In the air, this sweet break from the cold, rivulets down the road with winter dissolving, floats forever ago, a place disappeared, a land where the nights were long, crisp journey’s into another world, where time lasted and spun it’s magic around my ears. This air, reminds me of the warmth in our kitchen, the images of my mother’s hands across my back, on my head, in the sink, dishes clanging as I sat, underfoot, studying the patterns there. This air, it marries us across the years, the me then, the me now, handfasted, tied with thread and IV lines.
This air, it burns my eyes.
Taking advantage of a state of hypomania lasting more than 30 minutes (and explaining away my need for sleeping pills last night) I rip apart the bedroom, old clothes sorted out into a garbage bag, magazines on to the porch, to give away, to save for that day all trash is allowed, anything, maybe even the monkey’s on your back. I shift the bookshelves, notice the “unread” pile has grown to 20 or more books, smile. See my lonely photo album, the only evidence that I had a childhood, somehow tucked under the cat’s sofa, ragged and old.
Rosalyn, who has been “helping me” by laying on the futon and rolling around with Bride Barbie, sees the album and is drawn, as all children seem to be, by these frozen moments trapped.
“That’s me!” she screams at the baby pictures. I find myself correcting her, but not really, so entwined we seem, so much the same, the air between us thin and enraptured, time meaningless. She sees me in full ballet regalia, the hated tutu, the flower hat my mother made that I wasn’t allowed to wear in the recital.
“I want to look like that Mummy.” she mutters, staring intently, eyes boring through the photo. Her grandmother deserved this child, she who loves pink and Barbie and babies and ballet, everything my mother wanted and wished for in a daughter, none of which she got. My mother deserved this granddaughter, who would have made her so proud, so happy, so fulfilled in all the ways I never could. Rosalyn deserved my mother, deserves her still, to embrace her in the ways I cannot, and possibly never should.
I turn, find the one lonely shot of my mother and I, the only picture I have of her holding me, the only one where she’s smiling, where her face isn’t forced for the camera’s or fighting back the pain I know she suffered. She’s gorgeous-my mother was beautiful and I try to show Rosalyn, try to make her understand how lovely and perfect my mother was when I was her age, how I must have crowed “You’re the bestest mumy EVER!” to her in the mornings but I just can’t find the words, all gummed up like marshmallows in my throat and it won’t make any sense, not now.
Possibly not ever. How do you explain an absence to someone who’s never felt it? What’s the point is deciphering that which will never be?
My mother was who she was, and all the things she wasn’t and never would be. She loved me. Maybe I only have one picture and it’s fading and cracking but she’s sitting as I sit now and holding me as I hold my girls and I know, without doubt, her heart glowed for me and shone in the darkness that were her last days.
She loved me. That I can tell Ros. That makes sense.
I point to another shot, curled up in that hideous chair from so long ago, pointed at the television. Shot taken while I was in the grip of the nightly news I imagine, legs pulled under, wearing only underpants, despite my hair being neatly pinned back.
“Ros, who is that?”
She knows it’s me, but waits, looking into my eyes.
“I hated them too, see? No pants. Hated pants.”
“Like me!” she sings, grinning.
“Like you Honey Bear. Just like you.”
The air shimmers, and I can taste the air in that room, liver and onions perhaps, my mother’s ribs, a Sunday dinner of hamburgers, chips and illicit soda. It’s warm and secure and snug around my shoulders like one of those granny square afghans you find in the thrift stores now and again, the work wasted on the receiver, or maybe dead. We’re there together, Ros and I, but it’s her little legs on that chair, my hands holding the warm milky tea and buffing my nails before bed. We’ve merged and danced into each other, my childhood, my memories becoming hers, settling in to a quiet corner where in 10 or 20 years she’ll find herself telling a story about a little girl in a room full of amber light and love and they’ll never be able to tell what’s mine and what’s hers or where it’s all gone.
They’ll never know for sure.
It breaks my heart to never know my mother. I’ll stare at her eyes in photographs, thinking I’ll know the secret if I look at her long enough, that somehow, I’ll absorb enough of her to really know my mother, for her to mean something more than the sum of her loss.
But you can’t know the dead. You can’t know the people they were-you can only wave to the people you want them to be, the people you think they were once, before everything happened. I can stare at her face, the before face, the one before the chemo and the radiation and the pain, the pain of knowledge, the pain of leaving, the pain of facing your life ending, a plane crashing into so many lives. I can’t know that. I’ll never know that in the ways that kept her up at night or guarded her eyes as the days grew closer.
I will never know my mother. She will be that perfect garden in a picture, all beauty and tragedy, curves and angles, youth and hope. She will be annectodal memories for my daughters, the one we cannot hurt, the one who lives forever in our hearts and fingertips and the glittering spring leaves in the broad maple behind the house.
The one that got away.
She was happy once, that I can convince myself of, even when I stare at a face yellowed by treatment, frightened by what might come, and yet absolutely resolute in her ability to ignore what will be. Hope via ignorance. How very catholic of her.
She was happy once. God fucking dammit, she was happy, and alive and beautiful and she was my mother. Sometimes the air arches back and around, like today, and I imagine her, young, like I am, newly blessed with children, just breathing in the air, glad to be alive, remembering when she was young, and all the stories she’d some day tell.
She was happy there.