Saturday, 7 July 2018

Girls like you

Reading: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (Signet Classics) with an Introduction by Stephen King
Listening to: "Girls Like You" by Maroon 5
Outside: Crispy, charred dandelions. Yellow grass. Angelic clouds.

As we boil through a summer the UK hasn't seen since The Bronze Age (?) I sweat at my laptop keyboard. I submit myself to another day of waiting.

I am doing everything I can not to lose my mind.

I listen to "Girls Like You" on repeat for the five hundredth time. Something about this song and music video feeds me. I drink up these women and Adam Levine's tattoos. I love the camera's revolutions around and around, these women and the ways in which they have impacted the world. I love their revolutions: Athletes, politicians, singers, actors. These women are authors, bloggers, life-changers. They breathe deeply and Make Things Happen - Olympic gold medalists, comedians questioning the status quo, and Ilhan Omar, Minnesota's first Somali-American Muslim legislator - and here they are, dancing on a stage with Adam Levine (whose deliciously gory role in American Horror Story: Asylum made me a forever fan).

I measure my days in loads of laundry, in sun-drenched school runs, in shifts at work. I have cooked meals, allowing myself to enjoy it (I am not the domestic type - as a child I bridled against anything Ladylike. I was - thankfully - rarely chained to the kitchen's countertop or to the making of meals; I was uncaged to run through the woods like one of those wild, soapless kids in Lord of the Flies). I stand in my grown-up sweltering kitchen, feeling that cool breeze waft and I turn to make sure the pan doesn't boil over; I try to let domesticity soak into my pores, if only for twenty minutes. I have kept myself busy during my journey to traditional publishing. I have a literary agent who has said those magic words: This is going to be great. My journey continues. Here is the hardest part.

So, one step below the summit of this mountain I've climbed since March of 2010, I wait, knowing there will be a rope to hang onto that's just not there yet. I turn around, away from the mountain-face, to take in the vista, and here's what I see:

A woman on edge, me, checking her email. Again.

A Facebook newsfeed - children separated at the US-Mexico border, shootings in American classrooms, in a Maryland newspaper office. The terror, the questions. The urge for something to change. Friends wishing to emigrate.

A new novel's first draft just shy of 72,000 words, cracking its way out of the shell of her mind, breathing for the first time, spreading its wet wings.

A fresh glass of shiraz.

I also see this:

My family, my best friend. Each one brightens my life.

Part of my Wall of Inspiration.
My American Flag:
my beginning, my love, my challenge to change.

My mom on her wedding day, September 11, 2001.
She was my audience, the voice in my head,
my narrator for every story.
Still is.

I survive off of Adam Levine and his song's busy women. They act as my fuel: they each moved mountains, and therefore so can I. I have my friends and family and my daughter cheering me on from my mountain's base camp. Their voices are always there, and they send up cheerful Thermoses of warmed soup when I need it most, tamping insanity down, quieting its flames. Here we are, just below the summit, and I wait for those at the top to send down the rope. (All it takes is one yes.)

I stand here, and wait, flexing my fingers to grab hold.

Lena and her brand new dream catcher, May 2018.
May her dreams always be big.
The world needs a girl like her, too.

And you, too. Your mountain awaits.

Happy Saturday, everyone!

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Life after life

Reading: Dracula by Bram Stoker
Listening to: "Faded" by Alan Walker
Outside: English fog à la James Herbert

From my 1998 journal:

I am fifteen years old in the picture at left. 

A sophomore at MVHS.
Dirty blonde or mouse brown hair.
Ocean blue eyes (thanx to my new contacts)

As I look at this picture, I wonder, what will I be doing in 20 years? What state will I live in? What dreams will I have in what unforeseen bed?

Thursday, September 24, 1998

Well, fifteen-year-old me, here's your answer:

I'm a mom home from work, raking my hands through wavy post-ponytail hair. I don't even live in the United States anymore - I have moved to England and I've been here for almost twelve years. Blue-eyed and little more blonde, I straighten my glasses - I no longer bother with contact lenses - as I look at this picture and tell this girl: Hold on tight, chicken - you're in for a bumpy ride.

