For Remembering How to Live Without You1“For ...continue
by Telaina Eriksen
My mother has brown eyes. She used to love to read. She thought Burt Reynolds was sexy and she loved the songs of Patti Page and Eddie Arnold. When she laughed at one of my jokes, it made me feel whole inside. She made chicken and dumplings sometimes before my sister’s basketball games. She lived through the Great Depression and World War II. She always put a dollar in the Salvation Army bucket at holiday times. She loved cats and we usually had several in the house and several outside. If she even had one extra dollar, she would let me get a book from the Scholastic book order at school. She loved lemon meringue pie and butter pecan ice cream. She liked to sit outside in the porch swing, her legs touching the ground and pushing off. Sometimes a glass of iced tea would be precariously balanced on her round belly.
One time she pulled a gun and threatened to shoot the woman my sister Tara was dating.
Everything ends badly. Otherwise, it wouldn’t end.
This is one of my favorite quotes. It comes from the forgettable ‘80s movie Cocktail staring a pre-crazy Tom Cruise as the charming bartender Brian. About three-quarters of the way through the movie (after he has ruined his life with his miserable, impulsive choices) Brian tells the character Bonnie, “Everything ends badly. Otherwise it wouldn’t end.”
I’m forty-six now and have experienced my share of endings. I’ve grown to hate obituaries, but I still read them several times a month. The dead who die too young are now “angels,” and the dead who are deemed old enough are “called away to be with the Lord.” This is a collect call from the Lord. Will you accept the charges?
It is human nature to think our suffering is for something—that there is some triumph at the end of our paths—a pair of angel wings, white light, Jesus’ embrace, tantric sex with James Spader. But so much of my suffering, and the suffering of those I love, has been of the Cocktail variety.
My mother’s left leg was amputated in September of 2013. I was not in the waiting room. I sent flowers. Sorry your leg got amputated! Feel better soon! No, not really. I can’t remember what note I typed into 1800flowers.com. I did get the bigger bouquet, not the budget one. Somebody please inscribe that on my headstone. But I made the choice to stay away from the hospital. My oldest brother waited for her during surgery. My husband went down to visit a few days later. But I stayed in my home. I watched reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and ate nachos. I hugged my teenagers when they would let me hug them. And I wept.
My mother is 83 years old, and she has been dying since the day I was born. I weighed over eleven pounds. Obviously she had gestational diabetes when she was pregnant with me, but that wasn’t an illness diagnosed back in 1968. I was a breech baby. I wouldn’t budge. My mother hemorrhaged. The doctor asked my father in the waiting room if it came down to saving his wife, the mother of his six other children, or this new child–an eleven-pound baby who would not come out–whom should he save? My father, without hesitation, chose his wife
My mother told me this story. She told it to me many times during my younger years.
My very existence had almost killed her.
My father never wanted me.
Once I had been dragged feet first from her womb, they gave her a blood transfusion. When she was stable, the doctor asked if she wanted to hold me.
“I can’t,” she said. “I think I’m dying.”
How do I write about my mother—the sky and stars of the first eighteen years of my life? How do I show you (as a good creative writer is supposed to) and not just tell you?
I feel like an orphan even though she is alive.
Every day I still live her disowned pain.
A surgeon did a procedure in August 2014 to open up an artery in my mother’s right leg. My brother texted me to let me know: If this procedure doesn’t work, they will have to amputate that leg as well.
I didn’t send flowers after the procedure. I don’t want to think about what to send if the right leg comes off too. A nice hanging plant?
In June when my other sisters visited her, I tried to give her a “movie.” I had scanned in hundreds of pictures of my daughter Casandra in honor of her high school graduation and set the pictures to music. My mother sent the movie back to me saying nowhere in her nursing home was there a DVD player.
My mother writes people letters. In the letters I receive, she lists all the ways I’ve disappointed her. If I were a better person I could love her in a perfect way. I could love her fully into being if I just tried harder. In one of these letters she said, “Your daughter will end up hating you as much as you hate me. It’s in the blood. You can count on it.”
When I read that, I opened up the closet door in the bedroom and contemplated all the razors there. How I could pop them out of their neat little casings. How the freed blade would feel against my wrists? What would it be like to just get weaker? Lose blood and float away? But I imagined my husband, my daughter, my son. The books left to read. The papers left to grade. The life left to live.
I cut my wrist when I was eighteen years old. It is called a suicidal gesture when you injure yourself but then seek help afterward to prevent further injury. I needed a lot of stitches. My mother took my suicidal gesture personally. She said I was trying to make her look like a bad mother. I overheard her on the phone the next night, after I had cut my wrist. I don’t know who she was talking to.
