I have gained 45 pounds in less than a year.
I cried in a meeting in front of the senior vice president of marketing, and on the treadmill in a crowded 24Hour Fitness, and at the bookstore, and in the produce section of Whole Foods, the one on 1st and University Boulevard.
My little sister is filing for divorce from her husband.
I screamed in my boyfriend’s face this morning because he drank the last Diet Coke.
My older sister, as always, pretends nothing has happened, does not scream, does not file for divorce, does not cry in public while clutching a carton of strawberries.
This is my mother’s fault.
My mother drove off the side of a country road eight months ago. She rolled down an embankment, was thrown from the vehicle which then landed on top of her, and she died. She died. I still don’t know if she did it on purpose or not; my sisters do not know either. She was at a point in her life where that may have been her plan. But it could have been an accident, too. It wasn’t the first time someone missed that turn in her little farm town, the town where people refuse to wear their fucking seatbelts. Not even close to the first time. Lots of people had skidded down that embankment after taking the turn too quickly. Plus, how could someone deliberately leave behind three successful, funny adult daughters, two adorable, tiny grandchildren, a dog, a fiancée, and a world full of people who thought she was hilarious and beautiful?
Those are the things that make me think it wasn’t on purpose.
On purpose. That is what my sisters and I call it, “it” being the possibility of suicide. We call it on purpose when we talk about it, which we very rarely do.
I like to imagine that on that night, my mom was really thinking it was time to get things together, and she was just on her way home. The state patrol officer ruled it an accident, said she tried to correct the turn and, if she hadn’t told me just three months before, “Sometimes I just think I should drive off a bridge,” then I would be inclined to believe him. In fact, I am still inclined to believe him, but sometimes I just can’t make myself actually do it.
All I can picture and think and wonder about is what that last moment must have been like for her. It consumes me, and it fills my head at the most inopportune times. At work, during sex, while playing with my niece and nephew, while having a glass of wine with my best friend. I’ll just start to get comfortable in my own shoes again, and then it smacks me in the face, ruins my good time, ends my selfish bout of happiness. It is eating me alive. What was she thinking as it happened? Did she scream? Did she think of me, how much she and I look alike, how people would always ask us if we were twins? Did she think of the things she hadn’t taught my sister about raising her kids yet? Maybe her thoughts were of her big Irish Wolfhound, the way looking into his huge brown eyes made you think of looking into the wise eyes of a retired college professor. Maybe she didn’t have time to think of anything.
It must have hurt so much. What does it feel like when an SUV lands on your chest? The pain must have been excruciating.
Worse than childbirth, worse than her bad knee, worse than the pain of having three daughters who had thrown their hands up at her, unsure of how to continue helping her fix her life. That is what we had done, thrown our hands up for the most part, even when she had selflessly spent a solid portion of the past thirty-five years making sure that our lives were A-OK. That we were fed, and clothed, and polite, and smart, and that we tried really hard at everything.
She must have been so scared; it had to have been torture. And then maybe it was over. Maybe, on impact, she was gone. Or maybe it wasn’t as quick as they said. Maybe she suffered.
At the funeral, a woman approached me. She was tall. I remember that because I am tall, and she stood even with me. She was from the same little town, a nurse just like my mom, and she said that my mother hadn’t suffered, probably never felt a thing. She was trying to help me feel better, and I just smiled at her with my mother’s smile and looked her in the eyes with my mother’s eyes and hugged her, and then I let her walk away. I don’t even remember her name, can no longer picture her face. My sister probably remembers them, her name and face; she is good with things like that. This nameless, faceless woman, as it turns out, was the one who had been on her hands and knees in a ditch administering CPR right after the accident happened. She crawled down the steep, rocky edge of a curvy country road and pushed on my mother’s heart, willing it to beat; she tried to save my mother’s life. She, not me, was the last one to touch my mother while she was still my mother. While she was still beautiful and hilarious and smart.