Mother's Day. May 10th, 1998

This girl doesn't know it yet, but she is about to embark on some rough seas. She is soon going to say goodbye to the tidy completeness of her nuclear family, as that ugly word "divorce" rises up slow but urgent and smokes everything out. There will be nothing but an empty garage bay where Mom's car used to be, and a house with empty walls: crumb-strewn, off-kilter. Bye, Mom.

She will watch her sister's car drive away down the driveway for the last time. She'll stare out that living room window and wish her sister back, but she is gone, off to Washington State, to join Mom. The crushing abandonment, a silent house, and me, at age seventeen, drowning in the dust. Bye, sis.

There will be many more leavings, many more goodbyes. You will go off to college at Ball State University! (Bye, Dad and Step-Mom!) You will move to England! (Bye, Literally Everybody I Have Ever Known!) That first one will be hard. The second one will be even harder.

And, here, the hardest thing of all: You are going to drop a flower on your mom's casket.

Maybe, I realized, as I sat in my living room this past Saturday surrounded by all of my old journals and treasure boxes and rocks and drawings and photographs and cards and letters and old McDonald's toys and all the pages and poems and thoughts that made up my life, perhaps these goodbyes, however painful, shaped me into the explorer and deep thinker I am today. I had to learn to begin again every time. Beginnings are scary. But begin we must. And here I was, tear-streaked, cradling a decades-old notebook like a newborn babe: I had survived. I had made it through the impossible and crawled out into the sunlight on the other side.

All those things I wrote about, in English and choppy, sophomore Spanish, summed up my experiences and my hefty of catalogue of Naive Unknowns: what was the big, wide world like? How hard is it going to be? Am I strong enough to make it? (Would I die early? I wondered obsessively. Would I get hit by a drunk driver? Fall down the stairs? Get mugged at Wal-Mart?)

Top: Mom, age 7, aboard the U.S.S. Constitution at Boston, February 22, 1954
Bottom: A card, "SCHOONER," from an Original footpainted by P. Driver
(Published by the Association of Handicapped Artists, Inc.)

" isn't quite so simple anymore."

This very night, on the eve of the first year of my mom's passing (I hate to call it an anniversary - as one who proof-reads newspaper family notices for a living, I prefer to keep the word "anniversary" on the Happy side of the page), I can honestly say to my fifteen-year-old self that I now dream more deeply. I live and see more deeply. The yawning darkness of indecision and fear still have that depth and wholeness, that cruel voice and texture that they always had - perhaps more. But my dreams now are much, much bigger.

So, child, there you are. You are living a new life after the loss of your mom (our mom), and you are hungry for nostalgia, for the chlorine of the summer pool, for one last walk down to the boat dock with her. You paw blindly around in the dark of your thoughts, sometimes, grasping for firm memories to hang on to. These memories are the solid masts and rigging when the sea-storms rage. You are going to wish and want and feel.

"What will I be doing in 20 years?"

Here's what I'm doing: I'm writing this letter to you, to say there is a life after life.

Hang on tight.

A letter saved sealed for twenty years, 
as per Mom's instructions.
Inside: I found love. 

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Twinkle lights, incense and the nothing that is

Reading: The Shining by Stephen King
Listening to: "Fight Song" by Rachel Platten
Outside: A balmy afternoon, but a nice break for snow-furred reindeer

The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens, 1921

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have had been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds 
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

A stick of incense waits, unlit, on the window sill. It waits and I hesitate. Do I do this? Do I dare? I can imagine it: that single unfurled curl, ghostly as it rises. In that smoky taste, I'll think of you, Mom.

Mom: the Great Giver of Socks.

It's Christmas Eve, and I work. I comb through The Untouchables, teasing out extra words and snags, following my literary agent's sage advice. I am eager for the day I'll show it to the world.

