My father died courteously a few years ago. We stayed in touch through the period of his decline. I visited as often as I could and he seemed grateful for my company. There was never any particular beef between us; he was mostly absent when I was a kid. Lots of dads hung around the periphery of their children’s lives in the sixties and seventies. When I told him we should talk about him not living alone any longer, he said he understood. The following day, he told me he was checking into a nursing home to rehabilitate himself. I was baffled, but already had plans to see him in a week. We’d work it out then. He waited for me, health declining. We both knew no “rehabilitation” would occur. When he saw me, he smiled, said he loved me, everything was good, and then he died. Before the next morning. Done.
My mother won’t be so easy. She’s losing her memory. She’s spent all of her money. She’s in great physical health and just moved into my house last week. She seems to believe that most things are either my fault for nagging her too much or Barack Obama’s fault. This is, at least in part, because he’s a Black Democrat Muslim. The worst kind of each of those things.
What happens when the mind begins to misfire? And then a relationship begins to misfire? Rewind. What happens when a relationship misfires and then the mind misfires and? Playback. Misfires create misfires create minds. Forward. Where do we go from here?
Grief washes over me like a storm, like an inconvenience, sometimes like a light summer rain. Grief suddenly raises the level of everything that isn’t nailed down and I gasp for air while trying not to get clocked by the armoire floating by. Grief undoes the buttons on my blouse and nurses like a horrible wailing baby-giant ogre-mother-child. Where am I? Under the water or above it? Is this a metaphor or genuine peril? Am I leaving the light on for my child or my mother or myself? I’m afraid of the dark. Maybe we all are. I admit it. I am afraid. We could all be electrocuted, the way I worry the light switch in all this wetness and grief.
The other day, having light conversation with my friend and mother, I made a joke about my friend having done something silly. She said to my mother, with clear sarcasm, “Kimberly’s mean.”
My mother, in seriousness, with a look of painful resignation on her face said, “I know.” She does not see all that I did to love and protect her. She only sees what I did to save myself from her never-ending insatiable need.
During my early twenties, I participated weekly in a peer-facilitated support group for women survivors of sexual abuse and assault. Most of us had survived incest in addition to whatever else. And sure, we sometimes spoke about our fathers and stepfathers and our mother’s boyfriends, uncles or grandfathers. These were the vast majority of abusers. Sometimes we spoke about them. But mostly, we talked about our mothers.
Father is a puzzle, no doubt. A puzzle that’s sometimes simple, sometimes complex, but all of the pieces are in the box. There’s no nefarious rigging of the game. And if you lose a piece, you can just look for it. Father is everywhere and everything. Patriarchy has made father visible. Try to get a job, use language, have sex, open a pickle jar. There’s a piece of the puzzle everywhere you look. The puzzle can be solved. Mother is like trying to sculpt fog into usable tools. Even when everything looks right, it doesn’t quite work. Everything can dissipate, disappear or rearrange leaving you wondering if anything was ever real. I mean, have you lost your mind? Created imaginings? That’s how mother is. At least for me.
And what happens when I can’t see her anymore? People get old and die. One day turns to the next. The younger are likely to outlive the older. I’m grateful that I know when to cry and just wait for the next good thing to come, even when it’s not clear that something good is coming. Something good is always coming.
The best feeling I ever had was right after I gave birth. Relief of pain is a phenomenal high. I didn’t understand that something could hurt so badly. I just didn’t understand it. I thought childbirth was natural and because everyone’s mother did it, it couldn’t be that big a deal. And then I realized that those Lamaze classes were just keeping me distracted and cheerful about the pending disaster, about the earthquake that would rip through my body, turning my bones into tectonic plates that would lurch apart, crash together, tear the soil of me and cause the insides to erupt out. I didn’t know how profoundly the body could take over. I’ve always been a life-of-the-mind kind of gal. I’ve always relied on the body for pleasure. Okay, I’ve known pain, and disappointment in the body, but wow, pleasure. Always and soon, pleasure.
