Photo and skulls by Beth Ramsey

The feeling hit me like an industrial bag of flour tossed off of the back of a pick-up when I wasn’t paying attention.  I definitely wasn’t looking.  I didn’t even hear it coming.  I was busy feeling bad for all sorts of other reasons and then whap.  I wanted my mother.  I wanted to be able to dial the phone and talk to her. Not the mom I could actually call.  The mom I used to have – as imperfect and human as she was. I needed her – in what felt like a very physical way and for no clear reason I could discern.  The need was just there – large and wanting – and I began to break down.

I woke up that morning feeling a little off.  Nowadays, I am more apt to ascribe that to some sort of emotional cause than to a flu or cold or allergy overload.  I assume that as I get going, as I start to work or to play or whatever I have planned for that day, that the off feeling will dissipate as long as I don’t allow it to take over.  But by the time I got to work and logged in to my computer, opened the required programs and settled in to get some shit done, my stomach was cramping.  I still could not be sure it was something real – something not stress related – and so I tried to ignore it.  I play the symptomatic chicken or egg game a lot lately – am I really physically ill or am I letting myself get so tired and stressed out that I just think I’m getting sick?

Within about three hours of being at work, I was feeling worse and all I could think about was going home, going upstairs, taking off my shoes, peeling off my work clothes and then climbing into bed, pulling my down comforter loose from the foot of the bed and swaddling it around me to create a cozy little pocket to fall asleep in.   As I pushed through the wrenching of my stomach and the questioning in my brain and the nearly overwhelming desire to magically transport myself to my bed, I was overcome by the need for my mom.  Inexplicable. Unexpected.  Overpowering.

My arm actually ached to reach for the phone on my desk.  It hurt to not allow my hand to move to pick up the handset. So I cried.  At my desk.  Alone.  I am the only one at my work on Mondays and it is simultaneously lonely, lovely, and very productive to be the only person on all three floors. For the most part, I show up when I want, do what I decide needs to be done, play whatever music at whatever volume and don’t have to deal with a lot of unexpected shit.  Until the ghost of my mother past shows up.

When my eyes filled up, I realized someone had used the last tissue out of the box of Kleenex on my desk.  And just left the empty box.  Don’t they know I cry? Don’t they know that’s rude? I had to get up and grab a tissue from the lobby.  But I didn’t go upstairs and get another box. I was not going to keep crying.  I was entering checks into our insurance billing system and I opened my eyes very wide to try to read the detailed information.  I blinked several times to look at the corresponding information on my monitor.  I got up and got one more tissue. If I could just really dry my eyes out, I’d be fine.  I tried to focus again.  I started to cry.  Again.

Dammit. What is this about?  I was busy being sad about plenty of other things and then  . . . this sadness.  It’s not like I don’t miss her all the time.  Not like I don’t think about her all the time.  Even when having fun, even though I’m having fun – the void of her is like a low volume hum underneath all of the other sounds of my life.  Even though she’s alive.  Even though she’s not dead.  There’s still the void.

I think, as I’m trying to stop crying, that it must be because I was sad about other stuff. Because my stomach was hurting.  Because I didn’t feel well.  That the void grew arms and smacked me upside the head.  I was too distracted, my guard was too low, to see it coming before it was too late.  Mom.  I need you.  Even though whatever I have to tell you right now, you wouldn’t really approve of.  Even though you really would not sympathize, not really. Well, except for the sick part. You would give me that.

But you would love me.  You would listen.  And you would be the only person I know who has known me since before I was born.  Who held me to you when I wouldn’t sleep.  Who drove me around the block, over and over, even though you could not afford the gas it took to lull me to sleep.  Who distracted me when my father didn’t come home – and years later when he didn’t ever show to pick me up like he was supposed to.  Who drove me to the hospital to see him when he broke both of his legs in a car accident.  The one who dressed me every month during that first year of my life in the best outfit I had and redeemed the free 8×10 from Olan Mills even though you couldn’t afford to buy any of the other pictures.

The one who left my dad because he was no good for either of us.  Who worked and worked and worked to pay our bills and took me to work with you when I was sick because you couldn’t afford not to. Who sat rapt and anxious waiting for the final scene of Carrie during my 10th birthday slumber party.  Who reeled back in her chair doubling over with laughter at how far our young bodies jumped when that hand appeared out of the ground. Who married the man that I call Dad, the one who would have taken my call that day had the need been for him, who would have certainly been there to listen.  I don’t miss a perfect mom.  I don’t miss a mom I did not have.  I miss the one I no longer have – in all of her distant, difficult, stubbornly loving ways.