My sister's drawn heart - illuminated love - around my work. Thanks, Jenny!

And I run. The treadmill's electric hum, my Asics' rhythm as steady as my heartbeat. I go on my three-mile run to nowhere as I stride my way through memories that spring forward like pictures in a pop-up book, the pages of my year's past rising and falling one by one, a forest of words and feelings moving past, an emotional tour of 2017.

Lena, freshly four, at The Deep in Hull, communing with sting-rays. November 19, 2017

Lena turns four! November 19, 2017

And I write this. I do anything to keep busy, to keep from remembering. Because when I remember, I crumble. I go down into the pit again, into the curl of your lap, or the lightness of your hug, or your sarcastic laugh that always had a hidden truth behind it. My enigmatic mom.

And now, here I am, glass of wine next to me and I'm braced for memory. The losses I've endured this year have been larger than anything I can yet imagine. I have lost one of my most treasured bracelets, my childhood home and, of course, a few weeks later, you. I like to imagine an accidental but crucial transfer of energy - the bracelet to a needy magpie, using the shiny chains and charms to find a mate or line a nest; the childhood home to a growing family with small children who can hide in the closets among the smell of leather shoes and an ancient white rabbit fur coat, just like my sister and I used to; you to a mysterious plane - perhaps of nothing, perhaps of everything - that I can't possibly know.

So this year we have a bare, braceletless wrist. We have an Indiana home warming a new family. And we have an Alabama gravestone in the place of you. And we have a whole new appreciation for your many facets now, each glittering brightly in so many different ways: through the new-found connection of your four daughters, through your paintings that brighten our hallways and living rooms, through your pictures and poems, your countless reminders that those who loved you see every day.

By my mom. December 21, 2005

And, now, through the snap of the lighter, the flicker of flame and the rise of your ghost from the incense I have been so afraid to light until now. Can I handle it, the smoky-cinnamon memories of your cookies, your springy Christmas bows, your best gifts to me that - I'm only realizing now - never came from a store?


Because downstairs sings my little girl, so in awe of the twinkle lights on the Christmas tree. In pure awe, just like I used to be. And still am. Christmas is full of lights, Mom, and now you're one of them. 

Merry Christmas, my dear Constant Reader. May this season bring renewal even in the hardest of times - looking through the nothing that is there, and finding what is.

I hope your holiday season is as beautiful as the Yuletide spirit itself.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Black Magic

Reading: The Running Man by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)
Listening to: "Black Magic" by Little Mix
Outside: Warm wind and dancing leaves

In between the loads of laundry,
the jogging and the push-ups and the plucking
of naughty weeds from my flowerbeds,
I raise my sore arms to welcome you!

This! Is Inspirational Autumn. For me, the best time of year.

It is the sacred spin of the earth into winter, tilting its axis at that last golden time before the frost's clinking, bare boughs. This is the particular shallow rise of the sun, the calm letting go of leaves that make a fantastic, haunted, crisp sound when you walk through.

Lena's Autumn Leaf Extravaganza, October 2016.

This is the time of year that sparks, well, sparks: campfire flames that pop and crackle and float up little phantoms of light; the flint-like crunch of bonfire toffee here in the UK; the glow of flame on pints of apple cider. This is the time of shadows and stories. Of skeletons and lost love, of graveyards and dares. I loved this time of year as a child.

And who wouldn't?

Halloween, people, Halloweeeeeeeen!

And, growing up in the farmland-suburbs of central Indiana, I was a child reared on this:

The Wondrous Thing Itself

And with those horrifying illustrations, these folk stories of hunger, love and death all swirled around in my pre-adolescent brain, mixed with the spiders I encountered daily in the loft of my playhouse, where I'd station myself, physically incapable of moving from the musty orange patio-bench mattress where I sat crosslegged, paralyzed by both my fear of arachnids and also for what may be lurking on the floor below. My stomach went cold, my synapses connected - these crones, zombies and haunted children, storied between Schwartz's pages, could come find me, and I was sure they were wheezing by the playhouse door, waiting.

