My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue
An everlasting vision of the ever changing view
A wondrous woven magic in bits of blue and gold
A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold
-from Tapestry by Carole King
I have often asked myself the reason for the sadness
In a world where tears are just a lullaby
If there’s any answer, maybe love can end the madness
Maybe not, oh, but we can only try
-from Beautiful by Carole King
I had lunch this week with a co-worker and my sister (who is also now a co-worker). This co-worker was in from out of town to help us out with our new venture and he is really more of a co-worker/friend/family-friend/family-member than just someone we work with. He worked with my father more than thirty years ago and has worked for my family for almost twenty years now. He has known me since I was a child. He has known my brother and sister practically since they were born. He sat across the office from my mother for more than a decade. Shared stories. Laughed together. Drove each other mad at times. He and his wife have vacationed with my parents and they have discussed more than I will ever know. He knows my mother and father as well as I do, simply in a different way. He and I can sit or stand for hours and talk about our lives, even though we are philosophically/religiously/politically on different planets. He is like the cousin or uncle I don’t have. More than a co-worker.
When he came up to train us on some procedures and processes, time was wasted with talking, with laughing, with commiserating. We went to lunch, the three of us, and we looked out at the San Leandro marina, at the sunshine, at the boats as they swayed gently on the water. We were talking, as we often do when the three of us are together, about my mother. This friend has been and is, still to this day, one of the few people she consistently lets into her life, sometimes the only one from before who gets access without severe berating. He brought my mother food week after week when we, the ‘true’ family, were not allowed in, when she didn’t have the energy to get food for herself. He is the one constant, for my mother, in these years of madness.
He asked my sister if she had visited my mother when she was in town the weekend before. She had. To introduce her fiancé. To spend time with her, again, now that my sister is about to become a mother herself. My sister has seen my mother a few times in the last couple of months. I have not.
How is she? he asks. He hasn’t seen her in a while, either. The same, my sister says. She and I have discussed this visit already. And so I listen as she tells him – she’s not showering, she’s still not leaving that room, she’s not angry, she’s happy to see my sister, her fiancé expected worse. It’s different, we all agree, when you knew her before, when you can see the difference. When you love her. It stings differently when she is your mother, your friend, your family. When the change is so glaring that it sucks every molecule of air from the room if you don’t walk in with reserves, with a lung full of gasped outside air to protect you.
She made a joke, my sister says. This I hadn’t heard yet. My sister’s fiancé mentioned being afraid of sharks. My mother said, you just have to listen for the song. And then she hummed the Jaws theme. A small joke. My mother. In there still. We laugh, as my sister and her fiancé and my mother did. I feel lighter thinking about that, a glimmer of the woman we know. It cracks in my heart, though, too. Such a small thing to be so happy about. A sign of what we’ve lost when the tiniest bit of humor is reassuring. And, maybe, hopefully not, but probably, a sign of what might be brewing.
My mother always ramps up in the fall. Her manias and depressions working in contrast with the seasons. As the days grow colder and darker, my mother’s energy level rises and rises. Until six years ago, that was just how she was. Now it is a full-speed acceleration into mania. As the days grow longer, as the blooms bud on branches, my mother slows down, falls deeper into inertia. If we’re lucky, the mania lasts one season. If it doesn’t, as with the last one, we have to wait a full cycle of seasons for the earth to pull her back down. Fall used to be my favorite season (and still is in all of those old ways: cooler air, new beginnings, pulling out sweaters and socks and jeans) but now it is a time full of anxiety, of anticipation, of bracing for the storm, of detecting signs and reading into things. So we can be prepared. So we are not caught off guard ever again.
As my laughter waned, in that small pocket of time it takes to laugh, I had travelled all of this in my mind. Relief and the smallest anxiety over a simple joke. There was the shortest of silences as, I imagine, we all remembered something hilarious my mother had said, the way her blue blue eyes would squint and glow with just the right joke.