Three years ago, when I thought my relationship was at an end (and maybe it should have been, but I am a stick-with-it gal, a real work-through-it lady – or became one, anyway, in my old age) – when I was devastated and could hardly breathe through the gasping tears, I called my mom.  I shocked even myself.  If you had asked me before that moment, I would have listed at least two or three friends I would have called first.  But what happened, what I truly needed in that moment, was to tell my mom and my dad.  I cried to her and told her what was going on.   She said whatever she knew how to say – nothing too sappy or Hallmark-y or after-school-special-y.  I don’t remember what she said because it doesn’t matter.  She was there.  At the other end.  For me.  And she’d already gone crazy, but was medicated, so we were all hopeful that things could go back to close to normal, to more like they had been. I remember even worrying that the stress of my situation might be too much for her, but I needed her and hoped that, for her, being there for me would balance out any ill effects to her mental health.  And it helped. I felt better.

This time, there wasn’t one thing.  And I haven’t been able to call her for a long time.  But that Monday, I had some sense that just hearing her voice, just telling her how sad I was about having to take the steps to act on a  really hard decision, that just doing that would make me feel better, would lift a weight. As I sat at work crying, trying not to cry, even turning my Pandora station to something so unsentimental, so uncheesy that surely I would stop crying (but did not), I was terrified that I just wouldn’t stop.  The phone rang and I tried to swallow my tears, clear my throat, sound normal.

Seriously – what the hell? I had at least a few things that had to be done and I really wanted to stop crying and finish them quickly so I could go home.  I also wanted to eat, finally, four hours into my shift, but was afraid to – I am very much not a fan of throwing up at work.  Being sick like that in a ‘public’ toilet is a lot like the pie eating contest scene in Stand By Me – it just makes it all much, much worse.  So I tried to swallow my tears.  I took deep breaths.  I opened my eyes wide and let the last of the tears air dry.  Damn it – it’s not like she disappeared from my life yesterday.

As I’ve gotten older, as I’ve gathered more and more loss around me, I’ve thought about it – a lot.  Even my writerly obsession in fiction has always centered around the hole that missing a person leaves in one’s life. I don’t really believe the time heals all wounds line.  I think wounds heal.  Mostly.  And loss isn’t even a wound outside of the fact that it cuts us open and we have to figure out how to close it, even if only a little. But all time does is give us enough, well, time, to try different ways of dealing with it. We learn to live with the hum, to hear it and feel the vibration of it and still function. We figure out how to stand back up, quit collapsing to the floor, and work or eat or sleep or live.  But loss and grief are always there. Occasionally, they sneak up on you and take your breath away.

Time doesn’t make us stop missing people – we just figure out how to live with that missing.  How to not be knocked down by the weight of it.  How to think of that person without gasping and sobbing in aisle three at the grocery store.  How to see someone who reminds you of that person and be sad, but not devastated.  How to start to see the world around you again.  I don’t even know that the wound scars so much as it scabs over and stays like that – enough cover that a small gust of wind doesn’t sting, that a drop of lemon juice as you squeeze it into your glass doesn’t burn, enough that stepping into a hot shower doesn’t make you cringe – but not so much that you don’t still have to be careful if you scrape up against something rough, if you find yourself scratching at it, making it bleed.

Part of what was so disorienting about this recent experience is how unexpected it was.  That I couldn’t make sense of it in the moment.  When I see someone who reminds me of my mom, I know instantly why I miss her.  When I see her looking back at me in a picture of myself, it’s clear why I am jarred. When I find out something I know my mom would think is hilarious or wish I could call her for a very specific recipe or memory – it makes sense that I feel that void opening up inside of me. But in the middle of this blindside, I began to feel a cloud of fear growing inside of me.

I was starting to envision all the voids – all the losses, all the things I have given up and am trying to force myself to give up – as black holes, individual holes inside of me to be dealt with.  This is not a new image for me – in some ways it helps me contain these losses, these voids, so that they feel manageable.  What made me start to lose my breath was the thought that having too many of these holes, letting one or two take up too much space that morning, was allowing the walls between them all to become thinner, so thin that they were all merging and opening up into one giant nothing, one deep emptiness.  Like all the other voids got too close to the black hole in my heart that used to be my mother and opened up into one dark, sad universe.