That, and the campfires my sister and I would share with our neighbors, our friends, school kids still thrilled with the new clothes and tensions of a new school year, all of us full on Twizzlers and Cokes. We'd look at each other across the heat of the the flames, right at the edge of the woods, our features changed, distorted magically by the firelight. There were hayrides, Halloween parties and trick-or-treating in the early dusk, when the sun glowed low and orange over the harvested cornfields, all those dried stalks like rows of tangled bones, when the crickets were a symphony every night.

The long strip of our asphalt driveway, its gentle curve onto the cul-de-sac that would lead to my faraway future: My need for deep, dark stories, my aching open invitation for readers to join me in a place where unknown things - things you don't want to see, things from which you can't look away - howl.

...And here I am, age 34, between books, saying Good Luck to one manuscript as it's prepared for New York acquiring editors' desks, and saying Welcome to the World: gently coaxing a new story into being. My latest manuscript is putting on weight; these characters begin to breathe. I'm walking alongside each one of them, every bit a part of the story as they are. Like any good book, this story unrolls seamlessly in front of me, taking me down a dark path. It's a landscape coming to life.

Me, in my writing cave, doing the thing I do best.

I am once again in awe of the beautiful, unpredictable curves of fiction, the way a story can twist under your fingers, weaving around itself, growing like a vine. The inherent black magic of it: the emotional charge of that single lit window in all that darkness. The need to know. A lace-veil swept aside, giving you that glimpse into another world, another heart.

I hope you have as inspiring an Autumn as I do - may those jack-o-lanterns glow in a certain sinister way, just for you. I hope you detect phantoms in the dark, and I hope they pause to whisper sweet nothings in your ear.

Happy Saturday, everyone!

Sunday, 16 July 2017

De profundis

Reading: The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Listening to: "I'll Fly with You" by Gigi D'Agostino
Outside: Summer at its finest

Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Gaze at the gilded gear 
And query:"What does this vaingloriousness down here?"
                                   - Thomas Hardy
                                   "The Convergence of the Twain"

In December 1938, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, a South African Museum curator, got a call from a local trawler captain at the shore of the Chalumna River - he'd brought in a strange-looking fish. Could she come and see?

And she did. She pulled off all the seaweed, and there beheld the "most beautiful fish" she'd ever seen. At five feet long, with hard scales and fleshy, bony lobed fins, it resembled a fossil more than a fish. But she wasn't quite sure. Could it be? Was it really something special? Could her friend, Icthyologist J. L. B. Smith, have a look?

Smith, who was away at the time of her correspondence, arrived in the following February to confirm: it indeed was a Coelacanth (pronounced seel-a-canth). He named it Latimerus Chalumnae after his friend and discoverer, Marjorie.

Believed to be extinct for 65 million years, the Cretacious period's signature fish had been found.

The first coelacanth, 1938. Picture found here.

What makes the coelacanth so interesting, you ask?

Its amazingly unchanged genome, for one. All of the genes that make up this creature have stayed the same, remarkably, for a long, long time. From approximately 400 million years ago to today, this particular fish has maintained its evolutionary features that make it so perfectly suited for its deep-sea existence. Armor-like plated scales, bony leg-like fins and special, light-sensitive eyes, respectively, take the pressure of the deep and help this carnivore stride and search the pitch-black for food.

And those legs(Calm down, me, they're lobed fins.) But it's unmistakable: this fish, classified as a lungfish, is more closely related to tetrapods - things with backbones and legs, like frogs, reptiles and mammals, than it is to the far more common ray-finned fish (think clownfish, Nemo, Dory) one normally finds in the ocean. It is a one-of-a-kind ancient mystery. Evolutionarily-speaking, this fish is a real and rare treasure.