Then this family-friend/co-worker said: So this weekend is the anniversary. You remember? When it happened.
Oh. Yes. I guess it is. I actually said: Thanks, I hadn’t yet made the connection this year and then raised my eyebrows in mock irritation.
I would have remembered. No doubt. But I froze for the briefest of instants and traveled back in my mind. Yes. Labor Day Weekend. My mother’s behavior rose to an unbearable level of irrationality over that long weekend five years ago, my sister and I more than 700 miles away and completely oblivious until it all came to a head on the Tuesday morning after Labor Day.
Right. The anniversary. The holiday that came crashing down in a flurry of rushed flights and handcuffs and stretchers wheeled into mental health units. Into the kind of panic that builds in your body like a dark grey hurricane just spinning and spinning until you aren’t sure skin and viscera is enough to hold it in. Into the kind of shock that is still causing tide-like ripples in our family. In our hearts. In our minds. I am not giving up personal responsibility for my own life when I say that I am only now, so many years later, starting to be able to fully face and stare down the ways that this event has altered who I am, who I will be, how I act when I feel the hole of this event come open in me, even to this day. Only now. Only barely.
I don’t really remember how I spent that Labor Day. I am almost sure I would have been off of work Monday. Or I would have at least worked a short day. I came back to work early Tuesday – in the dark hour of 5am – to open the cafe. I would have spent the first half-hour backflushing the espresso machine, testing shots, filling the pastry case, grinding coffee, swinging chairs off of table tops and pushing them under, neatly. I would have finally sat down in the back room at some point after 6am, after we opened. I would have held my tiny double Americano in my hand and turned on my computer. I would have logged onto the world wide web and opened my email, opened facebook, opened my eyes as wide as possible to try to stretch the sleep out of them. I would surely have thought about crawling back into bed, pulling the covers up over my shoulders, feeling the warmth of my dogs’ small bodies – one nestled up against my stomach, one up against the backs of my knees.
I may have even had to stand up and serve someone coffee before I made my way back to my computer and saw the early morning email from my mother. An oddity. Unexpected. I would have opened that email and read the handful of sentences once, twice, at least three times before the words sunk in. They made little sense. Some sort of amazing plan. We would be set. Oprah would even want to talk to us. We wouldn’t have to live so far apart and work so hard and us kids wouldn’t have so little. We would be set.
My brain churned it, quickly and between customers. My mind tried to make sense of what it could realistically be. A contest? The lottery? Some other improbable landfall that would make this all real. My gut and my heart twisted. Something was wrong. But what. She was so excited. She sounded so energized, even electronically, even pulled apart pixel by pixel and sent sailing through the invisible air. Something was wrong.
Before I could wrap my mind around it, the phone rang. At work at 6-something in the morning. That could only mean my second shift barista was sick or late or generally not going to make it on time. It was my mother. Talking fast. Not making total sense, but not sounding ridiculous either. At least not at first. Don’t tell your dad, he won’t understand. He’s really being such an asshole about it all. But it’s gonna change everything. You can do whatever you want. We can all live together, wherever we want. There was more. Oprah. Custom scrapbooking as a multimillion dollar venture. Big houses and lovely locales. So easy. So sure.
I felt my stomach curl around itself and settle deep into my abdomen. I felt my heart wrench itself into a tight little knot and start beating against itself, the echo of a heartbeat taking what felt like seconds to reach my ribcage. I could feel my feet anchor to the painted concrete floor and my hand grip the cordless handset until my knuckles ached. Something was very wrong.
But Mom, how can that be? But Mom, those books cost us hundreds of dollars in supplies and tens of hours of work. But Mom, what is the actual plan? But Mom.
And then she hung up. After telling me I was always so fucking negative. I could never be positive and just supportive. I was always so god damned difficult. And then just the dial tone. And my finger on the talk button and my arm reaching to set the phone back on top of the microwave. And then work. Take money. Fill cup. Take money. Pull shots. Smile. Think. What to do. Who to call. What in the crazy fucking world is going on? Am I here? Is this real?
