|Cracked Spiral, Albuquerque NM 2009|
Is it when I leave the carrots behind the National Geographics, rotting? Is it when I fake a fever to stay home and she catches me in the act? This is not a game of blame, figuring out if it was my fault. Because it was our fault, and a fault that began long before either of us existed. A crack deep in the earth between daughters and mothers, started the generation before me, between mom and her mom, and probably the generation before that, on the plains of North Dakota, out of boredom, out of necessity, the split between young and old. When I get close to my dad’s mom, that seems all the more betrayal. Then it is just the two of us.
The divide gets deeper as I am a teenager. In fact, I don’t recall being aware of us being so separate before then, though of course we were. Dad glued the space between us. After Dad dies, there’s no more glue, just the two of us and a lot of open wounding. We fight over who misses him more, over who has it harder. I grow further and further away, less interested in spending time with my unstable mother who sometimes listens quietly and holds what I say, sometimes screams or cries. I never know which mother I am going to get so I distance myself from both, from either, from any. I get work, whether or not we need the income, I separate myself more and more from her, simultaneously wanting to make her proud – of my grades, my technical theater career – and jealous – of all the time I spend with others, not her. It works. By the time I am a junior in high school, she fills out a form for my school, a survey in which they are trying to assess whether parents feel their kids get enough support for schoolwork at school, how much time parents are spending on schoolwork with kids. I still have this form. In it, my mother launches a real, impassioned plea, ostensibly to the school, but really to me. She checks off all the boxes, notes that I get plenty of support at school, and that she rarely has to help me do homework, partially because I don’t ask. But no complaints, she notes, she does well in school without help from me.
Then, when given space to make other comments, she does, and here, in this essay, are the hints I miss then that she has changed. The clouds have passed, her grief released her and she is free to love me again, perhaps for the first time in a real way. Only I am too busy. I am occupied with running away from her, traumatized from my father’s death, from how she and I both reacted. I won’t be able to redact my rejection of her in time. We only have two more years together and I will spend one of them across the Atlantic or living in Chicago, and the other doing the same I’ve been doing for two years at that point: living at home, but barely there. Partying, working, school. Rinse, repeat.
My mother’s mini plea essay says she just wishes I would be at home more, so we could spend more time together. At the time, I don’t turn it in, when she leaves it for me at my place at the table. Somehow I know this information isn’t for my high school, its for me. It makes me angry and sad, both, feeling that she’s doing too little too late. Yet somehow I know she has changed. It’s not a complaint, not really. It’s not even a plea. It’s the poignant observation of someone who knows she cannot win with me.
Across the divide she tries this one last time. Then she lets go. I feel the freedom, the occasional oddball motherly grasps – telling me not to smoke cigarettes, at least, they are worse than pot; suggesting I wait until I am 18 to have sex with my boyfriend because at least then it will be legal; even a clutch at me to not go to school in California, refusing to sign the financial aid paperwork, saying I’ll have to declare financial independence if I want to go to the private college even in Minnesota, leaving me only with Madison as a choice. By the time my eldest brother and I declare we are going to Europe for three months, all she can do is stare. She has tried, tried to connect us one last time, but I have to leave now. It is too late.
I recall the interactions between us, after I get home from Europe, when I am in Appleton before and after Chicago, on Thanksgiving and Christmas break of my freshman year, to be benign. Possible even a bit sweet, funny – drinking together, making puns and jokes, telling stories. The distance, the actual physical distance, is doing something, healing some of the psychological distance I instituted to save myself in my teen years. Maybe this can work, perhaps she thinks, maybe I think without realizing it. Perhaps we can get along.
Then, suddenly, without notice, without warning, a week after I have returned to college from winter break, she has an aortal aneuryism and dies. Her heart bursts and I am not there when it happens. It’s too late for us to connect again.
Or is it? Today would be her birthday, were she alive. This year I am in a new place, a place of not just hearing but feeling what my mom’s best friend knew was the truth and tried to tell me after she was gone. My mother changed. By the time I was in my late teens, and separate from her inside myself, she was becoming more her genuine self. She was alert, awake, alive and even happy at times. Seeing this is sad – I mourn the possibilities that could have come of that, had she lived. But it is also powerful to see that it’s never too late for me to understand, to open up, to explore and appreciate.
Spring was her favorite season, a time of growth and buds, gardening and fresh air. Today I will take a walk, celebrate the crocuses and crows. I am sad, yes, and also grateful. Thank you, anniversaries, for returning me to the cycle/spirals of life so I can constantly grow and reassess, re-telling these tales, with an endless allowance for revision. Never too late for that.