“She needs to be tested for those chemicals in your body that cause depression. I don’t know what else it could be. She is self-centered. She doesn’t think about anyone but herself. Her depression is probably just chemical. I think they have drugs for that now.”
My mother called me selfish a lot. This was the ultimate insult. Women, daughters especially, were not supposed to be selfish. My mother measured how much someone loved her by how much he or she did for her. Did they give her money when she needed it? Did they take her to doctors’ appointments? Did they listen to her talk about her husband, her selfish children? Did they buy her gifts? Love could be measured, and I never measured up.
I wanted things. I wanted a prom dress. New shoes made of real leather that weren’t from Payless Shoe Source. I wanted a varsity jacket and for my home to look nice so I could have friends over.
My desire indicted her. If I wanted more, it meant that she hadn’t been enough. I wore the yoke of selfish for many years, thinking that it was wrong to want nice things when you lived in poverty. When I was in my twenties, one of my work friends said that she “was pretty self-involved. You know. Your typical teenager.”
It had never occurred to me, never crossed my mind that I hadn’t morally failed some test. Neither of us—neither mom nor myself—could let me off so easy. I hadn’t just been a teenager. I had been (I was. I am.) a bad person for wanting more than I had.
Do I talk about her prescription drug addiction now? Or the diabetes? Do I talk about how she carried nitroglycerin in her purse and that when parenting seven children grew too stressful she told us we were giving her chest pains? Do I mention that she would pop a couple valium and a nitroglycerin and take to the couch? Do I tell you how her own mother beat and shamed her?
Do I tell you about her hungry pretty face turning to me, her pitiful beautiful untouched body?2“I Go Back to ...continue
“I don’t understand why you just can’t go see her at the nursing home. She’s old. She’s in a wheelchair. She’s harmless,” the younger of my two brothers said.
He doesn’t see. He can’t understand. To him, the woman who raised him and the woman in the wheelchair are one and the same woman. This woman is just Mother: irritating, not quite right, but still the same person with all the obligations of the flesh that come with that acknowledgement. He cannot understand the duality I carry with me. My mother is either dead or does not exist. I don’t know who the woman in the wheelchair is.
My brother’s relationship with her is perhaps more or less complex. He cannot see how caring for this person in any way would destroy what small peace of mind I bring to every morning.
Seven or eight months before my suicidal gesture, a few weeks before I began my senior year of high school, the phone rang, and my mother answered it. I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom, getting ready for work.
“It’s for you,” she said.
I spat in the sink and then walked to the phone.
“Hello? This is Janet Nelson from the Daughters of the American Revolution.” I knew her in the distant small-town way that everyone knows everyone. Her daughter had graduated with one of my sisters. “We have to tell you, we were very impressed by the fact that you got the Optimist’s Club Scholarship and got selected as the finalist for the Randolph Hearst Scholarship for the county.”
“Thank you,” I said. The Optimist’s Club thing was funny. It was a one-time $400 scholarship for my first term or semester at the college of my choice, but you had to appreciate the irony of them selecting someone who was in a constant state of depression and suicidal ideation as their winner.
“Anyway, we would like you to be our candidate in the Miss Waldron pageant. We would pay your entry fee and give you money toward your dress. How does that sound?”
I knew Andrea—the most perfect girl in our class—would win, but it would be so fun. I would get to ride in a car and wave in the Labor Day parade. I wouldn’t have to march the two or three miles of the parade with my high school band. I would get a nice dress that I could keep and maybe wear to prom.
I turned to my mom and put my hand over the bottom of the phone.
“Mom, Mrs. Nelson wants me to be the DAR candidate for the Miss Waldron pageant. What do you think? Is it okay?”
“No. Tell her no.”
“Why?” I say. “I want to.”
“You’re too fat. Everyone would just laugh at you. You’re too fat and Andrea is going to win anyway.”
My mother chose the very thing that was sure to stop me. I knew I was too fat to win the Miss Waldron pageant.
I put the phone back up to my ear. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”
“Why is that? We would love to have you.”
“My mother says I can’t.” I heard my mother’s inhalation of breath
“All right, I understand. Thank you for considering it. Good luck with the Randolph Hearst Scholarship.” Mrs. Nelson’s voice sounded soft, as if she wanted to give me a hug.
I couldn’t bear her sympathy. “Thank you.” I said and hung up the phone.
“You shouldn’t have blamed me. What will Mrs. Nelson think?”