I worked. Until 6:30 when my barista sidekick came in. And then I emailed my aunt. I knew she would be awake and at work. I knew she would just tell me everything was fine and something truly amazing was in the works because why would my mom lie about that, why would she be so excited over something not real? She emailed me back. Said she was going to call. And she did.
There’s something very wrong.
Much of that conversation is a blur. My aunt was in Texas. My sister and I were in Portland. The rest of the family was in California. The triangle closed in on me. I could feel it like a too-tight scarf wrapping around my neck, pressing against my throat. My mother and father and a few longtime family friends had spent the holiday weekend at the cabin. Where my mother spiralled and spiralled out of control (after a slow upslope that my dad hoped was going to level out and so hadn’t mentioned). Where she didn’t sleep. Where she made almost no sense and showed no reason. Where she demanded that everyone sing karaoke at whatever hour she decided. Where she tried to direct the entire weekend, snapping between jovial and angry and incredibly irritated. In my mind I saw – and still see – my mother standing on the coffee table, microphone in hand, singing, yelling, in any number of familiar loose, floral-print dresses she would have had on, with eyes I only actually saw later that Tuesday, eyes only made real while visiting in a mental ward of the public hospital that is only a half-block from my high school, crazy eyes.
I don’t understand.
Call your dad.
My mother had been depressed for several months from the beginning of the year into summer. My dad had done what she asked and had not told us until he was so worried he just couldn’t keep it to himself anymore. He had finally, finally, finally convinced her to see a doctor and she had started taking an antidepressant. When the family came to visit Portland in August, she seemed close to herself. Almost there. We were so relieved, so hopeful. It had been her first clinical depression and we didn’t see this coming – at least not in advance.
I don’t understand.
By the time I got my dad on the phone, he was at the house with my brother and this family-friend/co-worker and they had to do the unthinkable (what she may always see as unforgivable): call 911. She was off the edge. She was telling workers at the house that she was going to kill herself. She was writing notes that made little or no sense, scurrying around the house, ranting and raving. She was refusing to get help. She was refusing. No way. No fucking way. They thought she would die.
By the time I could get my sister on the phone, by the time we could hurriedly book flights home, by the time I could secure work coverage and a plan – my mother was face down on the walkway in front of her house, was wrestled to the ground after telling the officers that she had a gun in her pocket, was put into a squad car and taken in for a 5150 hold, as my father watched, as my brother watched, as this family(friend) watched, as their hearts and muscles and eyes and hands did things I can only imagine – contractions and twitches and aches that the body remembers always, even when we try to forget, even when our brains succeed at forgetting.
I drove to my girlfriend’s work to tell her in person. Called her on the phone to come out to the parking lot so I could sob and try to push words out through hysteria in some sort of illusion of privacy. I picked up my sister and we went to the airport. We went through security and sat in chairs and waited and then boarded and then flew. Somehow.
I’ve come to think that shock is not so much what happens in the moment, but the way that time warps around us during and after and squeezes the memories of life’s most shocking events until only the sparest of details are left. We live the details. We do. Not numb, really, just wobbly and lost. And then shock comes in, like the cleaner and erases whole chunks of what happened from our minds, helps us forget the facts of every aching second. But those details are stored – in our muscles, in our organs, in our skin, in our nostrils. And so it comes back, in (mostly) manageable pieces in the most unexpected of times. All other times, though, we are left with the outline, with a foggy train of events, with A led to D led to K led to Y (but where do G and F go, I can’t remember, and what is this X and where does it fit in?). A skeleton of pain that is much lighter to carry than the bodybag of grief we can’t possibly drag around with us day to day.
What came next is a lot of things. Hours of things. Days of things. Years of things.