Why do I love this fish so much? Is it the smoothness of its name, something that unfurls off your tongue when you speak it, like loosening sails made of silk? Is it the horrifying sea monster look of it, something looming out of the darkness like something out of Grimm or Coleridge, an ancient story, a lesson for us to learn? Is it the size and heft of it, the fact that I, swimming alongside, would be dwarfed? Or maybe its fossil fins, a pocked mermaid's tail wafting the ice-cold water? Is it the pure secrecy of this Goliath, its survival as baffling and beautiful as the thing itself?

It is all of these things and more. It is my paralyzing fear of the ocean, of open water, of the tickle to your toes in the black depths. It's my helpless fascination of the things I fear the most: that singular weightlessness of the sea, and then the pressure: Who can help but imagine going that far down, far enough down into the suffocating depths that you would need a tank of oxygen and a whole f*ck ton of bravery, far enough to go deeper than the light can reach? And to see the gaping mouth first, large enough to eat a baby - its slow, dreamlike gulps - and its glazed, prehistoric eye flicking over you, blind and not blind, as it channels your motion. It measures you, watches you. You are food or you are nothing. That heart-stopping mammal-fear as you converge upon its life in that second of stillness.

Picture by Mordecai 1998 [CC BY-SA 4.0via Wikipedia Commons

This is a true story about a lot of things: What women in science can accomplish. What we can find if we search the sea, the staggering scope of which we as a species have only explored about 5 to 10%. And why it is so important, and what we must do to conserve the water and the animals in it. We have so much to learn about them, and by doing so, learn about us.

The problems we have made: Oil spills, contamination, whales washed ashore with their stomachs filled with plastic. Imagine, they are eating plastic, there is so much of it in our world's oceans. The bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. The species of coral, fish and sea-birds that have been lost to us. Forever.

Rewind to 1905: Oscar Wilde, hurt beyond all repair, dying in the damp, pleaded with his lover, Bosie, for understanding, compassion and freedom, from Reading Gaol. It was, perhaps, the finest love letter ever written. "De Profundis," it was called, in Latin meaning, "Out of the very depths." A Biblical story turned reality, his cry of help went out to an unsympathetic world, and went pretty much unnoticed. A treasure was lost to the world forever.

I can imagine, given the chance to Scuba suit up and kick those flippers down, thigh muscles burning into the press of Earth's darkest, most languageless time, down into a time in which Triceratops ate their stones to help them digest their food, one might hear the gill-drawn sorrow, the un-words of a millions-of-years-old species. It would loom up out of its very depths, cast upon you its moon-like eye, and would say nothing and everything: Have compassion. Let me live.

Here is my love letter to you, Coelacanth. Here is my compassion for you. I hope you live forever.

Happy Sunday, everybody.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Fail with faith

Reading: The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Listening to: "Heartbroken" by T2 (Ft. Jodie)
Outside: Rain on the horizon; wind tears at my laundry on the line

This past week I have failed at so many things.

I nursed and cursed my sty, which flared up in my right eye and tried its hardest to turn me into the Elephant Man. In this, fortunately, it failed. But it turned me into a miserable, complaining, lumpen mess, driven only by the constant and desperate need to sleep.

In my Igor paralysis, hiding away from the sun and sky and neighbors, I huddled under couch cushions and willed the buffering to stop while my child tried to enjoy Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, and then, when that failed, Monsters University. The movies each were like my current week: a series of stopping and starting, slowing until stunned, then back in movement again in confusion. Like our tiny Mike Wazowski, I was just trying to get a grip on life, to find my place in the pain which rose up around the right side of my head every time I blinked.

Fuerte Ventura, June 2013. I'm pretty sure a shark 
biting my head would have felt the same as a sty.

I didn't even go running.

I never not go running.

With aches and fatigue that settled under my skin like a snakebite, I did my best to be the Enthusiastic Mom, flying a backyard kite in playful wind. I saw stars. I made breakfasts, lunches, dinners. I lit scented candles in the vain hope I could raise my spirits, dwelling in my disasters.

