I don’t know how much longer she has. Days. Weeks. Maybe even a few more months. But she is dying and soon. This disease is a continuation of the inevitable progression of her cancer from three years ago that some of you might remember.
I’m trying to work it out. I’m trying to take care of her and I’m trying to work it out. It’s painful and it’s hard.
Three years ago, I got a phone call from Tennessee that my mom was in the hospital with inoperable colon cancer and that she was going to die. While I was increasingly aware that she was having some sort of financial problems with the IRS and some health problem involving her bowels, I truly had no idea the extent of her desperate situation (uh, she lies about stuff). I immediately hopped on a plane and flew to her bedside.
When I finally got to her room I found her making her way to the bathroom. I saw her, but she didn’t see me. I hadn’t seen her in about a year.
Always young-looking and vain about her appearance, she’d lost so much weight and aged so much that she was nearly unrecognizable. She was hunched over in a raggedy blue hospital gown with her saggy backside showing, shuffling her way to the toilet. Her breathing was a little bit labored, which wasn’t surprising since she’d been a dedicated, heavy, lifelong smoker, and she appeared to be in a bit of pain. Silently, I watched from the doorway, taking it all in. They say that you see your own life flash before your eyes right before you die, but I didn’t know that you could see someone else’s life flash before your eyes. I’m here to tell you than you can, as though at that moment my mother’s memories became my own.
My life and my mother’s life are as attached now by her death and dying as much as they ever were by the umbilical cord that once held me to her. Sometimes this connection between us feels like love and sorrow, and sometimes it feels like a steel noose around my neck threatening to choke me to death right along with her.
I’ve never existed without her and it seems she feels the same about me. Just ask her and she’ll tell you that her life began with me. This sounds like it should be a loving compliment, something that would warm my heart and make me feel loved, but when she says it I feel like she’s trying to squeeze my life from me, taking it like it is hers. It’s as if she’s demanding that I return the favor: if she began where I began then shouldn’t I be willing to end where she ends?
Like the rebellious teenager I was (still am), sometimes I want to escape and run away. I want to sneak out the window after she’s gone to bed and steal off with my lover and forget she ever existed. But mostly I want to be the good daughter, to give it to her, to give her freely what I don’t have, but what she so desperately wants from me: redemption from all her sins and a forgiveness for all her bad choices she’s made in her life, so she can die and I can live, together, in peace.
I have a good friend who has asked me to start blogging again. I’ve started many pieces but then realize that they are petty and dumb and mean nothing and I delete them. Because right now this is the only story I have to tell and I’m hoping that if I tell it then I can be free, and I can find a way, somehow, to give my mother what she wants from me. That I can finally be the good daughter.
So here’s our story. I’m going to tell it in parts as much as I can take at a time until it is told. I only request that anyone who chooses to read it withhold their judgment of either of us until the end. I’m going to try to do the same.
My mom was just days past her 19th birthday when I was born. A girl from the projects, her life had already always been very hard. When my mother was 10 years old, her father literally went out for a loaf of bread one day and never came back. He deserted his wife, my mother, and her three younger brothers without a dime to their names. My grandmother was forced to move her children to the Clarksdale Terrace Housing Project in Louisville, Kentucky, in order to survive. According to my mother, after the desertion, her mother fell into a deep depression that lasted the better part of ten years leaving my mother to raise her brothers. It was in the Projects that my mother met and fell in love with my father when she was eleven years old. My father, practically an orphan himself, was 13 at the time. The feelings between them were not mutual. But somewhere between 11 and 18, my mother had found a way to get my father’s attention.
I was conceived on the top bunk of my mother’s brother’s bunk bed. Why the top and not the bottom? I have no idea. It seems safer somehow on the bottom, but that’s not how it went down. The reason I know this is because I was an inquisitive child. When I did the math and figured out that there was a discrepancy between their anniversary, June, and my birth date, December, I asked my mom if I was conceived in the back of a car (It seemed like a logical assumption to me. Isn’t that where teenagers are having their illicit sex? In the backseat of cars?) She angrily assured me I was NOT conceived in the backseat of a car, and filled me in on some of the coarser details of my conception that includes this little detail about the top bunk. So, top bunk it was, some early Spring day in 1961, when no one else was home. That’s where I’m told I began.
At the time of the secret bunk bed rendezvous, my father was a zoology major at the University of Louisville and my mother was a full time secretary for somebody modestly important at AT&T (called Southern Bell at the time). They both were full of high hopes and dreams about their futures. Both had beat the odds and had graduated from high school, heck, my father was at a university planning to go to medical school. They were both desperately trying to get out of the projects and, despite both being fatherless and mostly motherless, make something out of their lives. My mother’s pregnancy was very unwelcome news for both of them. I am most certain that if abortion had been available to poor women at the time I would have been aborted. I know this because my mother has told me so.
My mother was still living at home with her mother and her brothers and when she told her family about her pregnancy, my uncle Thomas, age 17 at the time, threw all my mother’s clothes out the front door, shoved her out behind them, and slammed and locked the door in her face, leaving her standing outside humiliated in front of God and everybody.
This is a picture of the Clarksdale Terrace Housing Project and is pretty much how I remember them when I lived there as a child, except in my memory the grass and the trees are lush and green and the red brick buildings don’t look nearly as rundown. I clearly remember catching butterflies with my grandmother in the grassy courtyards between the buildings and putting them in mason jars topped with lids we’d punched holes in with a hammer and a nail.
Looking at these pictures now, I can imagine my mother standing on one of those stoops with all her clothes scattered in the grass and all the neighbors peering out of the windows at her. I can imagine her having to collect her clothes in front of all those staring eyes and walking off with whatever dignity she could gather to who knows where. I don’t know that part of the story. I never asked. But, maybe because I believed that I was the cause of it, I can feel her humiliation and her hopelessness as though it were my own.
This is what they looked like right before they were demolished in 2005 and replaced with what they now call “public housing”. I’m pretty sure I used to walk here as a child. My parents lived on one side of the buildings from my grandmother and I was allowed at the tender age of 3 to walk around the building by myself to go see my grandma. I remember being very proud of myself for that.
I do know that when my mother was three months pregnant with me my father married her. Somewhere, probably in the trash since I think that’s where my brothers threw all our family photos when they cleaned out my mother’s house, there once was the saddest wedding picture you’ve ever seen. No one, not my father, neither of my grandmothers, no one, not even my own mother, is even trying to smile. It looks more like a funeral than any wedding picture.
Once married, my parents got approved and moved into their own apartment in these very same Projects next door to my mother’s mother’s apartment. After I was born, my parents were given the aforementioned larger apartment around the other side of the building.
My earliest memories are not of my mother at all, but are of my grandmother. Already old at 44, as women in those days were obliged to be, I loved her most dearly and she adored me. Somewhere between the time my mother was thrown out of her house and my earliest memories, my mother’s family must have gotten over it. Along with butterfly catching, I remember my grandmother teaching me to write my ABCs, having tea party picnics with her on the lawn, and most of all her dramatic oral renditions of such childhood classics as Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I would ask for these stories over and over again and she never seemed to tire of telling them to me.
I really don’t remember much about my mom and dad during this time. My father stayed in school and graduated, so I assume he was very busy when I was young. And when I was six weeks old my mother returned to work and my grandmother watched me. The one memory I have of my parents is of my mother holding me during an argument they were having under a streetlamp in a parking lot at night. I remember that it was very cold, I remember looking up at that light, and they were yelling at each other very loudly. And I remember knowing that it was all my fault.