We visited my mother in the ‘hospital’. She said I’m fine when I asked how she was. She looked at me with the widest, most electrically charged eyes I had ever seen in her sockets and tried to convince me nothing was wrong. I saw my father cry – loudly, violently, so tragically – for the first time ever in my life and I was nearly knocked to the ground by the sight of it, by the sheer pain that sparked in my body. We stood and waited and talked to doctors and watched as they put her on a stretcher and into an ambulance to transfer her late at night to an in-patient facility that would hold her for whatever part of the 72 hour hold she would complete. She made a joke, a characteristically disparaging one, about my dad’s inability to do anything right as he handed her a fountain soda while she was being wheeled on the stretcher. He had bought a too-large drink – a bucket of soda, as we called it in the family – and he really should have known better. We laughed. Even my dad. Because it was her – for the briefest of moments, she was there, however mean, however callous. It was her.
More happened. Even in just the few days that followed. More than I have space and time to say here, now. An argument at a yard sale where my mother tried to buy everything, tried to buy a used leopard thong, a broken sink, a whole porcelain tub. Me talking through the woman’s daughter as she translated into Spanish that my mother was sick, that we wouldn’t be back, that she hadn’t just hit the yardsale jackpot. A fight at my brother’s house where she nearly stormed off. Babysitting her, essentially, and thinking of the segment from the Twilight Zone Movie where all of the adults are tiptoeing around that demanding boy lest he hurt them, all of us dancing around my mother so as to not set her off, so as to not send her running, so as to not hear her say something so hurtful that we might cry and unleash a string of actions we had no way of anticipating. So as to try to coax her into taking medication.
So much more happened.
Those things are for a much bigger space, for something I am not yet ready to really write. They are right here, in my cells, in my pores, waiting to surface and be named. So much more in such a long (and short) time.
For now, I am left with what is here, in all of its disconnected detail (still, maybe always). And this odd anniversary. That has become enmeshed with a holiday with a ridiculously ironic and maternal name. Labor Day. Really. I couldn’t have made that up. And even though the crash came immediately after the holiday, it is Labor Day itself that rings for me, that holds the weight of what has happened. The last day I had without this reality. A lazy, quiet Monday spent in the world I had known, before everything twirled and twirled and twirled like a toy ballerina whose rough edged plastic turnkey knob was wound too tight, whose batteries were charged too long, whose tutu spun around and lifted and lifted and lifted until she was hovering above us, a pink tulle helicopter of a woman. The true quiet before the wail. My life as I had come to know it. As it would not be again.
This holiday has snuck up on me most years. Last year it whispered past me while my own daily world was catapulted to the forefront, while the constant hum of missing my mother sang through Labor day and the day after, as I acknowledged it briefly, quietly, barely able to make room for that pain in the contracted muscle of my upturned present and my uncertain future as it was last year.
But here I am, at year five, reminded. While eating ricotta stuffed tortellini laced with what felt to my burning mouth like a million tiny red chili flakes. While my sister nodded her head, slowly. While I wondered what ran through her mind. As this family(friend) lowered his chin slightly and was, I am sure, lost in a memory of my mother, as she was, as he knew her before. He loves her, too, and so feels what we do, in waves, in stories, in dates none of us can forget.
And the reminder is begrudgingly welcome. I am trying, in earnest these days, to not be surprised by these things, by the feelings that rise, by the actions that follow the rising. Just recently, in the briefest of moments, in the littlest of possible ways, I crossed over a self-imposed stricture immediately after having a heartfelt discussion with a long, long time childhood friend about my mother. After feeling that dark deep hole start to sway, start to puddle, start to reach its edges out and out and out. I was surprised (and not at all shocked) by the way I tiptoed, consciously and soberly and beguilingly, over that line. I knew immediately that A had followed B. I didn’t know in time. Not in enough time to remember that the emptiness talking about my mother can create is never filled by attention and desire and smiles – that none of that feels like love and comfort for more than a moment. I am trying. So hard.