And on top of this, my mom's ghost stood over me as I attempted to write a new novel.

Lena helps edit my novel LEMONADE, July 2015.

And I failed.

Now, here's a little backstory: Since I was twenty-one, I have written novels with Stephen King-like efficiency. I followed, with pure, singular devotion, his writing routine (gleaned from his memoir On Writing, perhaps the best book on the craft) with some few changes to suit my lifestyle, once I swallowed my fear and got my ass in the chair and started writing seriously, if secretly. I may not have cranked out as many novels as the King of Horror, but my passion for writing is there, just the same. During pregnancy and raising a baby, my word count stumbled, coughed and died. As I got a handle on diapers and the needs of a child, I got back into the saddle of writing, traversing the varied windswept plains, the throat-cracked deserts, the leaf-veined jungles and alpine permafrost of Writing Again, and since my daughter was born I have flax-spun three new books. If I have two working hands and a slightly functioning brain, I write. So there's that. And exactly eight weeks ago, my mom died, and here's my blog post about it.

I tore through the first five thousand words of my nascent novel, only to trash it a few days later. Its subject, based on the recent events of my life, cut too close to the bone. Each word a slice going deeper. I couldn't hack it.

And then: I scroll down my Facebook feed, the singular best way to make me respond almost physically to the things going on around me. The latest things - the Manchester bombing, the London bombing, the confusing UK General Election - make me feel like I am powerless in a world teetering out of control.

And I scroll past my friends and family members on vacations, their sun-kissed thighs propped up above white sand, their unhurried toes, their palm-tree dreams against the flawless open sky, enjoying their beer and mojitos and their late nights in Cuba and Spain and Florida under thumping neon lights while I am here, whipping the hair out of my face while I pin another threadbare winter sock up on the washing line.

My feet on the long-ago shores of Crete. July 2010

And all around my back yard, all my hopes still missing: the outdoor bar I would love (pouring a chilled bottle of White Zinfandel for this friend or that, glasses clinking in the sun); the new fence with each board strong and fresh and level, no longer the slanting, graying gap-ridden planks; the paddling pool we have yet to get, to bring splashes and smiles to our daughter and her friends and cousins; the chance to maybe (maybe! finally!) relax on a beach blanket under the sun, hedges dancing in the breeze; the confidence and reassurance I need for a future I must to see to believe.

The wind tickles the wind chime from Mom's house, and it sings its bittersweet song, a song so full of memories I can't think, and I will my throat to unclench. I answer the call of my responsibilities, the dishwater cooling in the kitchen sink and the next load ready to go in the washing machine. I pick up, hang up, fold up, put away and sneeze. I wear my wants like the half-orphan I am, asking for more.

And I am all of these things: want, regret, hurt. I am the product of those emotions that are my lifeblood. I am also, in the descent of this exhaustion, this burnt-outness, this I'd-love-a-holiday-ness - yes, and I know you'd love to get away, too - a renewal, an escape within myself: the summer dawns upon me.

Here it is: We must choose present over perfect.

We would be nothing without the present and all its imperfections. We would have nothing to strive for if things were exactly just so. We would have no story, no us.

Living in love. Messy hair, twisted bra-strap, fussy baby and all. Summer 2014.

My favorite picture of the two of us: tongues out and resplendent. Autumn 2016.

So, I've failed.

But I've failed with faith: I believe in myself enough to know that things will work out right, one way or another. My sty will disappear, and my summer flu with it. Heartbreak mends in degrees, when one has built oneself up strong enough to handle it. In the meantime, I pull at the weeds - the meaty hunks that have tried to encroach upon my happiness - and I rip them out cleanly, one at a time.

May your (gardening) days be as good as mine.

Happy Sunday, everybody!

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Brace: a tribute to Mom

Reading: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
Listening to: "Halo" by Beyonce
Outside: Tame gray clouds, April begins its May transformation

From my seat on the plane at Manchester Airport, here's what I wrote in my journal on Friday, April 14th, 2017:

Brace. Brace. Brace.

