Yesterday, I had a friend ask me over the phone if it “ever goes away.” His mother died two days before after a lifelong struggle with health problems. He wondered if at some point the crying and the pain and the anguish goes away. I think I was more audibly emotional than he was as I told him, essentially, no. It doesn’t go away completely.
My mother died eleven years ago from this past December, December 5 — the opening lines to The White Stripes’ “Same Boy You’ve Always Known” always kill me.
You fell down of course
and then you got up of course
and started over
forgot my name of course
and then you started to remember
pretty tough to think about
the beginning of December
pretty tough to think about
December 5s are always tough, as are her birthdays, Mother’s Days, Christmases, accomplishments and disappointments, too. But obviously the pain subsides, becomes more infrequent, creeps up on you rather than sits on your chest like it does those first few months when you contemplate all the things you could’ve done differently or the things you’ll never get another chance of doing like calling her on the phone.
I wrote the following as part of a collection of flash nonfiction pieces for my master’s thesis.
— — —
The December morning is cold and bitter when my sister pounds on my basement room window. My hair is in my eyes still thick with the smell of marijuana. The first thud I hear, I feel it. I let her in and follow up the stairs. My mother’s door is locked, is silent. I feel it again. We hurry through the hall, scrape our fingernails over the tops of door frames, check for spare keys. We can’t stop screaming Mom, Mom, Mom, for fear of more silence. I feel it more. My sister finds a key and runs back to my mother’s room. She rams her shoulder before she can even turn the handle.
No. No. No. No. No. No. No.
There is something lying with eyes closed on my mother’s bed. It is not her. It is not anything but a piece of the patchwork of bedding, sheet, blanket, pillow, mattress. I cannot stay in the room. My younger brother climbing the stairs gives me a reason to run away. I don’t know how to be or what to do, so I tell him he can’t go in there, and it feels like television. I hold him at the door for just a minute before letting him inside. My sister tells me to call my oldest brother. I walk outside. I light a cigarette. I dial.
“The ambulance is here,” I say. I’m crying in the street. “Something’s wrong with mom,” I say. “Something’s wrong. I think she might be dead.”
I can hear him hating me for it. He makes me say it again.
“What do you mean, you think?” he says.
My hands are cold. The cigarettes are cold.
We will stand with our heads together making a circle, all of us, including my father, sniffing and sobbing on the front lawn while the neighbors peek out of their doorways and the paramedics shuffle in and out of the house. Nobody speaks. Nobody wants to break the circle. Maybe nobody wants to be alone. Nobody wants to turn and see these strangers — robbed of their lunch break — wheeling my mother out of the house, bumping down the front steps, rolling her down the driveway, down the sidewalk and into the back of an ambulance.
Later that night we will gather again. I will sit at the counter staring at a shot of whiskey I believe I am supposed to drink as my father tells us that he believes in God and he believes in Jesus Christ and he believes in the priesthood and he believes that we will all be together again because he and my mother were sealed in the temple, and I can’t believe any of this is happening. Again, it feels like television, and I can’t drink that shot of whiskey. We will end the night not with our heads together and not in a circle. After my father leaves nobody will say anything about my mother and that will be the last time we are ever together as the family we once knew.
I’m not sure what happens to my father. I’m sure he struggles with her death and with guilt brought on by the divorce and now things her death has made impossible to undo. And I’m sure that he hurts for his children and maybe hates himself for being unable to be there for them, but he hides in his new family — at least, that’s what it feels like, that blur of raw months. Or maybe he assumes that we are old enough to be on our own. Maybe he assumes that if we needed anything, we would ask him. I have no way of knowing. In the year following my mother’s death, we do not talk about her. We are all thinking about her, but that is all.
I need to talk. I need to get thoughts out of my head and words I said the night she died, maybe even as she was dying. “Something needs to change,” I said to a friend while smoking a joint in my truck parked in the driveway the night before. And I have to think why did I say that?
I scratch and scribble in pocket notebooks, filling them up with thoughts about her. Sometimes I whisper those words to the moon, hoping she can hear them, wishing anyone at all could hear them. One night after a few drinks, I decide to share a poem with my oldest brother. He doesn’t say anything. He just begins to cry. His eyes are wet and angry. I am forced back outside. Completely alone.
My younger brother and I remain in my mother’s house after the funeral, just the two of us, haunting it, punishing ourselves like some form of mortification. We keep the heat off to save money. Everything is cold. One night we sit at the kitchen table with a few friends drinking until our bladders force the two of us outside. Lamplights dot the street in a hanging haze of frost. We stand in the middle of the street at Christmastime, her favorite season, pissing into puddles of steam. I don’t know if the darkness I feel matches the darkness he feels. I am scared when I turn to him and say, “I feel like I’m only alive because I’m not dead.”
— — —
That was a hell of a time. I was completely lost. I didn’t know if I would ever feel normal again or whole again or some kind of cliche like that. I guess the answer has been no. It’s something that changes you. But it’s also something that doesn’t necessarily have to destroy you.
On the outside I have a wife and three beautiful and crazy kids, and since my mother died, I’ve earned a degree for each of them. I think on the inside, things aren’t so bad either.
That phone call with my friend took me back to the beginning of December eleven years ago, crying on the sidewalk, remembering how a neighbor approached me to tell me that everything was going to be all right, that he remembered when his father died, and at that point I wanted to choke him even though I knew he was only trying to help.
I can’t think of one thing to say or one thing that was said to me that may bring him comfort because I know he doesn’t give a damn about my dead mother, only his. So I just said that they’re never all the way gone, and that nothing any of us have ever done could change the fact that our mothers love us and will always love us.