So I am relieved to be putting my feet in this water early. To meet this weekend with the kind of direct eye contact that will not send me sailing into unsafe waters before I even know I’ve taken off my shoes and rolled up my pant legs. Mother, I love you. I always always will. I love who you were. Even the parts I really didn’t like. Even the parts that were hardest to hold.
And. I love you now. Even when I am not seeing you. Even when I can’t bear it. Even when I think maybe I can’t bear the guilt of not bearing it. I love you. Even as you are.
I am surprised to find, at this age, that the biggest task of my thirties and maybe my forties and (hopefully not) my fifties (maybe beyond), isn’t going to be whatever I might have imagined or dreamed or predicted for myself as a child or a teen or as a twenty-something. Whatever I had imagined or guessed would be this time in my life when I was only just beginning to be able to realistically imagine life beyond blind, bold, frustrated and comical youth – where I thought I might be is a distant trip away from where I have landed.
The task will be this: reconciling the mother I have with the mother I had, reckoning my own behavior with the tangled roots that feed the organs and the muscles and the brain that do those things (that continue to do those things), finding a peace with the no-sense and mystery of what I can’t possibly ever fully know or understand, loving something that seems impossible to love and yet is just that: my first and most primal love. Mother is no joke, no small word. I am of her flesh. I was assembled, made from what was essentially nothing, washed in water and grown to breathe in the stretched out cavity of her torso. Whether by nature or nurture – or, as I find virtually undeniable: by both – I am my mother’s daughter. I am of her and by her and, even when I wish I weren’t, a haunting replica of her in so many ways.
So, Mom, I love all of these things about you. As you are and were and have always been, layer by layer, mood by mood, loving hug by distant silence.
I am you when I fight, when I am hurt. Less so now. But it took all thirteen years of my marriage to climb out of the ways I knew how to be, to have the help of someone who loved me deeply that could say: look, here, you’re doing it again. It took work to not be trapped in that. And to see you change, little bit by little bit, in similar ways so that I could know that I could, for sure, unbutton that way to be and stretch out my arms. Because the inside of that coat is the lining we will always wear, you and I, the certainty that we are often right, even if only about how we feel, about how it feels, about what we know. We are often certain of so much, sure in so many ways. We are women who are not quiet. We do not defer. We do not pretend to not know. We do not ask permission to be ourselves or to say what we think (and, for me, feel).
I can cut with words. Intentionally and not. I can wound with sarcasm that doesn’t always realize it has six different serrated edges. I know those edges because I was raised by you. And you cut. But no one in the family can make us laugh in quite the same way (although we are all funny, if I do say so myself, because we are your children). There are no family gatherings that have the exact same comedic edge I came to expect, came to feel was really our birthright, our way of living in the moment, now that you are absent from them. We laugh, lots, but it is missing something, always. I learned to joke through everything – even the wrong times – but especially the right times, the most necessary times, the times that keep me from collapsing to the floor with the horror of it all. Because you are funny, Mom. And witty. And able to cut through a dull moment with the sharpest of stings, through the tensest of moments with the pointiest clip, the bitingest line. We are women who laugh, loud. Even when maybe we shouldn’t.
I care for people, I want to help them, treat them well. Because you do. Inside that snarky, almost-mean exterior is a bleeding heart mama-bear who wants to take care of everyone. I ache when I can’t fix a friend or lover or sibling’s problem because you would ache, too. I care about people I don’t know because you always did – quietly and faithfully. I was a full-grown adult before I got even the tiniest inkling of the money you gave away, loaned, sailed off to family and friends in need even when it might not have been fiscally wise. But especially when you could. I am fierce for my friends, for my family, for the people I gather around me because we both are – you and I. We will stare down anyone if it is for those we love. Even when we won’t do it for ourselves. We are women to be reckoned with when crossed. We will not shy away. I know that is still you, even when misdirected. Because even in your craziest moments, you were trying to make life better for us all, your delusions were full of ease and comfort for us – the people you love.