The emergency position, preparing for collision.

I'm on the plane now.

She was on Page 6  of The Girl in the Glass. That's the last page she got to before the fall that ended it all.

Mom died the evening of Tuesday, April 11th in Dothan, Alabama. Jenny held her hand as it happened.

When the plane's going down, that's what you do. Head down, hug your knees. And brace. 

I wasn't ready for the hit.

My plane is nosing its way out now and we prepare for takeoff. A tired baby cries up ahead. Baby knows how I feel. We point toward Alabama, toward my mom who is and is not there.

Great memories and devilish good looks - Mom and me, Halloween 1987.

Grief comes in waves, just like my friend Matt told me it would. "And the best thing to do is just let it happen," he said, and I believe him. It rushes over me on the train home from work, when my mind wanders from the page of the book I'm reading and revisits the way her hands looked in the coffin. It churns around my feet as I walk home from the train station, when I walk my daughter to school, trying to trip me up. It's there, pulling me under, when I'm trying my best to stay afloat. It knows when I'm tired, when that last sour swirl of wine in the glass opens up a new memory: the last words she said to me, the last photo I took, I'm sure grief's current will pull at me for months and years to come. I brace myself.

My snapshot: Mom visits Panama City Beach, Florida, her favorite place.
My stepdad Jim captures the moment, too. Christmas 1999. 

Her funeral was the hardest thing I have ever been through, a world apart from the physical hurt of drug-free childbirth and all that breathing and heaving and pushing. Mom in her Elvis-pink Cadillac coffin. The pictures of hers, mine and ours on every TV screen in the funeral home, each snap of a moment of a life scrolling past. My sisters and stepdad, each wielding the weight of their grief in delicate dabs. Their linen handkerchiefs. The stained glass window rising up over Mom, the dark wood panelling, the Titanic first-class beauty of it all. The conversations with known and unfamiliar cousins and Joycie and neighbours, handshakes and hugs. Mom put on a pedestal one last time.

Among other things, here is what I said at the podium:

The following is a letter I wrote and sent to my mom a couple years ago, just before my daughter’s first birthday.
(Sunday, November 16, 2014)