“I told her the truth.”
“The truth is if you weren’t so fat, you could have done it.”
My mother would take a Percocet or a Valium and tell me, “The good die young, so they may not be corrupted. The wicked live on, so they might repent.”
I wonder if, at 83, she remembers that used to be her favorite quote.
When I was helping my brother move my mother, I found pages and pages of notebook paper by her couch. She was writing her own obituary. I felt a stab in my lower stomach, like a cramp before diarrhea sets in. This was all she had to look forward to. And she wouldn’t even be alive to see it.
I have had a lot of therapy. I have tried to diagnose my mother. Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Borderline Personality Disorder? Would she have been a different person if she hadn’t gotten addicted to Percocet, Darvocet, Darvon, Valium, or whatever she could get her hands on? If she had had a smaller family, would she have been able to cope better? Would she have liked me then?
We are all alone—ultimately totally positively alone. I knew that when I gave birth to my children. There was no one who could really help me. I had to do it myself. I felt it again watching my dad die. I couldn’t really help him. All I could do was stay. Witness his pain. His leaving.
I don’t think my mother has ever acknowledged the infinite and sad aloneness of life even though she must sit with it for hours, every day. Your loneliness and mine/Added together/Make one ingenuous loneliness.3“For ...continue She wants to be taken care of. She wants to be cherished. She wants someone to fill the gaping hole of need and want inside her.
Maybe now she wants someone to fill the space where her leg once was.
I cannot sacrifice myself to this voracious need. Not for her. You can’t have me.4“At 24” ...continue
The last time I saw my mother was at my sister’s wedding in 2010. She sat in her wheelchair, oxygen in her nose, her massive purse clutched on her lap. I don’t know what was in the purse. Lots of cash, but I am baffled by what she was going to do with it. It still represents power to her, the money. Even though people were no longer asking for it. Even though she had nothing to spend it on except sweets from the vending machine in the nursing home. Her teeth were gone. There was an open wound on her ankle. Hard to believe this woman once chased my older brother Tracy around with a butcher knife. That is not really my story to tell.
But he was still able to sit in the waiting room while the amputation took place. He is perhaps stronger than I am. He has definitely had less therapy.
“You’ve gained weight,” she said.
“Yes. I have,” I responded.
In 2009 my sister Tonya overdosed on Ambien. My mother demanded to be brought from the nursing home to my sister’s bedside at the hospice. She sat in her wheelchair and picked a fight with my sister Tara. After that, my mother attempted to speak for Tonya and absolve herself of all culpability for Tonya’s suicide. All of this as Tonya lay dying. Tonya had been neglected, verbally abused, and at times literally forgotten by my mother. (Once my mother forgot to get Tonya after her class trip and Tonya had to walk four or five miles home on dirt roads dragging her suitcase. In the dark.) I sat in my chair at my dying sister’s bedside and realized my mother didn’t know what to do. My mother was vicious, but she was made of air. Two out of the seven of her children had tried to commit suicide. I would say that is statistically significant from a parenting standpoint.
Tonya died. That is a small portion of the reason I won’t be in the waiting room if my mother needs her other leg removed.
I remember another thing my mother told me, “You may be a good friend and a good sister, but you’re a horrible daughter.”
I would like to end this essay with a deep insight about learning to mother myself. But insights aren’t much comfort when pieces of the person who gave birth to you keep getting hacked off.
I am less than two hours away from her geographically. I sit here. She sits there. What else can I do? And what else can she do? The last forty-six years have done nothing but prove that we are no good together.
There’s another quote from Cocktail I like, “Anything else is always something better.”
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.5Fitzgerald, F. ...continue
I do not believe in God, angels, redemption or happy endings.
I do believe that not going to see my mother in the nursing home is the most selfish thing I have ever done.
Many thanks to the authors whose quotes I’ve used in this essay.
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|1.||↩||“For Remembering How to Live Without You” Galvin, James. Resurrection Update: Collected Poems, 1975-1997. Print.|
|2.||↩||“I Go Back to May 1937” Olds, Sharon. Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002. New York: Knopf, 2004. Print.|
|3.||↩||“For Remembering How to Live Without You” Galvin, James. Resurrection Update: Collected Poems, 1975-1997. Print.|
|4.||↩||“At 24” McKinney, Irene. Vivid Companion Poems. Morgantown, W. Va.: Vandalia, 2004. Print.|
|5.||↩||Fitzgerald, F. Scott, and Matthew J. Bruccoli. The Great Gatsby. New York, NY: Scribner, 1996. Print.|