I have learned to grasp on to those I love even if I have lost them before because I was there when you left me (when you will say I left you) and I was there when you reached out, however tentatively, years later and then didn’t let go until it was out of your control. I know that broken things can be fixed. That love is the kind of river that dredges up mud and still it feeds you. I learned everything I know, in that deep below-the-dermis sense, about moving beyond and getting past from you, from your willingness to, if not actually apologize and accept your role in things, show up time after time after time even though our worlds had been seemingly irrevocably severed. I know how to suck it up and keep on loving because you did it, with me, and you let me do it, with you. However many biting comments and time-tested, well-worn barbs you threw – you were there, my mother, loving and fierce. And you still will open that door, when I can knock on it, because we will love each other in the most intense ways, forever. It’s who we are.
I know I am smart. Because you are. And you never pretended you were not. I know that my smarts are not from books because yours were not. And you are brilliant and bright. I know I am smart even without the drive to understand, to read, to know big words and big concepts, even without my too-many-years of education. Because you always told me I was, no matter what other faults you laid on my head. I was smart. Too smart – to behave that way, to throw opportunities away, to drink or drug myself into oblivion. You fought for me, held me tight, when other mothers didn’t know how. In ways I hated. In ways that saved me. You pushed me to go to college, made it possible, you believed in me even when you also felt I was putting on airs, thinking I was smarter than everyone else. I do think that, Mom. Sometimes I do. Because you think it, too, about yourself. Because you are smart. And you raised me to own my intelligence. To know that about myself.
I know how to survive. This. Other things. Because you have survived. This. But so many other things, too. Because, early on, you survived me. My father. A trashed dream of the happy teenage family, of escaping your own home to build a more beautiful, stable one. Of what looked to any outsider like what it was: the ridiculous fantasy of a girl who found herself in love and accidentally pregnant. The humiliation of being loudly reprimanded for being late to school because you couldn’t get a ride and you had to put me on the bicycle and get me to a sitter and then pedal your way to class. Because you made it through dropping out and barely being able to feed me while working and working and working to make of your life what you had wanted, without the help of the man who helped to make me. Made it through to work hard. To expect nothing but what you can make. To soldier through. To be tough. To love, but also to stand stiff and rigid if a swaying walk will only make you trip. We are women who know how to be stubborn, really stubborn. And how to live. To keep on living. Even now, when you cling to the ill-conceived ways of no medication, when you lack the will to do much of anything. You eat. Just enough to survive. You wake. You breathe. You keep going. And that gives me hope. However small. Hope.
As Labor day arrives and with it my fears that this current depression is gearing up into another unmedicated mania, as I think of the ways I am you (in so many ways), as I face this life I have for living – I think of you, mother, and what I owe you. The now you. The you you have become.
As I take this extra day off in the week. As I plan too many projects. As I sleep too late and stay up too late. As I push down that spiral of panic that churns in my gut as fall approaches, as the days shorten and your energy level undoubtedly rises. As I hear the Jaws theme in that particular tone of your voice, as I smile and cringe at that sound. As I brace for what might come. As I look at your picture, at any given age, on any given shelf in any given room of the house, I will send you love. And gratitude. For what I never wanted to learn. What I never needed to know, but do. For all the ways I am, or am not. All the things I say and think and feel.
You have shaped me, from the first moment I was simply a mass of whirling cells until this moment that I am muddling through. On into the rest of my life. My love for you – as you were, as you are, as (hope willing) you will be – is a substance inside my blood, coursing through every bit of me, pulsing and fragile and necessary. You are as much me as I am myself. From before I needed breath until after. On this day, on this weekend, on this eve of what another year into this will bring – all of my love, to you, in the broken ways I know how to give it, in the hobbled ways you know how to receive it. Love.