Dear Mom,

I’m listening to a song on Youtube that debuted on the radio in 1996 (“Standing Outside a Broken Telephone Booth with Money in My Hand” by Primitive Radio Gods) and all at once it takes me back to what was happening when I heard this song back then – I was an early teen, still eager to start my period, anxious about starting high school. I had gone to Ball State Swim Camp – or would be going soon – to live like an amphibian in Muncie’s finest chlorinated. I still dream about swimming those lengths.
          And at the same time, this song reminds me of how much things have changed since then. While I haven’t gotten much taller, I have done a lot of other things: I walked the halls of Mt. Vernon High School, and even graduated a semester early.  I learned to drive. I learned to fall off horses (and climb back on). I took a full time job, several. I went to Ball State University, met friends I love and keep in touch with today, graduated. I jumped over the Atlantic, sleeping alone next to my luggage at London Heathrow Airport, and learned all I could from my wine-drinking professors in their Victorian terraced offices at the University of Leeds. Graduated. I’ve gotten married and I’ve had a baby. I’ve had serious consideration from dozens of literary agents. Rejection. And hope. Lots of hope.
          Most importantly, I have learned to live with the Skeleton Woman. There are lots of other names for her, but I prefer this one; she is the very bones of everything. She invites each of us to deal with things. The low things, the sad things. Deep things. Some folks run from her all their lives, scared and exhausted. They have poor relationships – they cut ties from everyone and everything as soon as things get bad (or, at the very least, not so pretty). I once did that – I tried to run away from things that didn’t make me happy.
          Your divorce from Dad was one of the hardest times in my life. As it was for you, too, I’m sure. It was the dying of something big, and I almost couldn’t deal with it. Skeleton Woman knocked on the door then, all tangled up and waiting. She wanted untangling– a leg bone from her ribcage, a wrist pulled from behind her spine – she wanted sorting out. She needed to be unfolded and lined up, gently put right again. She was introducing me to a new beginning that I didn’t know could happen. (She waited.)
          An even harder time for me was when you battled breast cancer. I lived with you at the time. I was seventeen, eighteen. We shared the same apartment. I went to high school and you gave yourself the “F-ing Shot.” It was a horrible time for both of us. I will never forget the day you got your hair shaved off so it wouldn’t be so obvious when it fell out. You were deliberate and uncomplaining. You still made me dinner every night. Your enthusiasm for The Brit must have taken super-human effort. It is hard to be enthusiastic about anything when you’re nauseated and not feeling well.
          This time, it was so bad that I blocked it out almost completely. Well, Skeleton Woman has caught up with me now. I’ve untangled her and this is what I see: an apology owed to you for a long time. This letter is to apologize for not being the supportive daughter I should have been. I can’t tell you how sorry I am. I should have cooked, cleaned, listened. I should have been there. I wish I could turn it all back and do it right this time. I just hope you can forgive me for being a selfish teenager, a girl who couldn’t accept such a big change.
          Life’s crazy: we spend so much energy running.  But eventually we take a rest, unfold, and discover that without things to run from, we never learn what to run to. (They are the same things!)
          Since I’ve had Lena, I feel closer to you than I ever have. I can’t explain it, and I don’t know if it’s something that can be explained. I can see your foot tapping the air when I hold her for her bedtime bottle. I can see Lena gripping your finger as she wobble-walks across the floor. I can feel your frustration when she won’t stay still on the changing table – a deep, reassuring breath – yours. Because, this time, I am you and Lena is me. This is the most beautiful thing about Skeleton Woman – she’s there for every cycle, every mood, every ending and every beginning. She wants us to learn to start again every time, and to embrace it. I feel like I have a second chance now to do the right thing.
          From the very depths, as soft as the jingle of a yellow baby-rattle, my hope rises from this page: that you read this and smile.
          Thank you for being such a great mom. I only hope I can do as well with my girl as you did with me.
                                                          Love you forever,                             
                             Your last-born,

Mom asked me to call her after she received this letter. She told me over the phone that I had been the caring, supportive daughter that she needed. She said I wrote the checks and paid the bills. She said I did the laundry, the dusting, the ironing and the dinners. I made her apartment a home. “You must not remember it, but it’s true,” she told me. “I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you so much.”
         And so my guilt evaporated. My faith in myself was restored. As a daughter and a mom and a woman with a memory sometimes flecked with darkness, Mom was there to light me up. It’s what she did best.

And now the Skeleton Woman is back again. She’s waiting at my door all in a tangle. This time, I take these bones, one by one, and lay them gently out and remember. This time, I will place them piece by piece, dusting off the memories of who I am because of you, Mom.
        Because of your wit, your wisdom, your practical jokes. Your fierce love.
        This time I will be untangling, remembering and recovering, and loving you deeply for the rest of my life.            

Thank you.

The last photo I ever took of my mom. She shares a story with Lena. December 16, 2016.

So, wow, Mom. Skinny-Minnie, mixer of fruitcake, harvester of pumpkins, cleaner of floors and dabber of tears. Sea-lover, sun-worshipper. Voracious reader (gosh, I wonder where I got that from!), practical joker, artist. I certainly have a lot to live up to.

I touch the Gulf of Mexico at Panama City, Beach, Florida, Christmas 1999.
Mom's last picture of 16-year-old me.  

I'm now tied to the tide of grief. The tangled-seaweed surge of the surf, it pushes and pulls. The salt of it. But here's one thing: its swirl-of-hurt current brings up the good memories in all of this, and the thing she loved the most: the expanse of the sea, the priceless warmth of the sun on her skin. And here, I wade into it, imagining the beach again.

Thanks, Mom, for everything.