I was thinking about my mother just yesterday, realizing that she was the age I am now when I graduated from college and moved across the ocean, remaining there for several years. We had always been very close, and during those years kept in touch via letters and brief, infrequent and hurried phone calls (my stepfather in the background invariably shouting “Do you know how expensive this is!?”).
Her dying and her death several years ago were difficult, and the rawness of those days remains with me.
Today I read an excerpt from Claire Bidwell Smith’s memoir “The Rules of Inheritance.”
She is 18 and has been at college for two months. Her mother is dying and she practices saying that…saying that she is dying and then that she is dead as she pulls away from her and home and is drawn toward her new life as a college student which by its very nature requires her to separate.
With heartbreakingly beautiful honesty and in a sparse but richly crafted prose she takes us along on the journey, letting us into her head and heart, making us privy to the gamut of emotions and complexity of her internal dialogue as she navigated through these days.
She does not shy away from the thoughts that come when least expected, the ones we don’t discuss, the not so pretty ones that make us ashamed.
My aunt Pam comes into the room suddenly, breaking my reverie. She is my mother’s younger sister. Their relationship has always been a complicated one, fueled by competition, but for now they seem to have put that aside.
My mother smiles weakly at her.
Sally, Pam says with a bright smile. She treats my mother as though nothing has changed, and I am both jealous and resentful of this ability.
Oh, you’re so dry, honey, she says. Let’s get you all fixed up.
Pam grabs a little tube of Vaseline and rubs a smear of it across my mother’s cracked lips. My mother presses her lips together, musters another smile.
Let’s see these feet, Pam says, pulling back the sheet. Oh, I bet we can do better with these too.
She grabs a bottle of lotion and begins to gently rub my mother’s feet. My mother closes her eyes.
I watch all of this silently from my chair. I wish I could do these things for her. But I can’t. The truth is that my mother’s body disgusts me. The truth is that I am terrified of it.
I can’t shake the idea that she is rotting from the inside out, like a piece of fruit, bruised and swollen in places. I am afraid to touch her. I miss her beauty, miss her tanned, fit form. I am sick of the sutures and the colostomy bag. I don’t like her cracked lips or her scaly feet. This creature is not my mother.
In another passage, she is on call to sit vigil over her mother but falls asleep, only to be wakened by her mother’s “soft mewling” which “lights up the monitor with each intonation.” When she goes to her, she stands for a few moments in the door noting how small she appears, curled under the sheet. She lies with her and strokes her, reassures her.
Mom, I say again. It’s okay. It’s okay.
I murmur these words to her as I stroke her hair, smooth my hand in circles over her back.
It’s okay. It’s okay.
Her crying fades to a gentle whimper.
It’s okay. It’s okay.
My eyes are closed now too, and I lay my head down against her shoulder.
Mom, I miss you.
She is quiet now, her form gently rising and falling with each breath.
The memory of this moment will become the sole thing that prevents me from completely evaporating with guilt in the years to come.
And then, she describes the last time she saw her, the day she leaves her to return to college.
She is in the passenger seat of my father’s car. He has dragged her out of the hospital bed, wants to take her for a drive, to remind her of the world outside. He has wrapped her in blankets, and her skin is the same gray as the seats of the car.
I lean in through the open door, try to put my arms around her, but it’s awkward and I just kind of press myself against her.
Her voice is hoarse, her hands claw at me just a little. I love you so much, honey.
I do not know that this is the last time I will ever see her.
Months later, years later, when I think back on this moment, I’ll wish for so much more from it. In my head I’ll scoop her up from the car seat like an infant. I’ll hold her against me, burying my head into her. Mom, Mom, Mom. Years later I’ll cry hard and loud, wishing I had done exactly this.
But instead I just give her that awkward hug and then I climb into my car. I let out a breath, light a cigarette, and put both hands on the wheel. I had insisted on leaving, on returning to school, but now that I’m actually doing it I feel uneasy.
I often thought, after my mother died and when finally I came up for air, that I’d try to write about it. Death, like birth, like all the milestones of life, ellicits in us such a plethora of emotion at once so beautiful in its complexity yet so difficult to navigate, to make sense of. And although it’s an experience we share with the rest of humanity, it is uniquely ours, and we feel very alone in that space.
Few writers can capture that.