I wasn’t sure if I was going to write this. I’ve been on the fence, sitting, like a lump of bird shit deposited by a careless pigeon, unable to budge. We’ve had a humid, hazy week with the remnants of Tropical Storm Florence soaking the ground at the beginning of the week and intermittent cloudbursts startling the haze and steaming the pavement in the days that have followed. The rains haven’t washed away my shitty mood; in truth, they only compound it. I love rain, but right now, the weather doesn’t matter. I will return to enjoying Indian Summer and all the things I love about Autumn after I get through the next few days. The sixth “anniversary” of my mother’s death is upon me, and it is the first time that the date actually falls on the day of the week that she died.
I was looking through some memories on Facebook last week and came across one, six years ago, when I was complaining about being sick with some kind of cold or sinus thing. It opened the door to remembering those days before she died and my dumb ass walked right through it. I spent a lot of time, back then, feeling guilty about having been sick and wondering if my germs had somehow made it down to her apartment and caused the sudden onset of pneumonia that hastened her passing. I had stayed away, but my daughter was down there every day and though she didn’t catch my cold, I still felt responsible. Mom had been really doing well; her health was better than it had been for a long time. I beat myself up about it afterward, and only came to realize that a lot of chronically ill people rally before they pass. That’s why, when they die, we are dumbfounded, and we say, “But he/she was doing so well.” I did this, in my grief, after she died.
When I saw that memory, I counted the days, and arrived at Monday, September 24. My heart sank. The same day. It has been there in my thoughts, like a persistent canker sore that you should leave alone but instead, you rub with your tongue, conjuring up the pain that stings. Every day this week, I have compulsively looked at my Facebook memories, reliving the past. It’s quite uncharacteristic for me, a person who has learned to eschew the past and who rarely, if ever, goes to that tab and clicks on it. The past proves too often painful, and I have worked very hard on myself to disconnect from painful memories. Thanks and fuck you very much, Zuckerberg, for providing so many ways for people to self-flagellate. It is not bad enough that our minds travel back in time, but now we have documented proof, right there for the perusal. I don’t have the self-discipline to stay away, because when I descend into the tar pit of sadness, I try to stay tethered to reality, and Facebook is such an omnipresent force of habit and reality check every day. It helps to bring forth a smile even in a world filled with anger and hurt and the ominous foreshadowing of humankind gone mad; in being all things to all people, it also goes too far. And so, I dwell on those days preceding Monday, September 24th, 2012, and again wish that I could somehow change them.
I miss her. I miss my mother. I miss all the good things, even though they were rare. I miss the comforting presence of a maternal figure, knowing she was there even if I didn’t think I needed her to be. There’s no sense wishing she had been more of what I wanted; I got what I got and it was what it was. Maybe we never completely lose that sense of urgency we had when we were little and something frightened us, and we sought out our mother’s presence and protection. Maybe just the idea of running to hide behind her legs, holding tightly to her when it got scary, is all we need when we grow up. It’s a comfort, a feeling that washes the fear away, even if we don’t actually seek it out. And when we lose that ability, it is devastating.
For a long time, I was like an astronaut in a sci-fi film who had floated out into space, away from the safety of an aircraft. My oxygen was going to run out and there I was, flailing about, resigned to certain death but screaming internally that it wasn’t time, that somehow, something had to save me. I suppose that, if something like this ever were to happen to an astronaut, thoughts would go to the comforting presence of a mother, and maybe it would help to calm the fear. It’s very hard to try and conjure up that feeling now; it is like a faint whiff of wood smoke carried along in the air on a misty, cool, Autumn morning. It is momentarily there, assauging the senses, and then Poof. It is gone.
I miss her, and I am still so angry at her for a lot of things. I am angry that she never told me stuff; how she met my dad, what made her love him; things like that. I am angry at her for making me choose to end her life by never wanting to discuss advance directives; even though she seemed to give me a sign, at the very end, that it was what she wanted, I will never get over the desolateness of having to say, “Please turn off the machines.”
I am angry at her for dying on September 24th because it is right at the beginning of Autumn and it was my most favorite time of year; usually the bearer of a sense of renewal and quiet contentment. It was a time not filled with depression, when I would be the equivalent of whatever serves as happiness for me and my fucked-up mental state. She died and she ruined it. Now, by the time I emerge from the sadness and renewed rawness of grief, it’s careening, out of control, into the dark chill of winter. I used to have those months to be topside. Now, they are interrupted and I get pushed back down below, into the dank belly of the ship, where the air is not perfumed with burning leaves and baking bread and the spiciness of cinnamon. It isn’t fair, and I hate her for it, until I remember that maybe she wouldn’t have gotten sick if I hadn’t gotten sick and then it’s just another pointless clusterfuck of guilt-ridden bullshit in my head.
Yeah, I said I hate her. It’s true; I do. It’s completely reasonable, given our relationship. I will never get over the fact that I was a bargaining chip in a game she was playing to win my dad. I think of my children and I am filled with sadness for her, that she never experienced the total immersion in love for one’s children, that sense of wonder and gratefulness at being chosen to love such remarkable creatures. I don’t think she ever experienced that, at least with me, and part of me still rails at the fact that I deserved to be cherished, goddammit. Yeah, I said it. I hate her.
And yet, the love I feel overshadows that hatred. I choose to dwell on the love now, because it sees me through. Maybe her love for me wasn’t the most, the best, or her best, but it was still real. It was still worth claiming. It taught me to lavish my love on my own kids, so they would never feel like I did; just outside the circle, never being asked within its boundaries. I never lose sight of how I was a much better mother because she was not all I should have had.
I’m going to try, very hard, not to go to those memories on Facebook this weekend, because they’re still very present in my consciousness, and reading them will not stop the flow of sadness. I’m going to try, very hard, to figure out a way to honor her, and to remember her at her best; not at the end, when her hand was slack and cold.
When I was about 3, we went to my great-aunt’s farm in the country for a day visit. The farmhouse was boring to a little girl, so I asked if I could go out in the yard. Imagine being 3 and being allowed to go outside without an adult, if you will. That was the beauty and freedom of being 3 in 1970. My mom and grandma were able to see me from their vantage point through a window, and so out I went. My Uncle Walt was outside somewhere, tending to the animals and the crops, and I drifted out toward the field of sunflowers he had growing. They were like giant, golden happy faces towering over me, and I began to sing to them. I sang, all shyness disappearing, to those beautiful flowers, and it wasn’t long before my mom, grandma, and Aunt Leatha came out to see where I had gotten to. I remember turning to look at them, still singing at the top of my lungs, and my grandma ran to grab the camera she had brought and snapped my picture. I don’t know what happened to that photo, but in it, I was smiling, singing “You Are My Sunshine” right into the lense, as the sunflowers danced behind me. I have been returning to the smile on my mother’s face that day; in those moments, she loved me as much as it was possible for her and the warmth of her smile washed over me like the golden glow of those glorious sunflowers. I will return to that memory a lot over the next few days.
If there is a sunset visible on Monday, the 24th, I will gaze upon it like I did in 2012, when my daughter looked out the window of the hospital room and said, “Look at the sunset, Mama. It’s so beautiful. Grammy is at peace.” We stood, quietly, marveling at the vivid pinks and reds and golds that glowed and reflected in the waters of Lake Erie. A sailboat drifted by in the distance. It was a fitting departure, a brilliant burst of sun as it descended below the horizon. It was my mother, saying goodbye, the glow of love shining out from her face, in her smile.
Sunsets and sunflowers are my mother’s love.