As I fought off that feeling, as I tried to convince myself that I was not losing that battle, I remembered that it was Día de los Muertos.  I was aware of the date on the way to work and I had been reminded of the holiday about an hour into work, but it had filtered through my brain and moved on.  Trying again to stop the tears, to dry my eyes out enough to finish – I realized that I have begun to imagine a sugar skull lately when I think of my mother, when I think of her face.  I see a beautiful, grotesque fragile skull painted in bright colors – so lovely and garish.  A striking face without flesh but full of color, susceptible to collapse if dropped, if handled too roughly, if soaked in water. My mother, the one I used to have.

Months ago, I had pondered making an altar for my mom, for the old mom that I needed to mourn, needed to let go of.  I decided against it for many reasons.  One of which is that I would feel like I was co-opting another tradition too blatantly – not only taking it for myself, but turning it on its side.  Another of which was that I, superstitiously, didn’t want to make an altar for a person who is, after all, still alive.  Since my mother has become more fragile, more volatile, more dangerously straddling the line between the living and the dead, I find myself more and more superstitious about anything that might tempt fate.  If I see a crack and if the step on a crack game pops into my head, I don’t step on the crack.  I suck certain jokes or sarcastic comments right back into my mouth before they fully leave my brain, as though I can reverse even the thought with enough air intake. I’m not going to mourn her on a day for the dead until she is not alive.

But here I was.  Doing that whether I wanted to or not.  I wasn’t mourning the mother that is still here, alive, reachable (if not really reachable). I was mourning the woman who kept me alive against so many reckless odds. The woman who asked me once, as a teen, as a girl running wild who said she didn’t care about living, if I needed a hug or something but said it with the stiffest of arms at her side, the grimmest of faces, the flattest of tones.  The woman who called me every week when I moved away from home and would send me my favorite snacks with Post-it notes asking if I was OK, if I needed money – love and care in a tidy, practical 3×3 format. The woman who came back into my life when I had given up any real hope of that ever happening and said We’re not going to have to talk about all of that, right?  The woman who didn’t graduate high school and dropped out of college and stood beside me in my cap and gown when I finished college and smiled, really smiled, a proud mama in that moment – proud of me and for me, for what I fought against achieving and then went ahead and did.  The woman who would have died for me a hundred times (or for my brother or my sister) even if she almost never knew how to say that or show it.  My mom.

And that woman is still in there somewhere.  Somewhere. Somehow she can fit in the body that keeps shrinking.  In the eyes that seem to get faster and bigger.  In the mind that keeps swinging and yelling and cursing and railing against level.  For now, though, that mom’s not taking any calls.  Even if I really, really want her to. Even if in a moment of weakness I am overcome by the need for her to tell me that she loves me.  On this day to remember your loved ones who are gone, I do.  I remember her and I need her but she isn’t there.  I remember: all the good things and all the ways that she was imperfect, but still mine. 

 I do take this day to try to let go of the hope that I can call that mother again, that things will ever be quite what they were.  I paint a lovely skull in my mind of the woman I did have for the first twenty-three years of my life and then, almost magically, for a few years in my thirties.  I light a candle in my heart for the woman I miss.  The woman who would hug me, if I really, really needed it – and when you do, when you do really need it, that is enough. For the one person in my life who has created my body – limb by limb – and so much of my heart, so much of my laughter and joy, so much of who I have come to be, whether she intended to or not.  

Photo and skulls by Beth Ramsey
I say a prayer, for her, but mostly for me – for my broken heart and the things I don’t get to have. For the strength to be my own mother – like so many people I know and so I pray for them, too. A prayer that doesn’t ask time to heal or for someone to take away the pain. A prayer that most days the longing does not overwhelm us, that we find ways to miss them without all of the tears, without all of the pain. To be able to remember the good without the missing it winning out. It will be there – the missing – it’s not going to heal. The missing is not a wound – it is a fact – a tangible part of us, like a second viscera, part of what holds us together.  Loss becomes a physical piece of our bodies that will never go away. So I sit with it and try to bury the hope that it will vanish, bury the hope for a different mom, for my old mom, for what does not exist. To stop wanting what is dead. La madre muerta. The remembered mother. I pray for all of us parentless children and child-lost mothers, those who have lost friends and siblings. A sweet, colorful, fragile prayer for all of us who miss. Para nosotros, el corazón fuerte y recuerdos amor.