometimes she’d forget to remember…