I, on the other hand, was at a movie. Trust the Man, it was called, and if I remember correctly, it was quite good, although I am no film critic. The ringer on my cell phone was turned off. Obviously. They make you do that in theaters; they put up signs, have banners running across the screen like ads. And it makes me laugh that they still say phones and pagers, as in “Please silence all cell phones and pagers.” Who has a pager anymore? I had a crush on a boy in junior high who had a pager. In fact, I think that was the main draw, the intrigue and mystery that a boy with a pager possessed. I made the rookie mistake of telling my mom about him back then, and she, clearly misunderstanding my adolescent plight, said, “Why in the world would a thirteen-year-old boy ever need to be paged?”
She was always saying things like that.
Anyway, as the strict rule-abider that my mother raised me to be, I had my ringer on ‘Silent’ as soon as I set foot in the theater. I don’t mess with that rule, and I am the first to dole out dirty looks to those who have not complied.
I sat there in the air-conditioned theater, eating buttered popcorn and snuggling up to my boyfriend. It was the Sunday before Labor Day. The end of the summer. The leaves would start to change soon, and I didn’t know it then, but the coming winter would be the worst that Denver had seen in twenty years, something to do with global change and Al Gore. But it was still summer, and I was at a movie with the man I’ll probably marry. I sat there for two hours, happy and selfish with greasy fingers and a big Diet Coke, blissfully unaware of what was going on 150 miles south of us in Gardner, CO, population 500. I was sitting in a Denver theater, and my mind was in New York with Julianne Moore and David Duchovny. I might as well have been a million miles away.
When the movie was over, I had eight missed calls. Eight. I don’t get eight calls in a week unless you count the Rocky Mountain News subscription sales department. But in two hours, there they were, eight of them.
We walked out into the warm night toward my boyfriend’s car, a silver Saab. I have told him before that I feel strongly that Saabs are for women and gay men, but he still loves his, and so that is where we sat, in his Saab outside the Esquire Theater. And that is where I was the last time I felt like me, like a daughter, like a person, like the woman I was raised to be. That is where I was the last time I felt like I had an anchor in this world, when I was still someone’s spitting image.
The Esquire Theater is a Denver landmark, and as I listened to my messages, I stared at the tall, slender letters spelling out E-S-Q-U-I-R-E, white on purple, glowing and bold. My curiosity at blinking red light signifying so many messages gradually merged into a dull realization. The recordings, the chaos on the other end of the line, my mom’s fiancée wailing my name like a scared child; all of this, the complete cacophony of it all, subsided into an ache, like a cramp, or like that feeling when you’ve swallowed too large a bite of a sandwich and it becomes lodged, not choking you, but not moving. I couldn’t tell you now where the physical hurt was in my body, but it was there, aching and pounding. It is still there now, in my chest, in my head, in my shoulders, in the sockets behind my eyes that are my mother’s eyes. It is part of the new me, and I do not foresee it ever subsiding.
According to the messages, there had been an accident, or as I may have mentioned, it was maybe not accidental.
I still didn’t fully have a grasp on my new reality. I watched a typical Denver woman, gorgeous and athletic, walking her dog through the thickening twilight down 6th Avenue, past the silver Saab. Her Golden Retriever made eye contact with me, and I instinctively longed for the softness and innocence of my own dog as I called my mom’s best friend.
Her voice quivered, shook with the weight of what she had to tell me. I said her name aloud, and she cried openly and apologized over and over as if I was hell-bent on punishing the messenger, as if I thought it was her fault. She told me about the accident, and then she told me that my mom was gone. Gone. Dead. Passed Away. In a Better Place. I didn’t cry. I didn’t get it. I just shook a little. I listened as she told me to call the state patrol, even efficiently producing my own pen and paper to take the number down. I said I would call her back and I calmly told my boyfriend to take me to my apartment.
What followed over the next few weeks was hectic and insane, although I remember being quiet and calm and business-like. I wrote an obituary. I called the Irish Wolfhound Rescue to tell them to expect memorial donations. I used the words “in lieu of flowers” as if they were a part of my everyday vocabulary. I hired a funeral director. I was a businesswoman making business decisions under deadline. It was similar to being at work, except for the part where it was emotionally debilitating.