With the birth too, pleasure came when the pain ended. There was so much pain in the core of my body someone could’ve walked in and ripped off my arm and I wouldn’t have noticed. I kicked a nurse who tried to examine me. And no one would ever peg me for a nurse-kicker. The earth of my body was rending and she was simply in the way. Trying to put her hand in my vagina to feel the baby’s head was profoundly not the right thing for that nurse to do. Pop. Right off the end of the bed she went.
I cried and wailed and felt sure I couldn’t push the baby out. But I wasn’t the one doing the birthing. My body was becoming an exit wound. When my son arrived, and the doctor lifted the tight little quaking body, the first thing we saw was a stream of urine fountaining from his baby penis. His father, standing by for the magical moment, wept and said, “Aw, he’s peeing on you!” And I held him briefly and his father held him briefly. And that’s when the rush came. A sense of relief from the pain that made me feel all-powerful. A sense of relief from the pain that made me feel like my body was indeed a planet, capable of opening and emitting life and hurtling through space with whole moons in its orbit.
Of course, that feeling was fleeting. I soon slept mightily, no one able to wake me for quite a time after what had been a two and a half day labor. Sleep was too good. Something good is always coming. And then again, something worse.
We spoke of our mothers, mostly. What could be said about the men who sexually abused us as children? We asked each other questions our mothers could not answer. Why did she need him so much? Why did she turn away and tell herself she didn’t know? Why did she send him in? Why did she expect me to fix everything, solve everything? Why did she seem so fragile? How could she look at me with such disgust? How could she see me as such a failure? We talked about our mothers.
I didn’t let myself know at first that something in my mother’s mind was misfiring. My mother had always been cryptic to me, difficult to grasp, harder to hold. After she spent three days visiting my son’s small apartment, seeing the sites in his university town—he called to ask me. “Mom, what’re you going to do about Grandma?”
“What do you mean ‘do about her?’” I said, incredulous.
“She’s losing her mind!” he shouted through the phone. And then he recounted her various mental misfires. Not remembering what she ordered in the restaurant, not knowing where she put things in her suitcase; constantly looking for what she’d just set down. And the most disturbing, he said, “Sometimes it seems like she doesn’t know who you are.”
I am her only child. And she doesn’t know who I am.
Sometimes, he said, she seemed to think he was her son and that I was… no one. Yes, I confirmed to him, I had noticed this behavior. Some part of me must’ve thought it was endemic to our relationship. In the fog of her waking dream, I sometimes recede, inexplicably. I am not visible, not part of the story, not evident in the landscape. And then I return again, as irritating, startling and as improbable as Barack Obama in the White House. She says she wouldn’t be “losing it” if everything weren’t so difficult.
What am I going to do about her?
I don’t know the answer to that question. I don’t know how this story ends. So I’ll just make it up.
I’ll tell you a mythology that implicates you as well because whoa. We are all born of imperfect mothers. And enough of them have given good so fearlessly that healing the lovelessness of my particular mother, or yours, or me, or our children—this should be easy. We will reach back through time and through our mothers’ sadnesses and traumas and broken skin and missed expectations. We will help each angry girl-woman grow up into a whole woman who does her best. We will say: let your insatiability rest. Be whole and full and comfortable. We will do this; and in reaching back, we will feel them reaching forward through us, as they always have been, waiting for a hand to grasp. We will give them our hands and build a monument together from all the good deeds of mothers through time. We will tell them we’re sorry for what happened to them as children, as women. We will absolve them of all wrong-doing and tell them they are loved.
That’s my story of how this ends. I will care for my mother’s body as long as she’s in it. Perhaps not as she would most want me to, and I will do it just the same. I will feel both loss and relief when she leaves that body. There have been so many misfires, and now? What could that possibly mean to me now? For her sake and mine, I will take care of myself and my body by doing my best. Reaching back through time and death, I will pull us forward, light all of the circuits at once so that the thing I bury, eventually, will be our shame.