The funeral director was a woman in her 70’s who was not all there, her hair a tangle of faux auburn curls with an inch of white at the roots, her polyester, elastic-waist pants twisted slightly off-center so that they looked uncomfortable, like a small child wandering around in twisted pajamas. Normally, the pants would have tipped me off that I had not made the best choice as far as funeral directors go, but I was catatonic. She could have been wearing a sombrero and I would have let her arrange my mother’s funeral. This stranger sat there with my sisters and me as we discussed how the funeral should go, talked about what should be said, had the most personal conversation of our entire lives. She made inappropriate comments and made us all very aware that this was the point-of-sale for her, that she could not possibly give a rat’s ass about the woman my mother was. To her credit, her manual dexterity was spot-on and she handled the credit card transaction with astute competence. My little sister sat holding her petite, one-year old daughter in her lap and fumed in the general direction of this woman, a woman my mother would have detested. My mom would have hated her own funeral, too. It wasn’t classy or beautiful; it was drab, and unorganized as if it had been thrown together in a couple of days by group of women who, although normally very Martha Stewartesque when planning events, were in complete shock. Strangely, I remember feeling quiet and calm and business-like.
A week after the funeral and cremation, that same woman handed me my mother’s engagement ring in a plastic bag labeled “Bio-Hazard.” It was the only piece of jewelry my mom had been wearing when she died, and this woman apparently found it hazardous. I put it on my finger, knowing it would fit me perfectly and planned to wear it until I could get it back to my mother’s fiancée.
The funeral director, lacking couth and in a general state of senility, had neglected to clean my mother’s ring. After washing my hands, I looked down to see diluted blood on my hand, trickling from beneath the diamond solitaire towards my wrist. My mother’s blood was on my hands. In what is probably a very inappropriate feeling to have about human blood, I wanted to save it, soak it in, ingest it. Instead, I just sat on the couch and stared at it. For an hour. And then I snapped out of it and did the grown-up thing --- because daughters who no longer have mothers need to act grown up--- I took off the ring, cleaned it, washed my hands, put the ring back on my finger, and then went back out to the living room. I will never be the same again after that. Never.
Now eight months have passed. It is Spring, and I am no longer quiet and calm and business-like. I have become angry and tearful and child-like. With all of the maturity that I can muster at age thirty, I still just want my mom. I want her all the time. I need to talk to her about some stuff. I want her to keep her eye on me. I want her to give me advice. I want more than anything to hear her crazy laugh, or watch her tie those loose knots in her hair with one hand, or to taste her potato salad, or to hear her sing off-key. I want her to know that, if given another chance, I would do anything for her, anything to help her, to save her, to keep her close to me. I want her to see my dog, and how well-behaved he is even after she accused me of spoiling him. I want her to know my boyfriend better, to know that I will probably have children one day with his red curly hair, and I want her to know how she and I would laugh about their little red curls, because that is just the type of thing we would have laughed about before.
I want to look her in the face again and feel as if I am looking into a mirror, a mirror that knows everything about me, at least everything about me up until the first Sunday of last September. A lot has changed since then, and it would be nice to talk to my mom about that, too.
Although I have never really believed in silver linings, preferring instead to take the cynical, sarcastic route, I can say that I have learned a whole hell of a lot in the past eight months. About myself, and about the importance of sisters, and about the hardships that people face in life and the toll it takes on intimate relationships. I learned that using work as an excuse not to deal with things only succeeds temporarily, and I learned that I am tougher than I knew, and I learned that some of my friends are better friends than I thought. However, what has been the most eye-opening is what I have learned about the relationship between a mother and her daughter. It is disheartening, I suppose, that I have acquired all of this knowledge, now having nowhere to apply it.
I was raised by a strong, single mother. And she raised me to be fiercely independent just like her, so much so that I spent a large portion of my life thinking that I did not need her. But I did, and I do right now.
I feel a little more ok, and a little more in control, and a little more me every single day. I am still angry and sad, and there is still an emptiness that I am unable to put into words. However, I will continue to be my mother’s strong daughter, and so will each of my sisters, and right now, that is all I can give to her to replace what I was unable to give eight months ago. I hope she understands.